Keeping It Local – Lewes’ new party allies show the way

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James MacCleary (Liberal Democrat), Ruth O’Keeffe (Independent), Zoe Nicholson (Green) and Chris Collier (Labour)

While Westminster politics remains resolutely tribal, out in the country things are changing. As more people begin to tire of yah-boo confrontation, Lewes provides a fascinating example of how successfully different political parties can work together and run a complex district council.

After the May 2019 local elections, the Conservatives emerged as the largest single party on the council with 19 seats, but the combined opposition parties outnumbered them. The Green Party’s Zoe Nicholson described how very rapidly this realisation dawned, and her party is credited with making the first moves to discuss the possibility of an alliance.

Nicholson says: “At the first meeting of the new council I remember going up to [Labour leader] Chris Collier and saying ‘We need to get together’ and then realising everyone else in the room was watching us!”

Independent councillor Ruth O’Keeffe believes the enthusiasm of the Greens went a long way towards persuading others that an alliance was possible: “The Greens really do love working with other people. They kind of carried everyone along in their wake.”

Unsurprisingly there were snags, often due to the parties’ different cultures and histories. O’Keeffe describes the Greens as being ‘resolutely cooperative’, the LibDems as ‘collegiate’ and Labour as “appearing to have more central direction”.

So while the Greens were happy for a work programme to be developed ‘through doing’, the LibDems insisted on a written agreement. Liberal Democrat leader James MacCleary believes his party’s long experience of coalitions at every level, and the “ghost of the 2010 Coalition” as he describes it, gave them an underlying caution about entering into an arrangement that was not clearly articulated.

At the first meeting of the newly elected council a cabinet leader was chosen from the ruling Tory group. But it was all change the following month after opposition groups had agreed a programme and priorities. The Cooperative Alliance was born, with Nicholson elected as the first Green cabinet leader (the role is being rotated, with MacCleary currently taking the reins).

I asked her why the title had been chosen. “Well ‘coalition’ was too sensitive a term,” she said. “After talking to Stroud District Council, who have a cooperative alliance, it was decided to adopt the same title. It spoke to the spirit of cooperation and collaboration that we wanted to create and landed well with our Labour colleagues.” She credits Chris Collier and his fellow councillors with having the courage to depart from the traditional Labour suspicion of alliances. “I was absolutely committed to making an alliance happen,” says Collier.

Everyone stressed the importance of open dialogue and active listening, and O’Keeffe says: “We all shared a determination to make a go of it, and that’s made for a much nicer politics than I have ever known in my 21 years of being a councillor.”

Collier describes the challenge as being prepared to listen and understand views that at times differ. “We’ve all worked at that,” he says, “and Zoe and James are always really collaborative about finding the right solution.”

Crucial to the success of the working arrangement has been everyone’s commitment to being prepared to rise above tribal politics and doing their best for residents.

That also requires, of course, an understanding of what ‘best’ looks like. High on the Cooperative Alliance’s list of priorities is open and transparent communication. Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis they have run weekly open Q&A sessions on Facebook, attracting several thousand views. “Elected politicians should be visible and available to answer constructive questions from members of the public,” says MacCleary.

Which leads me on to asking whether Westminster politicians have something to learn from Lewes and other local authority alliances.

The responses are along the lines of “I wish, but unlikely. National government politics are different and much more complex”.

But Collier believes that the work the Alliance is doing is changing opinions; he is a keen supporter of electoral reform. MacCleary says: “The real test would be if one party gained a narrow majority and they made the deliberate decision to invite others to join them in cabinet.”

There is general apprehension about whether the Alliance will hold together when the next election looms and party-political loyalties and rivalries start to intrude.

O’Keeffe hopes that discussions are already starting about how to retain the trust that has been built up. This is a challenge when, as MacCleary says, Britain’s first past the post system puts people into confrontational positions. History will judge how successful the Cooperative Alliance have been in facing up to and overcoming that challenge.

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