Labour's chickens come home to roost

Often when working in new democracies in Africa or Asia, after promoting the value of elections as eminently preferable to violence as a means of determining who should govern - ballots not bullets is the usual trite phrase - someone in the audience asks why I am not still an MP. My reply is always that I was a victim of democracy. It inevitably produces a laugh in places where the concept of alternance in government is still rather novel. But it is a painfully accurate description. Democracy produces more losers than winners, but without the losers democracy means nothing. Another colleague, who had been well beaten in a general election which coincided with an Olympic Games year, used to say that he had "taken a bronze medal." It was a shrewd way of illustrating the same point.

Unfortunately, when one surveys the results of the recent local elections, one finds that the parties do not always accept the consequences of the figures that emerge from the ballot boxes. In our region the results in most cities and towns were more or less the same as before, and from Hull to Sheffield, and from Bradford to Harrogate, the political control continued in the same hands, with some proper adjustments to reflect the new arithmetic.

The one exception is the great City of Leeds. Here, in Yorkshire's largest local authority, Labour lost its overall majority whilst still remaining the largest single party. The Labour administration, however, did not resign, no doubt assuming that the considerable philosophic crevasses that clearly exist between Lib Dem, Conservative and Green parties would prevent them from making common cause to replace Labour control. I can well imagine the shock horror for Labour when the three group leaders, Councillors Harris, Carter and Blackburn, emerged from their secret conclave to announce a working agreement to inaugurate a new regime for the City of Leeds. Still Labour clung to office and had to be formally voted out at the Council's recent annual meeting - following much artificial point scoring from Labour Councillor Bernard Atha, who ought to know better after some forty years on the council.

I have spent a large part of my too many decades in politics arguing as fervently as possible that the concepts, attitudes and philosophies of Conservatism are damaging and deleterious to community and social values. It might, therefore, come as a surprise to discover that I am wholly in support of the experiment in coalition now being undertaken between the three parties in Leeds. It may succeed, or it may not but it needs to be tried. I draw a veil over the curious idea of rotating the council leadership every six months, which I assume was part of the required political price of co-operation. But unless there was, and is, the theoretical possibility of these parties working together, then, in the present three and half party situation, Labour would always be in office - and after twenty-four years it was time for a change, for Labour's sake as well as for the city's. Anyone who wants to know why Leeds Liberalism became moribund seventy years ago, only needs to realise that the party controlled the council for fifty-seven consecutive years! That history even overshadowed efforts to revive the party in the 1960s!

I have a particular reason for feeling strongly about the current situation in Leeds. I was intimately involved the last time there was no single party majority on the council. This was in 1979 when, coincidentally, the count also took place the day after the election. The result was a mirror image of this year in that the Conservatives lost their overall majority but remained the largest single party. Thereafter the similarities end. When it became clear what the final outcome would be, the then Council Leader, Councillor Irwin Bellow, asked me, as Liberal Group Leader, and George Mudie, the then Labour Leader, to meet him. Councillor Bellow announced to us that as the electorate had rejected Conservative control he felt that it would be illegitimate for them to continue on office and that it was up to Councillor Mudie and myself to consider the situation.

George and I had a very brief discussion and agreed that our Group officers should meet formally forty-eight hours later, on the Sunday afternoon. We duly arrived at the Civic Hall, prepared to negotiate sharing the administration, with the Liberals asking only for a single committee chairmanship. Councillor Arthur Miller, Labour's Deputy Leader, then announced ex cathedra that the Labour Group required our support for it taking all committee chairs and for a Labour majority on every committee, otherwise there was no deal. I replied that this was capitulation not negotiation and the meeting ended.

The Labour party then put the Conservatives back in office, with full control, for the next twelve months. This was not only a cynical piece of political manoeuvring but it also damaged Leeds' long term financial base as the new Thatcher government began its squeezing of local government support, basing its figures on the 1979-80 council budgets. Following their Labour donated control, the Conservatives carved millions off the City Council budget and the effects were felt for many years thereafter.

So when I read Labour anguish about Lib Dems forming an administration with the Conservatives I recall 1979 and, with great relish, I remind the citizens of Labour's malevolent inconsistency. They have become, ever so reluctantly, victims of democracy.

6th July 2004