Fourteen of the 42 seats on Cambridge City council are up for grabs in this year’s local elections. For three years in a row, Cambridge elects one-third of its City Councillors, and in the fourth year it elects its County Councillors. All councillors serve a four-year term. Colin Rosenstiel’s website gives a good picture of the pattern:
This year is the third year of the cycle. The County Council elections will be held in 2013; the next City Council elections will not be until 2014.
This graphic shows the number of City Council seats held by each party, by the year that they are due for re-election:
The 14 seats up this year are held by 8 Lib Dems, 4 Labour, one Green and one Independent councillor. In 2014 there will be 11 Lib Dem, 2 Labour and one Green seat up for re-election – these seats were won in the Lib Dems’ best-ever year, 2010. In 2015 the six Lib Dem and eight Labour seats elected last year will be up.
Election by thirds means that, barring by-elections, the next council is bound to contain at least 17 Lib Dems, 10 Labour and one Green councillor. If the Lib Dems win only five seats this time, they will have 22 councillors and retain a majority – though one that will be extremely difficult to defend in 2014. However, what happens if they only win four?
If the Lib Dems are reduced to exactly 21 seats, with 21 for the combined opposition parties, then the role of the Mayor becomes crucial. The Mayoralty in Cambridge is largely ceremonial, but the Mayor also has a casting vote that effectively determines control of an evenly split council. Despite chairing full Council meetings, the Mayor may vote as an elected councillor, and in the event of a tie, has an additional casting vote. As a result of this, if your party holds 21 of the 42 seats and the Mayoralty, then you have effective control of the Council. However, if you have 21 seats but the Mayor is an opposition councillor, then the combined opposition can defeat you and appoint their own executive.
Because of the importance of the Mayor’s casting vote, the election of the Mayor was sometimes hotly contested during the period of no overall control in the 1990s. After the Lib Dems took control in 2000, an informal agreement was reached between the parties to rotate the Mayoralty between them in proportion to their numbers. If I remember correctly, the agreement went something like this:
- Each year, each party gets one point for each of their councillors (whether elected in that year or not)
- The party with the most points gets the mayoralty for that year, and has 42 points subtracted from their total
- Each party’s points are carried forward to the next year and the process continues
- If the largest party has fewer than 24 councillors, then the agreement does not apply
This arrangement brought some stability to the selection of the Mayor, with the Deputy Mayor succeeding the Mayor and a new Deputy Mayor being elected unopposed. The scheme was initially backdated by some years to allow the Lib Dems to “catch up”, so the first four Mayors that the system produced were all Lib Dem. Since then, there have been three Labour and five Lib Dem Mayors; the current Deputy Mayor, Caroline Hart, is a Labour councillor, and would normally expect to become Mayor this year.
As well as taking the political sting out of the choice of Mayor, the system allowed a certain amount of forward planning. Being Mayor is a huge time commitment, with literally hundreds of civic engagements during the year. The current Mayor’s blog gives some idea of what is involved. The Mayor is formally elected at a council meeting held shortly after the May local elections. Having a year or more’s notice that you are likely to be Mayor is very helpful for the individual concerned.
However, with the likely end of large Lib Dem majorities, the Mayor’s election may soon be contested once again. What happens if the vote is split 21-21? In this case, the outgoing Mayor, even if he or she no longer holds a council seat, still has a casting vote in choosing his or her successor. Consequently, the Lib Dems could still cling on to power even if they are reduced to 21 seats, by putting up their own Mayoral candidate against Cllr Hart, and using outgoing Mayor Ian Nimmo-Smith’s casting vote to elect them. With a new Lib Dem mayor installed, the party would still retain control on the Mayor’s casting vote. Of course, it would be vitally important for all their councillors to turn up.
So can the Lib Dems hold four seats this year? Last year they won six, though with severely reduced majorities. Nevertheless, it seems pretty likely that they will retain at least Queen Ediths, Trumpington and West Chesterton this year. While Independent councillor John Hipkin may well hold his Castle seat, the Lib Dems would only have to take one of the other two student wards, Market and Newnham, to keep control. Most University of Cambridge undergraduates are away at the moment, and are due to return less than two weeks before polling day. Their votes will be vital.
If the Lib Dems do hold on this year, Labour may well win enough of the 11 seats that the Lib Dems are defending in 2014 to take outright control without the Mayor’s casting vote coming into play. But if a week is a long time in politics, who knows what could happen over the next two years?