Failure rewarded: What can we make of Northamptonshire's election results?

Fading memories and national issues are behind Northamptonshire's electorate giving the Conservatives another reign of power argues Kate Ironside

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By Kate Ironside, Senior Lecturer, University of Northampton and former political journalist

One of the fundamental premises of democracy is that if politicians perform badly, the voters can kick them out at the next election.

So, what to make of Northamptonshire’s election results? They demonstrate that a political party can plunge a council into financial chaos, devastate its budget through a toxic mix of incompetence and blind, reckless pursuit of dogma, jeopardise or destroy cherished local services and, worst of all, preside over a child protection service utterly incapable of saving tiny children from murder – and still come roaring back to victory at the next election.

And that was just at county level. Their colleagues at Northampton Borough, with similar recklessness and lack of due diligence, were dishing out multi-million pound loans to David Cardoza, that football geezer from Sixfields – money which was taxpayers’ money and which promptly disappeared in a puff of smoke. That loan is currently the centre of one of the biggest police investigations into local government finance.

Such was Northamptonshire Conservatives’ shameful record for incompetence and financial mismanagement that the Conservative Government decided to abolish all Northamptonshire councils, a rare, savage case of blue on blue warfare.

That led directly to this week’s elections for the county’s two brand new unitary authorities. Northants Conservatives won both handsomely with majorities so large they are unbeatable in the council chambers.

This matters. Before we explore why, it is important to stress that financial incompetence and blind dogma are not the exclusive preserve of Conservatives. These are apolitical vices that can contaminate any party. Just look at Labour Liverpool. Or, for incompetent oversight of child protection, look at Labour Haringey, forever stained by the horrific murders of Victoria Climbie and Baby P.

The trouble is that in Northamptonshire, at both borough and county level, incompetence and recklessness came with blue rosettes stamped firmly on their chests.

They caused havoc. Children died. And they still won. Why?

First is the fade factor. The county council elections should have been held in 2019, barely 12 months after the peak of the crisis, when public awareness of the disaster was still raw. Yet the elections were delayed twice, firstly to enable new council structures to be put in place and then again because of the pandemic.

By the time we reached May 2021, the events of 2017 and 2018 seemed a lifetime ago, eclipsed by the national, indeed global ordeal of the pandemic. Memories had faded. That helped the Conservatives.

The second factor is that, regardless of the herculean efforts of local parties, council elections are too often decided by national issues. The most profound political achievements just now are Brexit and the vaccination programme. Brexit still determines votes, especially in a county like Northamptonshire which voted so overwhelmingly for Leave. That continues to keep voters in the Conservative camp.

And the Prime Minister’s early failure to get a grip of the pandemic, the consequent devastating death toll and economic damage, the reckless lifting of covid restrictions at Christmas not to mention the contracts for cronies are dwarfed by the national sigh of relief at the stunning success of the vaccination programme. We’re alive. The end is in sight. Vote Conservative – an act made easier by memories of Jeremy Corbyn and the failure of the new Labour leadership to offer a more persuasive policy platform that went beyond the theoretical ability to handle the pandemic better than Boris Johnson.

Which brings us back to our newly elected councillors. We should acknowledge that among their ranks are thoughtful Conservatives absolutely aghast at their own party’s local record and working to make amends. But there are also amongst their ranks individuals who had leadership roles in those disasters.

The lesson of Northamptonshire’s elections cannot be that councillors can get away with gross incompetence. That nothing matters. That Northamptonshire will always vote blue on the back of Boris Johnson’s coat tails, no matter what.

The opposition parties may land some verbal blows but they lack the muscle to truly hold Northamptonshire Conservatives to account. The real policing must therefore come from within the Conservative party itself. It’s vital.

Every councillor needs to study the auditors’ reports, the serious case reviews and the Government inspectors’ reports to ensure they truly, deeply understand what went wrong in Conservative administrations at both county and Northampton Borough level. Refresher courses in good management and accounting are essential.  

And Conservative councillors must be ready to vigorously challenge their own frontbench. It will make for better governance.

Serving as a councillor, whether in the cabinet or on the backbenches, can be arduous, unglamorous and often thankless.

Yet those councillors serve a vital purpose overseeing badly needed public services. They do so with inadequate resources. It’s a tough gig. Even so, good leadership, as we have seen with Nick Adderley at Northamptonshire Police, can make a difference. 

Northamptonshire has experienced the very worst of local government. Now let us experience the very best.

And if it helps concentrate minds, both new council chambers should have large photographs of the incomplete Sixfields stadium and of the smiling, laughing faces of toddlers Dylan Tiffin-Brown and Evelyn-Rose Muggleton gazing down on the Conservative packed chambers.

Past scandals and those children, the Baby Ps of Northamptonshire, should never be forgotten. Let today be a truly fresh start.