The Liberal Democrats Spring Conference: Voters 'rejecting two-party past'

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The Independent Online
MULTI-PARTY politics is developing in English county councils as voters break the traditional 'two-dimensional straitjacket', according to a survey released by the Liberal Democrats in Nottingham yesterday, writes Stephen Goodwin.

Despite Conservative attempts to raise the bogey of 'Lib-Lab pacts' before the local government elections, the outcome in the 26 English counties where no party won overall control is one of diverse solutions entered into with varying degrees of willingness.

In nine counties there are arrangements which give both Liberal Democrats and Labour councillors a hand on power, but in three the Conservatives are combining with Labour in dog- in-the-manger tactics. The most striking example is Wiltshire, where the Tories with 18 seats and Labour with 17 have made a pact and taken all the committee chairmanships, even though the Liberal Democrats are the largest party with 33 seats.

But Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, where there has been a similar Con-Lab lockout of the largest party, are aberrations in the survey.

'The real picture is one of multi-party politics, of diverse solutions across the country to meet the needs of local communities,' it concluded.

'For the past 15 years, almost unnoticed, a new style of politics has been emerging. Voters have left councils in 'no overall control' and politicians have been compelled to work together.'

The Liberal Democrats made a net gain of 400 county councillors on 6 May and now have 4,250 councillors in control or power on 160 authorities.

Matthew Taylor MP, chair of the Campaigns and Communications Committee, said most of the 26 counties were a demonstration of a 'consensual style of government'. After previous elections there had been a belief that the lack of overall control would not last long.

'This time councils are seeing this as a long-term trend and in their different ways are seeking to make it work,' he said.

The nine councils with Lib- Lab arrangements of various types are Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Essex, Hampshire, Hereford & Worcester, Kent, Lincolnshire, Shropshire and Suffolk. The two parties also work together in Berkshire with independent councillors.

In Cheshire and Leicestershire there is a Liberal Democrat chair of the council with committee chairmanships rotating between all parties. The classic 'rainbow coalition' is Oxfordshire where all chairs have rotated since 1988.

Illustrating the complexity of the picture, in North Yorkshire, Tories and Labour did a deal to keep out the Liberal Democrats - the largest party - but the result is a Conservative chair, Liberal Democrat vice chair and rotating committee chairs.