Deputy Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council quits over FarmGate

…and less than three months before the county goes to the polls to elect a new county council

The report by John Elworthy of the Cambridgeshire Times stable of newspapers is here. Part of the Archant Group, the county titles include the Hunts Post, Ely Standard, and Wisbech Standard. For those of you close to the Hertfordshire border in South Cambridgeshire, you may also be familiar with the Royston Crow.

The official statement is here:

It was a resignation I didn’t see coming – or blowing up just before one of the most significant set of local and county elections for decades.

I had been vaguely aware of investigations going on for a couple of years, because it was an issue that a handful of opposition councillors kept coming back to. This, from the leader of the Liberal Democrats on the county council, former MEP Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems, Newnham).

Cllr Nethsingha puts the blame at the leader of the county council, Cllr Steve Count (Cons, March North and Waldersey).

Restrictions on door-to-door campaigning to be lifted

Ministers confirmed earlier.

Will that campaigning have an impact? The county historically is a safe-as-castles blue county.

Above – one observation on the likelihood of opposition parties overturning the Conservative majority on the council.

Too many uncertainties at present to know which way the electorate is likely to vote

We didn’t have elections in 2020 to act as any measure of what might happen in May 2021. Furthermore, the impact of the pandemic response, and of lockdown has been a huge economic and psychological shock. I can’t think of anything in my lifetime that has had such an impact to the extent that it has affected *everyone* – and has forced all of us to take much closer notice of day-to-day politics.

Political parties at a local level will only get a feel for what the electorate’s mood is once they commence door-to-door campaigning. There is also always the tension in the national press and Westminster politics of judging whether local election results are genuinely reflective of local issues, or whether the electorate uses local elections to give national parties (whether in government or opposition) a kicking.

There are three significant national issues – the pandemic, Brexit, and Climate Change. As the weather gets warmer and as more restrictions are lifted, don’t be surprised to see previously suppressed protests returning. Furthermore, don’t think the protests will come from ‘the usual suspects’ on the far left with mass-produced placards. The disinformation crisis has already seen the police having to deal with street protesters involving those who have previously not been involved in political protests. Perhaps in a similar way to many of those who were arrested during the Extinction Rebellion protests of 2019.

It’s also worth noting that the Liberal Democrats surprised the pundits everywhere when they won a large majority at the elections for South Cambridgeshire District Council in 2018. It hasn’t been plain sailing since – local government never is. But they were able to mobilise the votes of EU citizens who, in these elections will also be eligible to vote. Can they do so again?

How much effort will Labour and the Liberal Democrats put into fighting each other in Cambridge vs fighting the Conservatives in rural areas and small towns?

Which seems to be a theme along the lines this article titled: Why the Left loses elections. And also why cities lose elections (vs their rural neighbours)

In the 2019 General Election, both Labour and Liberal Democrats in South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire know their combined vote could have beaten the Conservatives in the former seat given the arithmetic. They also didn’t come far in terms of their joint vote in the otherwise safe-as-castles South East Cambridgeshire.

The size of the task they face in Fenland (see their district councillors here), and in Huntingdonshire (see their district councillors here) is substantial. Both parties are starting from incredibly low bases compared with Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire. In East Cambridgeshire the district council there is more evenly balanced between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Going by previous elections, don’t be surprised to see independent candidates in the north and west of the county being returned as they were in 2017. Reasons for coalitions of independent candidates has varied. Sometimes it is personal animosity within an otherwise dominant all-conquering party with little effective opposition presence. Councils where one party has over three quarters of the seats is generally regarded as a one-party council as opposition to the ruling group all too often has little impact on the policies of that council. It’s also an argument electoral reformers make for bringing in proportional representation, so that every vote counts and that the division of seats reflects more accurately the division of votes.

Cambridge has a full council up for election as well – which increases the incentive for parties to pile resources into the city at expense of the county

At the same time the increased turnout could amplify the Labour-Liberal vote numbers for the Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner elections. But it won’t change the county councillor seats outside of the city.

The absence of students – in particular for Labour, will be felt in some areas of the city. In elections in Cambridge over the past decade their impact has been tremendous. They were the difference between Dr Julian Huppert retaining or losing his seat in 2015. In the end he lost it by 600 votes as the students, hit by the new tuition fees policy turned their political fire on the Liberal Democrats who had been on a slow but steady retreat across the city from 2010 as the electorate punished the once mighty city party. (See the Cambridge Elections chart here – the Lib Dems lost entire wards-worth of councillors, and ultimately control of the city council by 2014.

The busway campaign trail – one for campaigning day trips?

I’ve not seen any of the county council opposition parties do this before, but there’s a first time for everything. The Cambridge/shire guided busway follows much of the old Cambridge-St Ives railway.

In more recent years, campaigners have targeted Cambridge Railway Station in the run up to elections. The map above indicates where the major transport interchanges are along the guided busway. Four of the Park & Rides in normal times would make for interesting leafletting points. But with so many businesses and retailers having closed as a result of the pandemic and the economic turmoil (and poor management/leadership at the very top – eg Arcadia Group), the prospect of waiting for potential voters to come to you has less hope this time around. How many activists from Cambridge will be willing to campaign outside of the city, and join with their sister parties in the towns and villages north and west of Cambridge along the guided busway? The added incentive for them is that each extra vote isn’t just for the county council seats, but can also count for the mayoral and PCC elections which will count along with the votes from inside Cambridge city.

The social media wars

It’s inevitable that Twitterspats will break out, but in the grand scheme of things most people don’t use Twitter, let alone for local politics. If there ever were a set of local elections to invest in some very high quality social media content for local/county political campaigns, this is it. County council, metro mayor, and county Police & Crime Commissioner. Which is the party that can combine their candidates, their party’s messages, and ultimately their vision for the future in the face of so much worry and uncertainty in recent years? Because when the votes take place, we will still be under various forms of restrictions due to the pandemic. In which case the online campaigns might count for far more than in past elections.

Either way, the results in Cambridgeshire (as well as Cambridge) in 2021 will be ones to watch out for.

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