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Why local LibDems lost their one seat on Buckinghamshire County Council last week

May 11, 2017 11:47 AM

Avril DaviesPeople lose council seats. That's politics.

You accept it, and you move on.

That's what Avril Davies (left) and her team will do in the Ivinghoe division of Bucks County Council. Avril lost the seat by 214 votes to the Conservative in the elections on May 4 after 26 continuous years as a LibDem councillor.

So why does that loss merit an entire blog? After all, isn't that politics, which we known is a tough and unforgiving business?

But if we don't analyse and discuss an important result like this, which was scarcely touched on in the media (except in a BBC 3 Counties radio interview Avril gave on Friday afternoon) then we learn nothing.

The first thing to say is that we are sure that Avril lost the seat because of Brexit, and because there was no UKIP candidate standing. And because many voters saw this as a little, local mini-referendum on Brexit. Even though the issue did not feature in our election literature. And the EU has nothing to do with the county council.

In the 2013 election UKIP polled 534 votes - 19.7%. Avril beat the Tory by 85 - close, but that's how it has always been in blue rural Bucks. (And that was against a well-known, and local, sitting district councillor. This time her Tory opponent was a first-timer who did not even live in the division.)

In the 2017 elections, this was one of only three seats where UKIP did not stand in the Buckingham constituency. Another was Buckingham West, where the county's one Labour councillor was elected in 2013, and served on the official opposition group on the council, which Avril led. He also lost his seat, by 227 votes. (In the third, the Risboroughs, the Tory was safe, whether UKIP stood or not.)

In 2017, in Aylesbury and the Vale, UKIP polled between 19% and 5%, between 436 votes and 119 votes. So the 240 votes or so UKIP might have polled in Ivinghoe would have been enough for Avril to hold the seat, narrowly. And without the national Brexit-focused mood, we would've expected more Conservatives to lend her their vote, as they did in the past.

We can never prove that UKIP did a deal with the Tories - some people asked us what was in it for them? Nothing material, except that by standing back in the seat they could never hope to win, they were able to contribute to a strong Tory result in the county which would feed through to strengthen Mrs May's hand in negotiating a hard Brexit, which is what UKIP chiefly want.

We knew this would be a hard fight when we saw that UKIP was not standing when the candidates were announced. (It was reasonable to assume that almost all their votes would go straight to the Tories). That was before the General Election. Since the election was called, the tide has been flowing powerfully in favour of the Brexit-obsessed Tory party. The address Mrs May gave on May 3rd in Downing Street on the EU "interfering" was a blatant "dog whistle" summons to voters in the May 4 election to reassert their support for Brexit, and their wish for a strong negotiating position in the forthcoming negotiations.

Many people will be very happy that they have a Conservative councillor, and we should not forget this. Their views are now represented locally. But more people did not want the Tory councillor - 51.9%.

Avril had been 16 years a county councillor, and served 24 as district councillor. She gave up her seat on the district council in 2015. Those who know her and saw her in action, will attest that Avril was a strong and dedicated leader of the official opposition of three Lib Dems, one Labour member and two Independents on BCC, against a Conservative-controlled Council of 39 members.

It is a measure of the contribution she made that many Conservative councillors contacted her afterwards to say what a loss she would be to the council. She was praised for the tenacious way she held the Conservatives to account. She was also tireless in her application to the concerns of local people.

When people are recruited for a job in both the private and public sectors, candidates are long listed, then shortlisted and interviewed as to their suitability for the job. Can you imagine circumstances where a person of 26 years experience, with an excellent record in the job she's doing, being re-interviewed, and then passed over for a candidate without any experience at all, who didn't even live in the division. That's what happened here.

This is, of course, Conservative Bucks. The party has ruled here continuously since the 1890s. They are the party of default. Imagine the opposite scenario to that in Ivinghoe, where a new, completely inexperienced LibDem, from outside the area, stands against the sitting Conservative. It is quite inconceivable that the LibDem would win. And that is exactly how it played out, with incumbent Conservatives winning by majorities of 1480 (Great Brickhill), 1507 (Grendon), 1237 (Stone) and 1395 (Aston Clinton). Were all those people so much better as councillors than Avril?

The Conservatives don't win almost every seat in Bucks because they have a superior philosophy. So few opposition candidates are elected each time to challenge them. In this council there are 41 Conservatives, 4 Liberal Democrats, 1 Labour member and 3 independents. So the official opposition is composed of just those 4 LibDems, who have to scrutinise and question and hold a group 10 times their size to account. An impossible task. (What about the Independents? Well Independents are, by their very nature, independent.)

This may sound like sour grapes, and I agree I wouldn't have been writing this article if Avril had won. Yes, life, and politics is unfair. But this isn't just about an individual councillor, summarily rejected after 26 years. Not only are local people deprived of a highly experienced champion, but democracy itself is distorted. People with an alternative view to the Conservatives remain grossly under-represented. And the work of the council will still go largely unchallenged, with such a tiny opposition.

If the Conservatives are to be beaten, short of the introduction of proportional representation, which is likely to be at least five years away, radical solutions such as persuading other candidates to stand down where the Lib Dems are seen as clear favourites to take the seat, or hold it against a Conservative must be considered. (Labour and the Greens also stood in Ivinghoe. If they could've been persuaded not to contest the seat, Avril would still be councillor.)

Otherwise we will simply have to wait for that irresistible Conservative tide to turn.

Gareth Davies, chairman, Buckingham Constituency LIberal Democrats