Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Fears for Two Tiers

So, I’ve been away for a few weeks and return to find there are not many happy Labour faces round the Town Hall. They’ve been let down by their own government, again.

What was at stake? Some would say nothing other than the future of Oxford. The City Council had put in a bid for Oxford to become a unitary authority. The hope of breaking free of County Hall shimmered like a glimpse of the Promised Land. But, last week, the hope lost its gloss as Ms Kelly announced that we had not made the shortlist of contenders for unitary status.

Others have already had their say on the decision itself. I want to concentrate on its political fallout. For there are, indeed, good reasons for Labour to be glum.

The most obvious reason is one that we all can share: if the big chiefs of New Labour continue to be bent on wrecking the two tier system of local government, then further down the line might we end up with a unitary Oxfordshire County Council? Shudder at the thought: County Hall is so out of touch with the needs and desires of the county’s capital, their march on the city would be less welcome than the arrival of the Greeks at the gates of Troy.

But councillors of the New Labour persuasion aren’t worried just about that. The disappointment of the decision is more bitter for them because they were so convinced that their friends in high places would be able to win the day for our bid. They must feel let down not just by their own government but even by their own MP. Ex-cabinet minister Andrew Smith had, it is clear, offered to act the Fairy God-Mother, promised they could all go to the ball, waved his wand – and failed to work any magic. Looked at objectively, a failure of persuasive skills on Smith’s part is hardly revelation of a previously unnoticed character flaw, but Labour locally seemed to have unbending faith in him right up to the last minute.

But it wasn’t just idealism that led them to share our support for the bid. I hope they won’t mind me mentioning that they saw it as part of their political gameplan. They anticipate a general election in 2008 and hoped for all-out elections for the new unitary on the same day as the parliamentary vote. They have reached a conclusion which recent electoral history makes unavoidable: to achieve an outright majority in Oxford’s council demands all seats being up at one time. The political map of Oxford is too complex to hold out much hope of Labour being able to sweep the board when only half the seats on the council are contested. To jump from 18 to at least 25 councillors in one election of 24 seats would demand that all the other parties had a very bad day. On the other hand, if all seats were up at the same time, with the increased turn-out of a general election, then maybe, just maybe (Labour thought) they may be able to return to their unfettered majority of 2002.

So, if you pass a Labour councillor and see a tear in their eye, don’t be perplexed: Mr Smith’s failure and Ms Kelly’s decision have, on Labour’s calculations, condemned Oxford to a future of hung councils. It’s brought them down to earth with a bump as painful as the heaviest drunken slip on the stairs.

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