The broadcast media narrative of the crumbling ‘red wall’ has missed the rise of The Greens, & Co-operative Metro Mayors

As a result, there are too many holes in their analysis of what’s going on – which bodes ill for our democratic institutions & structures – which need overhauling & strengthening anyway

I dare say that most people don’t really know much about the Co-op other than its convenience food stores that seem to be on every other major street corner – in Cambridge anyway! Students of local and social history on the other hand will know that the rise of the Co-operative Society was a significant part of the later industrialisation of the UK and the growth of local social services and later the welfare state. As a movement, they also developed a party political wing – the Co-operative Party in 1917. And let’s be crystal clear what that means:

“We are the party of the UK’s co-operative movement, committed to building a society in where power and wealth are shared.”

We are not talking about a pro-capitalism political party.

“Democratic, public ownership of the services and utilities we all rely on. Tackling the housing crisis through co-operative housing.”

Since 1927, the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party agreed a pact where instead of competing against each other, they would stand single candidates under the “Labour and Co-operative” party label, even though they are separate parties. At the most recent count there are 26 MPs in the House of Commons who are Labour and Co-operative MPs. (Though Tracy Brabin (in the video below) will have to resign from the Commons as having just won the Mayoralty of West Yorkshire, that post comes with the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner. For that Mayoralty – along with Greater Manchester, Greater Liverpool and Greater London, the law prevents holders of those posts from being MPs.

Above – an intro video from The Co-operative Party.

Interestingly, the once mighty Cambridge & District Co-operative Society – which was one of the biggest civic societies in Cambridge in the 20th Century, has sadly little left to show for its long, proud history. It imploded in the 1980s and all but disappeared as an institution when it was forced to merge with the national co-op due to sustained losses. The number of Labour and Co-op councillors at the moment is two – Cllrs Mark Ashton (Cherry Hinton) and Mike Todd-Jones (Arbury), both of whom who have over a quarter of a century’s worth of council service between them.

Co-operative Mayors – including Dr Nik Johnson of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough

Some of you will be familiar with the bee and the beehive as being symbols of the Co-operative Movement. The Beehive Centre in Cambridge? Yes – that’s where its name comes from. But it financially wrecked the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society to the extent that all that’s left of its heritage is the name.

Alongside Dr Nik Johnson and Tracy Brabin, Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham got re-elected, joining Dan Jarvis (Sheffield Region) and Jamie Driscoll (North of the Tyne).

Yet given the media coverage, you would not have noticed that three of the much-heralded (by ministers) metro mayors got elected as candidates for a party that advocates an alternative to capitalism.

The long and steady march of The Green Party continues

The best the BBC could come up with was this weak analysis by Chris Mason of the BBC. Weak because he completely omits the long term slow but steady growth of the party that really started around the year 2000. People first noticed something was going on in Brighton and Hove – where I was living at the time (I was at university) when a local Green Party Councillor Keith Taylor pulled in nearly 4,000 votes in Brighton Pavillion.

In 2005 he more than doubled that total to over 9,500, and in 2010 when Caroline Lucas – then an MEP for the South East of England, was selected as the candidate, she won the seat and has held it ever since. Ms Lucas resigned as an MEP, and under the rules of the European Parliament this enabled the next candidate on their party list to succeed her. This was Mr Taylor, who served as an MEP for nine years.

Accompanying the rise of the parliamentary votes for the Brighton & Hove Green Party, was their increase in councillor numbers. They now have 20 councillors – having recovered from their very difficult experience running a minority council in the early days of austerity where in 2015 their council numbers were more than halved. (You can see the electoral history here).

Bristol, Sheffield, Stroud, Suffolk – now with sizeable Green Groups

The recently updated results on their webpage are here. It’s hard to get a full picture because the site does not show how many seats they lost. But for a fourth party in England, the numbers are impressive:

  • Representation on 141 councils
  • Total net gains: 88
  • Total councillors: 455

This is also in addition to 8 Members of the Scottish Parliament.

For the first time in many years, The Greens now have more councillors in Bristol (with 24, the larger city) than they have in Brighton and Hove.

Furthermore, they gained a number of seats in Sheffield – now up to 13 councillors. Suffolk County Council with nine (and even more in the district councils in that county), 13 in Stroud District – not far from Bristol, and three new seats in Norfolk County Council to add to their eight in the district-level Norwich City Council.

Locally here in Cambridge, The Greens return to The Guildhall with two new Abbey Ward councillors – Cllrs Naomi Bennett and Dr Hannah Copley. And up the railway line in Peterborough (a Unitary Council) they now have three councillors in the same ward.

This has been a slow but steady progress, followed by substantial growth in 2019.

Above -compared with 2015 The Green Party gained a total of 194 councillors.Hence the large total following further gains over the weekend with another 88 councillors.

Liberal Democrats hold firm after large gains in 2019 & 2018 – following huge losses associated with the Coalition.

The Liberal Democrats spent the early 2010s being politically thumped left right & centre by local electorates as they shedded councillors every year until finally recovering some ground in the two years before the Pandemic.

In 2019 the LibDems achieved spectacular successes at the high point – gaining over 700 new councillors, when they also gained a number of MEPs following the failure of the then Prime Minister to negotiate an exit from the EU before that year’s EU Parliament Elections. This was on top of 75 net gains in 2018. The large number of pro-Remain MEPs from the Liberal Democrats and The Green Party may well have changed the dynamic in the EU Parliament regarding leaving a door open for the UK to return in the very distant future.

Should they have done better? It’s hard to tell because of the unique situation we are in. At the same time they have had far less media coverage with only 11 MPs (despite gaining over a million extra votes in the 2019 General Election) so they are seldom in the public eye. Given the results in Scotland and Wales (SNP and Labour-led devolved administrations) indicating what some are calling a ‘vaccine boost to incumbents’, that they held their ground in over nearly 600 seats represents progress in itself given the circumstances.

Labour losing over 300 seats net – a quarter to the Greens. And Tory losses in the south tempering gains in the north. Any reasons for all of this?

In the grand scheme of things we can only speculate. There are often very local factors that the mainstream media all too often miss out on – even though they now have access to the best local government reporting network which the BBC funds – the Local Democracy Reporting Service. All they needed to do was to get their researchers to email the LDR network asking reporters to email the top three local factors influencing the election results in their areas and spot the patterns.

Anecdotally you can say that we are seeing a continued re-positioning of politics in England. With the Conservatives targeting northern towns crushed under Margaret Thatcher and who have returned Labour councillors and MPs for generations, and Brexit creating political breaches across the country, such places have returned Tory MPs and councillors for the first time in generations.

At the same time, the impact of media coverage and the spread of disinformation (whether by print press or social media) continues to have an impact.

“This is why the truth matters Blaming opposition (of 11 years) for the poor state of the Health Service, Policing & other public services is bad enough, but why @ChrisMasonBBC chose not to mention the fact that it’s Govt that decides these spending priorities is deeply depressing”

Nazir Afzal – Former Chief Crown Prosecutor for the NW of England

And TV news reporters – in particular BBC News and Current Affairs, too many at a national level of whom are repeatedly falling short of the high standards expected of them, are being called out.

Growing towns and cities in the London commuter belt in the affluent south being put off by nationalistic rhetoric from Conservative ministers.

This is one of the explanations given for the Conservative losses in Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire – which the Liberal Democrats snapping up eight, Labour one, and the Greens three on Oxfordshire County Council – the Tories losing nine and Independents three.

One issue that becomes a local political issue is housing development. This is often unpopular with local home owners in villages – especially when the scale of new developments transform the settlements. The problem local Conservatives face is that the orders to build come from their own ministers, and the links between senior Conservatives and developers have made front page headlines.

At the same time – and perhaps explaining the gains that The Green Party has made in Conservative-held areas, the risks to water supplies and the damage from over-extraction by highly-profitable water companies in the face of a toothless regulator (overseen by Conservative ministers at the Department for the Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs) has resulted in council seats outside their traditional targets of university cities. In both Oxfordshire and Norwich, The Greens have their first county councillors. In Norwich, The Greens already have eight councillors on Norwich City Council.

The rise of Independent Councillors

The Local Government Association provides support for independent councillors via a separate Independent Grouping. Furthermore, Peter MacFadyen of the Frome-based Flatpack Democracy Movement has been encouraging independent candidates to step forward. This has led to the net gain of 29 seats. They are starting at a parish and town council level – so small and hyper-local. But as the election of Sam Davies in Queen Edith’s ward in Cambridge showed, it is possible for a hard working community activist to get elected.

The Community Planning Alliance map of campaigns across the country

At the last count Over 400 community campaigns listed their campaigns onto this single G-Map.

Combine this with a ‘nothing to lose, lots of publicity to gain’ mindset at local council elections, you can see the temptation for some individuals to make a stand. Sometimes a local political party might engage them and support both their causes and adopt them as candidates. Where values are aligned, this can work well. Where they are not, and it’s done for opportunistic reasons it can end badly for all concerned.

So why has the broadcast media missed out on all of this?

Here’s Alya Zayed, senior reporter at the Cambridge News.

I found this hypothesis a very interesting one – and one that needs exploring further. Who makes the editorial decisions about what narrative to go with? Is the narrative decided in advance with reporters then directed to find the stories that fit it? Or do they ask reporters to go out and find the stories first, then try to spot the patterns to then create that narrative? In proprietor-owned media organisations you can see why it’s the former.

This is why the decision of the HuffPost to scale back massively its UK news and politics reporting (with the loss of the excellent Jess Brammar – who launched a school of journalism with the University of Birmingham only a couple of years ago) is such a blow. Because the reporters she employed were doing exactly that – going out and finding the important stories and having the stories create the narrative rather than the other way around top-down. Well…that’s how it appeared from here!

I’ll finish with this: If we want our politics to improve, we have to address how the media covers it. And that involves overhauling the systems, structures, processes – and even the models of ownership.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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