A sign reading "welcome to Banbury"

Last week the Cherwell District Council AGM descended into scenes akin to the infamous Handforth Parish Council meeting. All we needed was Jackie Weaver to complete the picture, but instead we had a selection of exasperated councillors (including myself) desperately trying to make sense of a situation that none of us have never encountered before.

The council was left in a situation of no overall control after the elections on the 4th May, with the Tories losing the upper hand after 23 years in power. Over the past 5 years, the Greens and the Lib Dems had chipped away at the Tory majority, taking 13 seats in all between us, whilst Labour stood virtually still taking 3 additional seats during the same period.

The Progressive Oxfordshire Group (POG) was formed in 2019 after I won the first ever seat for the Greens on Cherwell District Council along with two Lib Dems.  All three of us were from Kidlington where the Conservatives had pushed plans to concrete over large swathes of Green Belt against huge local opposition. Later we were joined by two independents and the group began to grow, eventually overtaking Labour to become the official opposition in 2022.

For most of that year there had been chatter about an impending alliance between the POGs and Labour after an expected rout of the Tories in the 2023 local elections. There were talks of ‘red lines’ from Labour leader Sean Woodcock and Green aspirations from the POGs. There was a sense that the prize was for the taking as we all entered the count on May 5th.

It soon became apparent that we’d achieved what a few years ago had seemed to be the impossible and finally removed the last vestige of the Conservative control from Oxfordshire. The Tories had lost their overall majority for the first time since the year 2000 when they took control after a brief spell with Labour at the helm.

Greens took one extra seat giving us three. The Lib Dems increased their number to 10 and Labour went up to 12. With The Tories reduced to 20 and an expectation that the two independents outside of the POG alliance would side with them, that left a potential Labour/POG alliance with a majority of 4 seats essentially made up of Greens and the one independent. We were now the King/Queen makers.

Talks ensued and, as expected, Labour were a tad awkward to deal with, but nothing we couldn’t get past. Eventually an agreement was reached on executive roles with Greens naturally taking the environment portfolio. Committee chairs and leader and deputy roles were also settled. A press release had been drafted with all three party leaders contributing statements of allegiance. I proposed a name for our joint adventure – ‘The Cherwell Together Alliance’.  I didn’t realise at the time how ironic that was soon going to become.

The day before the new alliance was due to take control I received a call from the new group leader David Hingley (Lib Dem). The Labour NEC had said no. They apparently had a problem with a Green on the executive, which both I and David agreed was something we had to insist on. Not only had we worked for 5 years to get to this position, we also needed to send a message that the alliance was solid and we weren’t going to be split on these lines. The Greens formed slightly over 10% of the alliance and as such one seat on a 10 seat exec was reasonable.

I guessed this was just a bit of brinkmanship from Labour so expected to hear later that day that the deal had been done. Surely Labour wouldn’t be prepared to forgo a 50% share of control just for the want of one Green on the exec. Surely no one would countenance that after all the work we’d all done to get to this point.

20 minutes later, I had my answer. In a two line statement from the Labour leader, they confirmed they would not be entering an alliance with the Greens and Lib Dems. The deal was off.

There followed a frantic series of press statements and media interviews during which we tried to keep a lid on the recriminations in case the deal was fixable. But it soon became apparent that this was unlikely as the Labour leader, instead of explaining the involvement of the NEC, began a public narrative of claiming they’d rejected the deal due to a sudden discovery of “grubby backroom deals”.

No one had the foggiest idea what he was talking about, least of all me, but getting an explanation proved difficult.  It was only a few days later that it became evident that what he was talking about was the pre-election non-aggression agreements between the Greens and the Lib Dems. This was at odds with the reality that these agreements had been well known, backed by Compass Oxfordshire, and at one time Labour had even been in discussions about joining us. Certainly in the case of my campaign, the agreement with the Lib Dems was on all my leaflets and a letter of support I’d received from Layla Moran had even been the subject of a particularly rabid article in the Daily Express.

Moreover it soon became clear that alliances involving Greens across the country were being scotched by the Labour NEC in the same way, except in most other cases the local Labour groups were being up front about it. Indeed in some areas there was even talk of Labour councillors abandoning the party in protest against their meddling.

With the AGM approaching we started to game out what the likely outcome would be. Labour had half-heartedly suggested that we could put ourselves up as a minority administration on our own, but that was rejected as unworkable.  With only 14 seats it would have been an unsustainable position, particularly as it would rely on Labour’s support anyway.  The suspicion was that at the first opportunity, Labour would hang us out to dry by failing to support votes leading to a vote of no confidence, providing a neat bit of negative media coverage, probably in the run up to next year’s elections. In short, we no longer trusted Labour, or at least not their leader.

Labour then announced they would put themselves forward as an alternative administration, but with only 12 seats, or just a quarter of the total membership, all based in one town, this was even more untenable. It was becoming clear that the Labour leadership in Cherwell were more interested in political game playing and social media soundbites than they were in genuine governance.

This all set the scene for the AGM where it looked like being a case of who would blink first. We made it absolutely clear that we would not vote for a Tory administration, but we also couldn’t support the ludicrous proposition of a Labour ruling group that was only two seats larger than the entire executive.

So we were at deadlock. Having voted four times against a Conservative nomination for leader and once against Labour, it was looking like we would be in that AGM until doomsday. Indeed at one point the Conservatives were pushing the idea that we should suspend the 11pm guillotine and stay there essentially forever. This was after one proposal for an adjournment to allow us and Labour to have another go at reaching an agreement was voted down, in part by Labour themselves. The Conservatives’ plan was presumably to keep us voting until enough people either passed out or died, after which they might just scrape through with a majority vote, depending on which side saw the most casualties.

Ultimately we reached agreement on an adjournment and set a date to come back in 6 days to try again. Some believed that the universe was created on a similar timescale, but it soon became clear that reaching an agreement with the Banbury Labour Party would be a far more challenging accomplishment as they continued with the “grubby deals” rhetoric and even launched a petition to get us to back down and agree to Labour minority rule. Quite who the petition would be presented to was never made clear. Perhaps some grand arbiter of electoral fortitude who seems to have been largely asleep on the job for most of my political career.

Following the meeting, Labour stayed eerily silent.  We wrote a letter to them urging them to come back to the negotiating table and pointing out what we both stood to lose. There was no response to this apart from a phone call from the Labour leader privately apologising for the “grubby deals” line but still refusing to take down the petition or correct the narrative. Indeed he still pursued it in subsequent media output and maintains the position to this day. I also had some back channel discussion with various Labour members during which it was once again confirmed that the root of the problem was the Labour NEC, although that was still not being acknowledged in public.

There were claims from Labour that they had made concessions to us during this period, but the truth was that they had actually hardened their position, adding to their list of ‘red lines’. Now there couldn’t be an independent member on the executive as well as no Green member and they were insisting that the council leader had to be the Labour leader Sean Woodcock. The argument was that Labour was the largest party, although this is disputed on the grounds that the Labour group on CDC is made up of Labour and Labour and Co-operative members. Even though this is an alliance that was formed in 1927, we saw it as much the same as any other alliance, including ours.

Needless to say, no one in our group fancied having Sean as leader, especially after he had agreed two weeks before that it should be the leader of our group. The idea that Labour should have power of veto over our executive nominations also seemed incredibly one-sided, considering we had never demanded the same of them.

By the time Monday morning had rolled around (the day before the reconvened AGM) it was pretty clear that all toys had been jettisoned from all prams. Labour were putting out attack lines accusing the Lib Dems of ‘pettiness’ (for some reason they didn’t include us in that description) and Sean was by now simply parroting a party line statement about how they were a national party and we and the Lib Dems were ‘minor parties’ which we all thought was particularly charming, especially as they were actually in the minority in most of the District having no seats outside Banbury.

Amidst all this, local journalists who had referenced the involvement of the Labour NEC were being leant on by Labour’s comms team to withdraw any such claims, which were stoically resisted. By their own logic if it wasn’t them it had to have been a local decision, which made even less sense given the timing of the announcement. They eventually backed off, perhaps sensing the sound of spades digging an even deeper hole than they were already in.

Finally the reconvened meeting rolled around on Tuesday evening and we all dutifully played our part in the pantomime that had been scripted by the monitoring officer. In order to get the vote done he imposed a ‘winner takes all’ type vote where only votes for a candidate would be taken and the one with the largest number would win. No one could vote against and abstentions would not be taken. Once again Tory Leader Barry Wood was nominated along with Labour Leader Sean Woodcock. Only the Labour group voted for Sean and only the Tory group voted for Barry. The POGs voted for no one.

The deed was done. The Tories were back in control, albeit in a minority capacity. The POGs are back as the official opposition but in far larger numbers and together with Labour we can hold them to account and theoretically block their worst excesses.

All of that of course depends on perspective. With the local plan about to be dusted off from under the sofa where the Tories hid it during the elections, we could see a source of further conflict as Labour led Oxford City Council push more growth on to an eager and compliant Tory administration. Meanwhile on things like affordable housing provision and infrastructure, I would hope we would be on safer ground. All that remains to be seen.

Sadly I fear the environment won’t fare so well, with a Tory portfolio holder whose main hobby-horse seems to be all about hydrogen. Of course that could be a potential part of any sustainable energy matrix, but probably not half as important as he thinks it is having presumably watched a documentary on the Discovery channel.

Questions that remain in the air after this debacle are ; can we ever trust Labour again? I think in broad terms we will have to take that on a case by case basis, particularly across the country. We can see in many areas Labour have far more integrity and honesty than seems to be evident in Banbury. Indeed in West Oxfordshire and on the County Council we seem to rub along quite well, with the occasional bump (or pothole) in the road. As with any other relationship, both sides have to work at it. Equally if you have one abusive, controlling or narcissistic partner, things can get pretty unpleasant.

The other question, and one I think will be asked by Compass Oxfordshire, who I believe are understandably a bit peeved after all the work they put into my campaign and others, is; can a vote for Labour be relied on as a tactical move? We went into these alliance negotiations believing we were all on the same side with the same goal, but it quickly became apparent that other forces were at work, not least the dead hand of the National Executive. Parties like the Greens, that avoid a top down structure, are arguably more suited to co-operative working and, as we’ve seen with the POGs, we stick to that, even when the going gets a bit tough.

I’m not going to dismiss Labour out of hand as a result of this experience. In fact I think this situation is more born of personality issues than any sort of strategic thinking. The idea that any party would cut themselves out of a power sharing agreement where they would have 50% of that power simply to prevent one Green getting a seat at the table seems ludicrous. And yet that is what ostensibly happened in Cherwell.

That raises questions over what exactly Labour are afraid of. Is it that they don’t want to set precedents that may lead to similar expectations in the case of a hung parliament? Are they simply trying to nip the Greens in the bud based on expectations that we may gain another couple of seats in next year’s General Election? Or is it simply that they can’t countenance any sort of competition for hearts and minds and resent our very existence on the social democratic spectrum?

I really don’t know. But I do know that the future of left-leaning politics in this country will have to be collegiate, co-operative, honest and respectful of each other’s positions. The one thing we know that the right will always do is stick together in the pursuit of power. All the time we allow fractures to persist and widen on the left we will only ever see brief interludes of sanity amongst the madness of almost perpetual Tory rule. The situation in Cherwell is a salutary lesson about what could happen next year and for years to come if we don’t stop looking for reasons to not work together and stop waging trench warfare on the vast areas of common ground we do have.

As is often said during the formation of what may appear to be unlikely alliances: “There’s far more that unites us than divides us” and unity is far more fulfilling than division as I can personally attest.

Ian Middleton is a Green Party Councillor on Cherwell District Council and Oxfordshire County Council

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Image credit: Gareth Jones – Creative Commons