The author is a Conservative councillor on Cheshire West and Chester
On May 8th hundreds of thousands of people across England woke up with a new Conservative council. From Amber Valley to Bath, South Gloucestershire to Poole, Gravesham to Eden, people in 32 new areas now had majority Conservative councils, helped by our party winning an extra 541 councillors.
Except in Cheshire West & Chester.
We were left licking our wounds as Labour picked up 6 seats, and took a flagship Conservative council straight from our control. This wasn’t just a sad day, it was a catastrophic loss of a council we had held since it was created in 2008, and one which was previously 55 blue seats to just 13 red ones.
To an outside observer this would seem a bizarre event. A multi-award-winning council which had made huge savings, and shared them between taxpayers and investment in local services was lost to a Labour group which lacked imagination, and was obsessed with following the Unite line on everything. To us locals, however, it was pretty obvious what was about to happen, and why we would lose.
The now ex-council leader had made himself deeply unpopular with residents in half of the Borough. Cllr Mike Jones had developed a reputation for immense arrogance, and he had behaved in a way which allowed our opponents to paint us as dodgy, or even corrupt.
On planning matters he was seen as the developers’ friend, riding roughshod over concerns from across the Borough, ignoring political and strategic advice from colleagues, and behaving as though concreting over the greenbelt in historic Chester was the single most important thing in the world. One particularly controversial site for a student village involved a local building firm owned by his friends and for which he acted as a cheerleader. Similarly in one of the Borough’s other towns, Ellesmere Port, he enthusiastically promoted a large housing development on high quality farmland which had almost 2 decades of near total local opposition, including from his own side. (Read about these matters here and here.)
When four of our councillors tried to sort out the damage he was doing to the reputation of the Conservatives in the area, he threw them out of the group contrary to party rules. They were eventually readmitted after pressure from the rest of the council group and the regional party.
On homelessness he alienated an entire community.
And each of these matters affected either marginal Conservative wards, the marginal Conservative parliamentary seat of Chester, or in many cases affected both. In the end, we lost most of them to Labour.
On issue after issue, Cllr Jones ignored his own colleagues, appeared immune to public opinion, and continually demonstrated terrible political judgement. Labour portrayed him as an unrepentant, self-serving politician in their target areas of Chester and Ellesmere Port. Regular appearances in Private Eye didn’t help.
At the first annual group meeting after the election, the majority of re-elected councillors voted for the challenger to his leadership, but newer members elected in the other half of the Borough, unaffected by the issues around Chester, helped him scrape back in as leader, reportedly by two votes.
As fellow Conservatives write articles for this site, telling us of their victories in May, and as they continue to talk of their radical reforms to save money and serve their residents, Conservatives in west Cheshire will feel a twinge of angst as we recall how we lost a flagship council directly to Labour (uniquely in the country), and lost a parliamentary seat too.