On 2 May we will have the four-yearly election for all 69 councillors on Cambridgeshire County Council. I shall write about the various candidates here in Queen Edith’s some time before polling day, but I wanted this article to act as a background for those curious about the election. It’s a feature of British politics that voters aren’t issued with proper background on the election itself, or independent information about the candidates. Some of us dream of the day when the arrival of a polling card is accompanied by a booklet explaining to us what we’re voting for, who’s standing for election and a statement from each candidate. But that’s never going to happen while the major parties have more to lose than to gain from ensuring the public have a better understanding of an election, as it ensures, quite conveniently, that independent or minor party candidates will never get much of a look-in.
So until that day, you’re going to have to make do with articles like this to fill in the gaps. I will do my best.
The first thing to understand is that Cambridgeshire County Council, which we’re electing here, is quite separate from Cambridge City Council, which doesn’t have elections this year.
Within our county there are five district councils: East Cambridgeshire District Council, Fenland District Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council, Huntingdonshire District Council and, for those of us in the city, Cambridge City Council. These cover certain services within their own small areas, while the county council covers a different set of services across the whole area.
So, for those of us in Cambridge itself, the city council is responsible for housing, leisure and entertainment, rubbish and recycling collections, licensing, planning and building control, Council Tax collection and environmental health services. And it’s only responsible for these in the city.
The county council, in contrast, is responsible for education, libraries, social services, roads and traffic, trading standards and waste disposal. But it’s not just responsible for these locally, it runs them county-wide (apart from Peterborough, which gets to do its own thing).
So this election is for a set of councillors who will control their own specific set of services, county-wide.
With me so far? Good.
One other difference between the more localised district councils and the county council is in the way the councillors are elected. Cambridge City Council elects a third of its councillors each year (with a year off every fourth year). So each councillor serves a four-year term, but the makeup of the council itself tends to change gradually.
Cambridgeshire County Council, however, elects all 69 councillors in one go every fourth year. And that’s what we’ve got coming up.
Now, for quite a few years, the residents of the city have tended to prefer Liberal Democrat and Labour party candidates, whatever the election. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. The two parties currently have 40 of our 42 city councillors. And at the last county council election, four years ago, Liberal Democrat candidates won 11 of the Cambridge city division’s 14 seats.
But politically, the county council is a very different animal from the city council. Those 14 councillors from Cambridge city are just a fifth of the 69-strong council, and the rest of the county’s voters are of another political disposition altogether. At the last Cambridgeshire County Council election in 2009, East Cambridgeshire elected mainly Conservative party councillors; Huntingdonshire almost entirely Conservatives; Fenland entirely Conservatives; and only South Cambridgeshire went against the out-of-city trend, although it still elected equal numbers of Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors. So the political party makeup of the county council after the last election was:
Liberal Democrat: 23
This was not unusual. There have been changes since, but the Conservative party still holds a sizeable majority. The previous three county councils also had a Conservative majority, and indeed, no other party has had a majority in the council’s forty-year existence. The massive Conservative party vote from the rural areas dictates the political makeup of the county council, however much things swing between the parties in the city.
Here’s what that political makeup looks like on a map (taken from the county council’s website, and as of August 2012):
So, voting in the county council elections might seem rather pointless; whoever anyone elects locally, the compounded rural vote is likely to continue to dictate the majority on the council. That’s a shame for us here in Queen Edith’s, where the last city council election was unpredictable and exciting. You really felt your vote made a difference, because across Cambridge as a whole, the makeup of the city council also stood a fair chance of changing. However, it’s not all about the majority party! Electing good councillors (of whatever party) to speak up for the city on the county council is important, and that’s why I’ll be paying close attention to what the candidates have to say over the next four or five weeks – and writing about them here.