News from British and Canadian Conservatives

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The real opposition?

The Lib Dems have often touted themselves as "the real opposition." I've never seen much evidence for the claim - they were pretty quick to hop into bed with Labour in both Scotland and Wales, the moment they got a whiff of power.

However, one thing is certain. Ever since the acrimonious split with People First in 2004 (following tax and toilet-gate), the Lib Dems have been the official opposition in Shepway. I don't believe that they can be classed as an effective opposition though. With only 5 councillors remaining after a series of defections to the ruling Conservatives, the rump Lib Dem Group is now too small to function as an effective Opposition. Moreover, they lack the required leadership or the experience, with only one councillor having more than 15 months' experience in the role. The third party, People First, have the experience to offer a more purposeful opposition, but two people can't possible offer the level of in depth scrutiny of every single piece of council business put forward.

For a time, it seemed that Folkestone Town Council would become the de facto opposition. However, defections have deprived the Lib Dems of even that last crumb of dignity.

In my opinion, the Conservative Group has the depth of experience, independence of thought and necessary skills to ensure that the leadership's decisions are fully scrutinised, and many of the 1100+ party members in the district will continue to actively probe the individual councillors and hold them to account. However, I'm not sure that is enough. It is important for democracy at large that the democratic institutions of opposition not only exist, but are seen to exist.

Shepway isn't the first council to have to consider this situation. For several years, the London Borough of Newham had no opposition to the Labour administration at all. Adur is so overwhelmingly Conservative that the largest opposition is the Independents, who were previously part of the local Conservative-Independent Alliance. Even they only have two councillors, with one Lib Dem rounding the council off. However, Newham has an elected Mayor and Adur is small enough to have "alternative arrangements". Shepway's Leader and Cabinet system is more politicised.

Conversely, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has apparently taken the bizarre step of abolishing the Official Opposition status, because they were unhappy that the Conservatives were the opposition after Respect collapsed on itself! They have now given the chief scrutiny roles to their own councillors, and even have a Cabinet member on the scrutiny committee. The Conservatives there rightly refuse to take their seats on the committee in protest, but attend in an individual role to oversee the committee.

The new balance of Shepway District Council:
Conservative 39
Lib Dem 5
People First 2

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