CUMBRIA, JUNE 30th, 2017: It was a hot summer’s day at the County Hall in Kendal on Thursday. A jackets off, two notebooks, back-to-back epic.
For starters, an AGM with a million items on the agenda followed by a main course of Full Council. All served up as the hours ticked away until deadline.
When we all should have been sipping Rum Colas with crushed ice by a lake, councillors were fanning themselves with committee papers.
In one of the best decisions ever made at a Cumbria County Council meeting, someone ordered a grill in the glass roof to be opened to let out all the hot air.
It didn’t quite work.
On the Conservative side of the chamber someone jemmied open a sash window and for a moment I wanted to streak across the room and jump headfirst out of it.
On the other side of the chamber, the Labour and Lib Dem love-in sweated it out.
As well they might. Their new coalition has been stitched together with the flimsiest of threads.
The Tories hopping mad at another four years on the wrong side of the hall.
Let’s consider the numbers.
141,500 votes were cast in the Cumbria County Council elections on 4th May, equivalent to a turnout of 37%.
Close to 230,000 people in Cumbria had better things to do and did not vote.
Of those that did, this is where their cross was marked.
Cons: 62,696 (44%)
Lab: 37,276 votes (26.3%)
Lib Dem: 25,308 (17.9%)
Ind: 7,797 votes (5.5%)
FORTY THREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER
A 43-seat majority is required to rule the 84-seat county council chamber.
The Tories did not manage to cross the line but came closest to it of all the parties in the race.
Cons: 37, Lab: 26, Lib Dem: 16, Ind: 5
At the meeting on Thursday, the other parties clubbed together and voted through a Lab-Lib administration, backed by the independents.
I.e: Lab 26 + Lib Dem 16 + independents 3 = 44.
But there is no guarantee the independents will support this administration every step of the way.
One councillor branded the independents all “ex-Labour”.
Another councillor has said one of them once stood for the “BNP.”
Another said getting the independents to do anything collectively is like “herding cats.”
Stick with me. 2017 to 2022 in the county council chamber could prove a roller-coaster.
THE £52 MILLION QUESTION
In the next three years, “The Laberals” have to find £52 million of Tory cuts and it won’t be pretty. 3,000 staff have already gone. At this rate, by 2020 Peter Thornton will be driving the school buses and Val Tarbitt head dinner lady.
This is either belt tightening after a generation of profligate council bosses burning taxpayers’ cash or nasty, ideological austerity?
The chamber voted to elect the Leader of the Council.
Labour’s long-serving Anne “Teflon” Burns offered up Stewart “Jung” as someone who could offer “strong and sensible” leadership.
The Tories’ Tony Markley seconded James “Lairy”…calling him “tolerable, nice and charming.”
The vote in the council chamber then went like this:
Stewart Young (Lab) 44 votes
James Airey (Cons) 36 votes
Winner: Labour by 8 votes
Doing faster maths than Einstein, Mr. Young was on his feet to defend himself.
“If you were to add the votes of those Labour and Lib Dem members who voted for me to lead the council today, and three of the five independents, the total votes received by those members comes to 64,731. So this administration is perfectly legitimate.”
To cries of “no it isn’t” Mr. Young wagged a finger.
“Nonsense,” he said.
“This is democracy,” said the fastest vote counter ever seen in the history of county politics.
James Airey called the new coalition “morally wrong” but was reminded of the DUP.
“The people of Cumbria voted overwhelmingly for something else, but that’s politics and we’ll just have to live with it,” said James, who already looks over it.
Many on the other side threw tomatoes back about Mrs May’s £1 billion Tory sweetener.
And so they should.
“The strong and stable,” leadership line was used more times than I could write down.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
The Lib Dem ranks at Cumbria County Council are flattered now by three new Farronites.
Chris Hogg, Rebecca Hanson and Will Clark.
But the uncomfortable facts are that the Greens put up more candidates in Cumbria than the Liberals, who cannot get a toe-hold in either Barrow, Copeland or Carlisle.
Thanks to the Tim Farron Fan Club of the South Lakes branch, they now have four Cabinet roles, while Labour has seven representatives at the council’s top table.
Mr. Airey said: “What we now have from this administration is them trying to shackle the opposition in terms of our role. We are being dictated to by an undemocratic administration.”
Lib Demmer Pat Bell, deputy council leader and Queen Bee of the finances for the last four years, cut a distant figure on the wilderness of the back benches.
As far back from the driving seat as it’s possible to sit and probably a lot happier.
There are many theories circulating about where it went wrong for Tim Farron in the GE 2017.
James Airey ran him to the wire on 8th June – 777 votes of taking down St. Timothy of Farronshire.
For me, what did it for Tim was the Andrew Neil interview.
“Tim Farrogant!” muttered the mother-in-law who is a gentle, soft-speaking sort and no politico.
Tim was run ragged round the country trying to be all things to all faiths, genders and journos.
There is no doubting his commitment or stamina, but on a warm night in London, he had a rush of blood to the Ego.
Babbling over the Godfather of political interviewers.
It was like watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon – except they both had frying pans.
As one bonged, the other splatted.
It made for 30-minutes of horrifying TV. Everything the public hates about slippery politicians confirmed.
Which is a pity.
Because Tim’s charming deflection of Angry Malcolm, the annoyed Brexiteer, early in the campaign, was a master class in how politicians can win people over.
“You’re a populist that isn’t popular Mr. Farron – that’s why your campaign has gone so badly!” roared Slugger Neil, turning fuschia.
Not a message you want going out at prime time.
I’ve never seen Andrew Neil look so angry. Where the result leaves Tim now is anybody’s guess.
RESERVOIR (TORY ATTACK) DOGS
The Cumbria County Council chamber is stuffed with 12 new Tories.
When they all walk in together, you can hear George Baker’s Little Green Bag start up.
A new blue vanguard. Mid-20s to early-30s. Suited, booted and one bench back from the controls.
Short hair-cuts…slick suits…laptops ‘n’ smart phones ago-go-go.
When they all rise as one for a vote, it’s like being out muscled at the bar for Twickenham.
A class of 2017. It’s a good job for them the elections fell on 4th May when most of the paper talk was of a Theresa May walkover and a Corbyn collapse.
Mr Orange: Windermere’s Ben Berry who got in at the fourth time of asking
Mr. Brown: Ben Shirley of Dalton North
Mr. Grey: Gareth Ellis, of Carlisle
Mr. Blonde: Steve Haraldsen, of Carlisle
Nice Guy: Sol Wielkopolski for Newbarns, Barrow
They will not settle for four years of “no we can’t.”
There’s a lot of youth and idealism on the Blue team now.
They run 10ks and don’t break a sweat, karate chopping socialists with their bare hands.
The Labour side look desperately short of young talent, save for Alston ‘unionista sista’ Claire Driver who has an eye-catching punky, skunky hairdo, and sparky West Cumbrian world-changer Emma Williamson.
In short, the dynamic of the council chamber has changed.
SHIRLEY YOU CAN DO SOMETHING?
Ben Shirley’s county council career was only hours old when he was on his feet.
His Tory ward of Askam and Ireleth is being used as a free car park, he complained.
Nuclear workers dumping their motors to avoid the parking charges at Barrow railway station.
Then they’re hopping aboard the Sellafield Express in Askam, leaving Duke Street stuffed up with cars.
Three kids knocked over in recent years, he said, but thankfully only minor injuries.
A commuter sadly lost his life “trying to catch a train he was late for,” said Ben.
In short, he was asking for The Impossible. He wanted the Labour council leader, Labour cabinet member for highways, and a director to traipse-arse all the way down from Carlisle to see the problem for themselves.
You can tell he’s new to this council malarkey…
COMPUTER SAYS NO
Stewart Young wasn’t having any of it.
“This is a long standing issue that doesn’t just affect Askam,” said Stewart, citing similar problems in Copeland with contractors’ cars and mumbling about work the company has tried to do.
“We can arrange a briefing for you.”
This is council shorthand for:
“We’ll lock you in a room with a couple of beefy, brow-beaten traffic bods…bury you under 10 tonne of paperwork and then make some non-committal noises about ‘ possibly’ getting round to it sometime in the next century.”
“If” we have the resources…
Welcome to CCC.
TWO YEARS TO REPLY TO A LETTER?
Lawrence Fisher, a stripe-shirted 1980s Tory with smoky glasses, complained that a school in Brampton wrote a letter to the county council’s Legal and Democratic services department in November 2015.
“They are still waiting for a reply,” said Mr. Fisher curtly but in his politest voice.
Why someone would wait for two years for a reply wasn’t explained.
Stewart apologised and then chuckled.
“There is a standard practice for responding to letters and it is slightly less than November 2015…”
Cue lots of guffaws from his benches.
Lawrence wasn’t laughing. Neither are his constituents.
TAKE THESE CHAINS
At the meeting, chairman of the council for the last two years, the Lib Dems’ Geoff Cook, dutifully crowned Labour’s John Bell.
Geoff looped the necklace around John’s neck and patted John’s shoulders like a considerate wife straightening her husband’s tie.
By all accounts, John is a good egg.
The trouble for the chamber is that he is officially the Quietest Man In the World.
Even when his microphone was on, he was barely audible from the Press bench.
Tom Murphy from the Gazette looked at me, I looked at Jonny Irving from CN and Jonny looked at Bob Cooper from Radio Cumbria.
We all shrugged. Only a couple of sheepdogs could hear Mr. Bell.
His first whispered announcement was to read out something that had already been helpfully written for him.
Was it penned by a council PR or “Lady K” herself? Nobody knew.
He said: “I think it would be appropriate of me to remind all members of the standards of conduct expected in the council chamber and whatever our political differences, we should TREAT each other with courtesy and respect at all times.”
Then he looked directly at Lairy.
THE SUPREME LEADER OF THE PEOPLE’S DEMOKRATIC REPUBLIK OF KUMBRIA
The last time I wrote a sketch, I noted that DCI Lenin McMuckin, a Tory-hating union bruiser, didn’t even clap his own members for winning long service awards.
Clapping of course being part of the capitalist, elitist, globalist, neo-conspiracy to keep the Working Classes in perpetual misery.
(A bit like council meetings and long service awards).
Alan’s sole spoken contribution at the council meeting was to support the vote for Stewart Young as leader.
Asked for his nomination, McLenin said: “Comrade Young” and then arched his fingers into a steeple.
Job done. What’s for lunch?
ANY OTHER BUSINESS
The council stood in a minute’s silence to remember former councillors Ray Cole, of Millom, (2005-2013) and David Marcus, of Walney South, (2009-2013).
Ray was a straight-talking, no-nonsense, mayoral ex-Plod as I recall.
We spoke a few times and he was always “on the level”.
David Marcus was a theatrical entrepreneur from Barrow (not a sentence that’s written very often.)
23-years ago, David directed Guys & Dolls at the Forum 28. I took a part in the chorus line for the purposes of writing a feature.
David showed me the ropes. He always liked a glass of something and always had a cig on the go. On his typewriter? The script that would change all his fortunes.
A proper bon viveur.
They will both be missed.