The recent Durham County Council elections were hugely disappointing for the Labour Party. Although Labour remains by far the largest group with 53 councillors, over double the number of the nearest party, the loss of our majority was a sign that some of the difficult decisions taken by the previous Labour administration had been met with quite vocal opposition.
It is of course part of being in power to have to make hard choices, but this must be clearly communicated to the public. I know these lessons will be painfully learnt.
Of course, while Labour needs to take time to digest these results, we must recognise the achievement of Councillor Amanda Hopgood in becoming the first female leader of Durham County Council. While we may disagree politically, I do wish her well in her new role.
As we emerge from the pandemic. however, the county is facing numerous challenges. Covid-19 has hit the local economy hard, while laying bare the stark educational and health inequalities which divide my constituency and much of the country. These are long term challenges, which require joined-up thinking and a strong administration to deliver a clear vision for the county.
So now the council is under new leadership, I will be paying close attention to the direction of the new administration. We know that coalitions can often be volatile, as members drawn from such a range of different parties and groups rarely share the same world view.
The new Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition at County Hall is unlikely to be different. Reliant on the votes of three separate independent groups, each elected on personal manifestos, I fear this is a coalition built on sand, lacking any shared governing political principles or policy beyond a dislike of the outgoing Labour administration.
While this may hold the LibDem-Tory coalition and the independent councillors together in the short term, I have serious fears that when our recovery is at its most fragile, and strong local government is needed more than ever, this coalition will be riven by internal arguments about how to tackle the big challenges facing County Durham.
This is clearly an historic shift in the democratic governance of the council, and navigating this new political reality will undoubtedly be difficult, so it is heartening to see that Councillor Carl Marshall, the newly elected leader of the Labour Group, has stated that the Labour Party in the council will be happy to cooperate with the coalition to ensure that investment and services can be secured in the county.
Although as a Member of Parliament I am not part of the county council, I regularly work alongside the council, and its decisions directly impact my constituents and the services they rely upon daily. We will of course learn more over the coming weeks, as the leadership begins to outline its policy priorities, and I very much hope that we see the groundwork that has been done over the last few years to attract jobs and investment into the county built on and developed further.
As with the Labour Group, I too am ready to work constructively with this new administration on the many pressing issues facing my constituents, and I very much hope that this is reciprocated.