Progressive collaboration in a Blue Wall constituency: Are we doing politics differently in Woking?

A week ago, in Surrey, the heart of the blue wall, the Conservatives were wiped out of Woking Borough Council. They had had members on the council since it was established in 1973 and 58% of the county council are Conservative too (on 42% of the vote) as are 100% of the county’s parliamentary seats (on 54% of the vote).  While local elections wrecked the party nationally (listen to Novara media‘s analysis), this was the final stage of a long running progressive campaign to unseat them in Woking.

Conservative chronic underinvestment in local authorities and the 2011 Localism Act is where the story starts for some. Others point to the previous government’s encouragement of local councils to find alternative funding by becoming investors. Either way, today, one in ten councils are within a year of going bust, and increasingly turning to what the Woking Conservatives did in 2007, namely borrowing at low interest rates from the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB), ostensibly to invest in local regeneration, local homes, and local jobs”; but also making numerous other investments in and out of Woking, setting up private building and development companies, putting council executives on their boards and even sitting on the oversight panels – all of which was a clear conflict of interest. Labour’s councillors complained that meetings behind closed doors bypassed approved council policies and led to purchases and loans that were not subject to proper full council scrutiny. These included £44.7 million to Thameswey, the council’s arms’ length environment and energy company in Milton Keynes, which by August 2009, had only repaid £941,000. 

In 2018, an independent councillor, John Bond, raised the alarm at the largest loan: £610 million to the company building Victoria Square, the flagship high-rise development in the town centre. Today, it boasts an empty Hilton, its cladding having fallen off not long after building was completed. Former Conservative Leader, John Kingsbury, who has long since left the council, was a subject of the complaint, and as of July 2023, remains on the board of Victoria Square Woking and Victoria Square Residential.  The complaint was investigated internally but went no further. By that point, WBC had become one of seven local authorities with over £1 billion in debt to PWLB. By 2020, the government had woken up to the problem of excessive council borrowing and Woking Labour formally submitted its concerns to the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, asking it to examine whether the borrow to invest strategy was putting at risk the council’s ability to deliver local services.

The Conservative administration claimed that all decisions had been supported by the Liberal Democrats, and acknowledged that ‘lessons had had to be learnt’. However, in 2021, it was independent campaigners again, who with the support of Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors, drew attention to continued poor practice in WBC. It had come to light that council staff were positively spinning the details, on behalf of Conservative councillors, of developments proposed – again for the centre of Woking. These were largely unaffordable and did not meet the requirements for larger family dwellings (as identified by the borough’s own policies), only just meeting minimum standards in terms of density, size, light and fire safety.  At the same time, due to lack of affordable homes in the borough, the council was sending people who had families locally, to be housed in other parts of the UK, while existing housing stock continued to be poorly managed into disrepair by another arms length council company, New Vision Homes. 

By 2022, progressives were even more united in their common goal to unseat the Conservatives from the council. And seeing the success of coalitions in Waverley, another Surrey borough, Compass members in Woking facilitated cooperation locally. Labour and Green local party members did not stand in a key ward and a longstanding Conservative councillor was replaced by a Lib Dem, resulting in a hung council. The following year, Labour did not field a candidate in an unprecedented seven out of Woking’s 10 wards, while other progressive parties agreed to not actively campaign in their target seat of Canalside. The Liberal Democrats took majority control of the council, having gained an unprecedented four seats out of the ten up for reelection, the independents maintained the Byfleets and Labour held Canalside. As Compass analysis later concluded, “[b]y accident, or under the radar by local design, progressive parties not competing had a stunning impact on party’s votes nationally with The Lib Dem vote rising by 14.1% where it was the only progressive challenger to the Tories

By this point, the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities had concluded that Woking was “the UK’s most indebted council relative to its size, due to an investment strategy that relied on borrowing to lend to regeneration companies in a way not ‘backed by assets in any way matching that debt'”. By the time of the 2023 elections, when the Liberal Democrats gained a further 4 seats, a section 114 notice had been issued and government appointed commissioners had arrived to begin the painful process of making cuts to the local community’s services. Residents were sent surveys asking us to rank the facilities and services we could least do without. What matters more? A well kept park, an art gallery, that the old and vulnerable have community transport and meals on wheels, keeping public toilets or swimming pools open? This is the state of local authorities today, even in an affluent town like Woking.

In the local elections just gone, the remaining Conservatives were unseated from the council. Liberal Democrats had actively campaigned in Labour’s only ward, emboldened by their leadership of the council, even in dire straits, and taking advantage of the anger of the Muslim community over Labour’s stance on Gaza, which had seen a longstanding Labour councillor and the current Mayor of Woking resign from the party and stand as an independent instead. As a result, Canalside’s second remaining Labour councillor was unseated. The political makeup of the council now is 24 Lib Dems, one Labour and five independent councillors. No Green councillors of course – first past the post and party political priorities put paid to that. But this is in spite of the significance of environmental issues to a growing number of Green voters in the town.

So, what does the Woking case study tell us? Is it a success story of progressive representatives working under the radar to Win As One? Even if it is too late for Woking residents, who now have the highest per capita debt of any council residents in the UK? And even if political success for the Liberal Democrats is picking up the poisoned chalice of a gutted council, echoing the predicament facing the next Labour government in the very near future?  Once the external auditors have left and attention subsides, will the Liberal Democrats use the crisis as an opportunity to reform the council’s democratic accountability, to ensure it avoids a rerun of the events that have led to the town’s financial collapse? Or will their dominance on the council lead to similar levels of complacency and lack of oversight?  Will the fate of the town be left again to the oversight and integrity of individual councillors and campaigners? Is this the best we can hope for under the current FPTP local electoral system?

If the Conservative MP is unseated next year by the Liberal Democrat candidate and deputy council leader, Will Forster, the same questions apply. Will he be a critical friend to his local council? Or find that his new remit requires him to distance himself from its problems? Given the desperate need for reform of our electoral system, will he continue the fight for PR at a local level, given the Liberal Democrats’ recent history of coalitions with parties who do not support it? As a recent Compass report warns, “When the pendulum swings our way, we must not let democratic reform fall down the list of priorities. Because make no mistake, the pendulum will swing away again – and, in this age of instability and volatility, it might happen sooner than we think.”

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