Green and Lib Dem council leaders at Lewes prepare for job swap

In July last year a cross-party alliance took political control of Lewes District Council after voting out its Conservative-led cabinet.

Monday, 20th July 2020, 5:27 pm
James MacCleary and Zoe Nicholson

Now, one year on, Green Party council leader Zoe Nicholson and her Liberal Democrat deputy James MacCleary are set swap jobs as part of the four-group power-sharing agreement.

The arrangements are set to become official at a council meeting this evening (Monday, July 20). Ahead of that meeting councillors Nicholson and MacCleary sat down with our reporter to discuss what the job swap would mean for residents.

Cllr MacCleary said: “Obviously, when you are a different person with a different face, people notice these things. 

Lib Dem James MacCleary, independent Ruth O'Keeffe, Green Zoe Nicholson and Labour's Chris Collier

“But what I think we are showing with a handover of leadership like this – and there can’t be a lot of examples of somebody effectively voluntarily giving up leadership of the council to somebody from a different party – quite a modern idea of collaborative politics.

“You are saying it doesn’t matter who the leader is all of the time. It’s about what your agenda is and are you working to the same agenda.

“People might notice I’m not Zoe, but beyond that – in terms of the things we will be doing – it is still the same agenda we have had for the last year.”

The power-sharing alliance came in the wake of last May’s local council elections, which proved to be a quiet revolution in political representation for many communities across England.

Across the country, Conservatives lost 1,330 seats and control of 44 councils – some of which had been blue for decades.

While not as dramatic as in some parts of the country, the result in Lewes District still saw a significant change in the council’s political make-up, as independent councillors saw their seats gobbled up by political parties.

Lewes Conservatives went into the election as the council’s largest party holding 20 out of 41 seats. But the party saw mixed fortunes in the final count, experiencing both significant gains and surprise losses and, when the dust settled, held 19 seats.

The Green Party made the greatest gains – taking over six new seats to become the council’s second largest party with nine councillors.

Lib Dems came in third with eight seats – one fewer than the party had going in – while Labour secured three seats, marking the first time the party had sat on the council for more than a decade.

“The big thing for me personally, was not only had become the second largest group, but the bigger thing was that Labour had broken in and taken Conservative seats,” said Cllr Nicholson.

“I remember sitting there doing the counting up and realising we had the potential to form a cooperation across parties. 

“The volume of votes cast for us and independents, Liberal Democrats and Labour was in quite significant excess to that of the Conservative voters’ votes. So, it became clear that we could work together.

“Pretty quickly we all started to have conversations.”

Cllr Nicholson said early discussions began on Saturday May 4 – the day after the election count.   

Following a unsuccessful attempt at the end of May (the Lib Dems initially abstained), an agreement was eventually reached in July last year, wresting control of the council away from a minority Conservative cabinet.

Cllr MacCleary said: “I think Zoe may have been a little bit ahead of me in terms of realising the potential situation.

“I must admit that with my election campaign I went into the count thinking that if I can get myself over the line that would be pretty good and we can see where it goes from there. It just didn’t really occur to me.

“Then when Zoe and others were pointing out we did have a working majority between parties here, it became obvious quite quickly that there was an opportunity to get things working and we entered into some discussions about that.

“I think fairly quickly it was obvious that this was an option from our perspective. There was no realistic option, there wasn’t an option, to work with the Conservatives and that was something we ruled out as a group immediately.

“It was simply not viable, especially in the context of Brexit. It’s been such a big thing for us, campaigning wise and in our policy agenda that the idea of being in any sort of alliance with the Conservatives in that context would be unthinkable for us.”

The arrangements have proven to be unpopular with Lewes’ Conservatives – still the council’s largest single group.

Prior to the takeover Conservative group leader (then council leader) Isabelle Linington urged other parties to work with her group, highlighting areas where they could find common ground.

The Tories now describe the alliance as an “anti-conservative coalition”.The charge is not one recognised by Cllr Nicholson, however.

She said: “We’re not an anti-Conservative alliance, we are a pro-community and pro-district alliance which focus on policies that are about addressing the inequalities in our current system. 

“That’s about making sure we address the climate emergency [and] that prioritise building homes and council homes, above providing any other kind of homes. We have got 1,500 people on our waiting list.

“It is not that we are anti-Conservative it’s that we are pro what we see as being needed by our community. 

“I might personally not be in favour of Conservative policies, obviously. That’s why I’m a Green and not in the Conservative Party.”

Cllr MacCleary was less diplomatic in his answer.

He said: “I think the Conservatives would be delighted to think it is all about them but that really is for them to talk through with their therapists or whatever.

“From my perspective as a Lib Dem; we stood on a manifesto and had a plan about what we wanted to do.

“My view is that as a politician you’ve pitched to the electorate and said this what we are going to try to do for you. If you are afforded the opportunity to do that, you have a duty to do so if you can.

“Far from being anti-anything, I see it as us having areas of genuine and significant cross-over in the things we said we were going to do as parties and this gave us the opportunity to do so.”

According to both councillors, these areas of crossover can be found in the council’s corporate plan – a document intended to guide and influence the ways council services are planned and delivered.

They say this represents the four groups’ – Green, Labour, Lib Dem and Independent –  shared agenda on housing, boosting the local economy, improving customer services as well as sustainability and climate change.

But what about areas where political views had differed? Have there been any dust ups where the groups don’t see eye-to-eye?

“It’s a bit like that question you get in job interviews isn’t, where people ask you what’s your greatest weakness and you start thrashing around trying to make one up,” said Cllr MacCleary.

“There genuinely aren’t any areas where we have had significant disagreement, I would say in the first year.

“Zoe in particular spearheaded the work around the corporate plan [which] really does crystallise what it is we are going to do. 

“Another important point you have to remember is that we’ve been through, are still going through, a crisis [in Covid-19]. That in many ways has sidelined other things and we’ve all been focused on this crisis, which we’ve gone through as a team with officers and the community through volunteer groups.

“I would honestly say there haven’t been any areas of significant disagreement in the first year or so.”

Cllr Nicholson said: “We’ve definitely not had any political disagreements, but like any problem you face there are different views as to how you might solve it.

“I don’t want to sound like we don’t say ‘well, I wouldn’t do it like that, I would do it like this’ [in cabinet]. That is point of working together as a team, you find some better solutions.”

Cllr MacCleary added: “In the context of one-party administrations, where they breakdown, it tends to be events that get thrown at you rather than your normal agenda.

“There are probably not many council administrations in the history of Lewes District which could put up with the extraordinary stress this one has in the events of the first year. 

“I have to say that hasn’t caused any major problems, the rest of it is an agreed agenda based on the corporate plan. I’m not ruling out something coming up in the future that causes a difference in emphasis, but so far there haven’t been any major differences of opinion.” 

Despite this, there have been some developments which have changed the picture of the council’s political makeup since the last council elections.

Cllr Sean Macleod, elected in 2019 as a Green Party representative for Ouse Valley and Ringmer, now sits as a Lib Dem having resigned from the party in March as a protest over elements of the council’s budget. 

This saw the Liberal Democrats become the second largest council group, swapping places with the Greens. Cllr Macleod remains part of the Co-operative Alliance, however.

Earlier this month, independent councillor for Newhaven North Stephen Sauders formally withdrew from the Co-operative Alliance, citing a “resurgence of political motives from certain individuals”. 

Cllr Saunders had previously spent more than a decade as a Lib Dem councillor before leaving the party in 2018 and successfully regained his seats on both district and town councils as an independent candidate last year.

While Cllr Saunders says he will still support any proposals he considers would have a positive effect for residents and businesses, his decision means the alliance now only has a working majority of 21.

Cllr Nicholson, however, remains positive about the future.

She said: “This last year for me has been really enjoyable. I don’t feel like I’m handing over, although technically I am resigning at four o’clock this afternoon.

“It’s been really great to work alongside James and the rest of cabinet  and we bring different strengths to the table. When I become deputy, I’m still sharing in the leadership of the council alongside James.

“It’s felt very, very purposeful in terms of holding a desire to make an impact on people’s lives right at the centre of what we are about as an administration.”