Following this years elections, there is no overall majority on the Borough Council. Labour and Lib Dem Councillors had the chance to create a majority Council working together for the good of all. But this has been squandered as the Lib Dems thwarted talks after making impossible demands.
Labour entered discussions in good faith, but despite making repeated concessions to reach a deal, the Liberal Democrats were unable to put aside party politics and do the same. Their demands included:
- The creation of an additional Cabinet position in the Councils senior team – purely to show the wider world that they were now in the ‘big time’. As this was crucial to them in order to secure an agreement, Labour proposed to reduce other Cabinet position salaries to ensure that the cost of this vanity exercise would not end up being picked up by the taxpayer.
- A substantial ring-fenced budget for the use of Lib Dem Councillors (ignoring that they had an equal say in how the wider Council budget would be spent anyway). Any Labour led Council would look to address the issues that all of Welwyn Hatfield face, not just areas that have elected a Liberal Democrat Councillors. We were unable to agree to this demand as not only would this remove significant sums of money from democratic oversight, it would signal a complete lack of trust in the working relationship between the groups that would be essential in day to day running of the Council.
- Tellingly, the Lib Dems cited a lack of trust in the Labour Group as a barrier to reaching a deal – even though it was they who requested those talks.
Councillor Kieran Thorpe, Leader of Welwyn Hatfield Labour said:
“I am disappointed in the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats in trying to ensure they could plunder taxpayers money for self promotional activities away from democratic oversight of the wider Council.”
“There is give and take in any normal negotiations, but their refusal to act in a mature sensible way to create new kind of Council based on honesty and democracy speaks volumes about their character”
“Ultimately, in the face of these increasingly surreal demands we had to put residents of Welwyn Hatfield before party interests, and it is quite clear that wasn’t something the Liberal Democrat Councillors would accept”
For a full account of the negotiations with the Lib Dems please see below:
Wednesday 8th May
Labour Councillors presented the Liberal Democrat representatives with an initial offer, a 55/45 split on Council positions, an assurance that the Council would be run jointly, as a team and with respect and openness crucial to the success of this partnership. This was broadly agreeable to them, though they demanded control over the Local Plan remit, we agreed to compromise with joint responsibility. Only at this stage were we informed that any agreement was subject to the approval of the entire Lib Dem group and also their ‘Executive’ (non elected Lib Dem party members).
Thursday 9th May
Liberal Democrats informed the Labour of several new issues, and concerns from members of their party and another meeting would be needed. Labour agreed to meet on 10th May.
Friday 10th May
Labour were advised that the Lib Dems felt for the sake of ‘appearances’ that the cabinet positions (4:3) should in-fact be the same for both parties, and suggested that we could either reduce the cabinet to 3:3, or to create a new position to take it to 4:4. Labour were informed failure to meet this would result in the end of negotiations and no deal being reached.
Moreover, Labour were informed that the Lib Dem group members had little trust in the Labour team, specifically about there being money available to them to complete their own locality improvements (fixing grass verges etc). Demands included the key position of Cabinet – (Resources), a specific budget to be created from reserves for the sole and exclusive use of Lib Dem Councillors, or a large locality budget scheme similar to that existing at County level, that would allow Lib Dem members to address specific issues in ‘their‘ wards without wider council/member/democratic involvement.
After ensuring there were no further issues of concern, Labour members reflected, carefully considered and agreed to meet the request for an additional Cabinet position on the condition that Cabinet allowances needing to reduce to ensure the taxpayer was not responsible for the Lib Dem’s requirement for ‘appearances’.
Councillor Thorpe stressed the original proposals aims to create an administration that works as a team, working together to address issues across Welwyn Hatfield. He stated clearly that if the Lib Dems did not ‘trust’ the Labour group, they should carefully revisit their intention of working in partnership with us. He explained that Labour could not accept any mechanism through which Lib Dem Councillors could spend public money on pet projects and circumnavigate democratic oversight of the Council.
Councillor Thorpe reiterated that at no point would Liberal Democrat members be isolated from any decision making process or publicity resulting from successfully restoring Welwyn Hatfield to its heyday.
Saturday 11th May
At 9pm Labour received a further demand for direct control of Council budgets by the Lib Dem group due to trust issues. Councillor Thorpe reiterated this would be wholly unacceptable and incompatible with a grown up, open democratic Council.
Sunday 12th May
Labour received a simple “thank you for letting us know” message.
Unfortunately despite being well aware the importance of the opportunity before them, the Liberal Democrats clearly did not enter these talks in the spirit of openness and camaraderie that was required.
They did not give sufficient regard to the compromises Labour made, or the spirit in which Labour proposed to work with them as a team, and ultimately had no idea how to deal with any of their demands not being met, a key failure when making demands that were wholly unreasonable.