Letter from Cllr Robin Parker CC to the Comet.
Your news story ‘Proportional representation? It’s not for us’ on page 7 of the Stevenage Comet for 16.10.2014 makes some factual errors and needs correcting. From the report, it is clear that your reporter at the meeting either did not understand what was said, or does not understand proportional representation, or both.
Your report wrongly claims that the Liberal Democrat group voted against proportional representation, and that the Liberal Democrat and Conservative groups have been unable to form a coalition.
The report was about a vote at the full meeting on 8 October of Stevenage Borough Council (SBC), where the large Labour majority imposed upon the two equal sized opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties a new, untried and unprecedented system for choosing who should be the Leader of the Opposition when the opposition groups have equal numbers of councillors – a situation which has now happened on six occasions since the most recent all-out election in 1999. They forced through a system in which the Leader of the Opposition will be decided by which party gets the biggest percentage of votes across the borough.
Effectively, this hands the post mostly to the Conservatives, and is anything but proportional representation. That is one reason why the Liberal Democrats spoke and voted against it.
Also, it fails to take account of things like by-elections or multiple vacancies in one or more wards, all of which have happened often.
It is important to make clear that there has never been any question of a coalition between the two opposition parties at SBC and it was not mentioned at the meeting, so I cannot imagine where this fiction came from.
I suggested – as I have for many years – a better system whereby if the voters have said that they want two equal sized opposition groups, then that is what they should have. They clearly want there to be two opposition groups with equal status and rights and therefore two Leaders of Opposition Groups. I have provided the detail of suggested changes to the council’s constitution whereby the voters’ wishes could easily be achieved, without adding to the length of meetings or complexity of the council’s structure. Other possibilities were also voted down by Labour, like sharing the role (as is being done until May 2015, under a temporary arrangement worked out by the two opposition groups) – which would have been a form of proportional representation.
In a classic example of Labour’s philosophy of ‘one size fits all’, the Labour majority seem to be unable to cope with the idea of two equal leaders of opposition groups and insist on reverting to their usual comfort zone, where they have to deal with only one. It really is time that Labour realized that we have been in an increasingly multi-party world for many years and that the cosy, two party days of the 1950s are unlikely to return.
It is easy to see why Labour prefer a Conservative opposition to a Liberal Democrat one. At the full council meeting where this issue was debated, on 8 October, none of the 3 Conservative councillors were present, whereas all 3 Liberal Democrats were there. We each spoke many times, asking 3 formal questions and, as usual, raising many other points, thus continuing our role as the main and effective opposition in Stevenage, as we have been doing since 1981.