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Take a little pride in our local rainbow coalitions.

Byline: Chris Game

JUST my luck! I've been planning a column about rainbows, but the Post's Senior Story Editor took his summer hols early, thereby postponing it to this week - yes, immediately following last weekend's Gay Pride marches, featuring a welter of rainbow flags, fans, umbrellas, and even policepersons' ornamentation. Not exactly the rainbow theme I'd envisaged.

My thing is local politics - and this column's more mundane theme: rainbow coalitions. No fancy definitions, just the voluntary grouping together of several minority parties to produce an actual or near-enough-to-be-workable majority.

Similar to the so-called 'Progressive Partnership' between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that ran Birmingham City Council during the noughties.

Except my definition of 'rainbow' requires an explicit working agreement involving at least three distinct parties. Try imagining that at Westminster!

Across the EU, though, they're commonplace. Unsurprisingly, when EU countries' electorates of mostly several millions choose between maybe a dozen parties, their almost universal systems of proportional representation will mostly fail to deliver a single-party majority.

The Conservatives' 37 per cent vote share in 2015, for instance, won't under PR conjure up the one-party majority it did for David Cameron.

By my unmeticulous reckoning, and including the centre-right New Democracy Party's resounding victory in last Sunday's Greek elections, 181/4 of the 28 EU countries currently have coalition governments.

Six of these comprise two parties, 111/4 three parties, and the Netherlands four. Four parties, four colours: Liberals blue; D66 (not a code, just date of formation!) blue/green; Christians yellow; Orthodox Protestants orange. Not literally a full rainbow, but good enough for my definition.

Oops, I nearly forgot - the quarter. The National Assembly of Wales, of course, with its government of 29 Welsh Labour Party AMs, one Lib Dem, and one Independent - resulting from its proportional Additional Member System, balancing out the disproportionalities of 'First-Past-The-Post' with 20 'Additional Members'.

Even this mini-overview of other EU countries' taken-for-granted experience of cross-party and coalition working conveys some idea of the near-disbelief with which their MEPs and political leaders will have observed the past three years' farcical, inept, sad, demeaning (take your pick) antics in Westminster - the more so, given that most are multilingual and require no interpretation.

In the six weeks since the EU elections, the UK Parliament's main achievement has been to replace one failed PM with a successor, elected by 0.3 per cent of wildly unrepresentative voters from a single minority party.

The European Parliament, meanwhile, has organised its 751 new MEPs and their several dozen parties into eight distinct and broadly like-minded working groups, through which the Parliament will conduct its business for the coming five years, with or without our 73.

Biggest group is the 189-member centre-right European People's Party. Highly influential, but not 'Eurorealist' enough for our 18 UK Conservatives, who prefer playing second fiddle to the Polish Law and Justice Party in the now sixth largest of these political groups.

Our 19 Labour MEPs are, naturally enough, in the 153-member 'Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats', the 14 Brexiteers with fellow populists in the 'Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy', and the three Greens in the now fourth largest 'Greens-European Free Alliance'.

Back, then, to our own local elections. The Conservatives were left controlling fewer councils (143) than for over 15 years; Labour (91) fewer than since 2012. The Liberal Democrats took 23, but more eye-catching were their 700-plus seat gains, alongside the Greens' nearly 200, and Independents' 250-plus.

Such figures have two consequences: one infuriating, the other intriguing - in all senses. Infuriating is that the post-election Friday vote-counts are widely treated as the complete, now-and-forever election results. Check BBC News or Wikipedia, and the bottom line still reads 'No Overall Control 73'. That's nearly a third of all councils elected, the implication being that this is all any of us mere citizens and electors ever need to know.

And forget councils' websites. You may get ward-by-ward results, but very rarely any statement about the election OUTCOME: the identity of the Leader or party/ies whose policies will determine how your taxes are spent.

Those decisions will emerge from often protracted inter-party negotiations, and officially announced only at the council's annual meeting, probably in late May, to which you're unlikely to be invited.

Now the intrigue, and time for my modest personal contribution to what Disney would call the Wonderful World of Knowledge.

As we know, MPs get themselves into a right lather immediately there's no longer a single-party majority Government to tell them who to vote for or against.

Councils and councillors are (almost) invariably more imaginative, flexible, and prepared to find ways of working together for the benefit of their communities.

Even I, though, was surprised that, just in those councils elected this May, we now have significantly more (35) coalitions - often more companionably termed alliances or partnerships - than single-party minority administrations (30), which I think would have dominated in the past.

As for genuine rainbows, which can be quite a tough 'ask', I found 22, including two four-party: Rother (East Sussex) and Waverley (Surrey), and two five-party: Swale (Kent) and Burnley, the latter earning my personal Rainbow Ribbon.

Lest Labour, losing majority control after seven years, had any thoughts of forming a minority administration, the other groups formed a remarkable Burnley Rainbow comprising Independents, Lib Dems, Conservatives, UKIP, and Greens.

Somewhat comparable arrangements have been negotiated nearer to home - in Malvern Hills, Herefordshire, and Wyre Forest, for example - but I've a feeling that this is a topic that merits revisiting sometime at greater length.

Chris Game is a lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, at the University of Birmingham The world's smallest Pride parade on display at Legoland Discovery Centre in Birmingham...

rainbow coalition here, but many local councils are starting to break down political barriers

Councillors are more flexible prepared to find ways of working together...
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 11, 2019
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