What now for Wolverhampton?

So, what happens now in Wolverhampton? Labour remains the largest party on the council but has lost its majority. While many assume a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition to be inevitable, activists from all three parties tell a different story.

Personal acrimony, policy differences and longer-term strategy are feeding a frenzy of discussion. Within the parties, councillors are deciding what they’re prepared to give up, while rivals play out a courtship dance over pints across the city. Although it remains the most likely outcome, a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition is far from set in stone.

Let’s take a look at the possible configurations of Wolverhampton City Council over the next two years:

  • Conservative/Lib Dem coalition
  • Labour/Lib Dem coalition
  • no overall control
  • a grand coalition of all three parties.

At first glance, that last option – all three parties working together – seems to originate in the realm of flying pigs. However, reliable Labour party sources have reported that the Conservatives may have made such an offer to Labour, so long as the leader of the so-called “progressive administration of city unity” had a Tory leader.

Tellingly, it seems the Lib Dems had heard nothing of the offer before Labour rejected it outright. Does that suggest the possibility of a crazy fifth option of a Labour/Conservative coalition? Probably not. There’s no love lost between the Tories and Labour in Wolverhampton, so talk of them working together in any capacity seems very far from both the private and public images presented by either party.

So, if such an offer really were made, what does it say for the relationship between the city’s Tories and Lib Dems? Anecdotes from the campaign trail, although easily dismissed when seen as isolated incidents, make more sense in this context. St Peter’s ward – one of the Lib Dems’ two main targets – was the scene of a particularly cogent incident: surprised to see Conservatives campaigning in a ward they had no chance of winning, Lib Dem activists asked the Tories how they were getting on. Their response was along the lines of, “we’re here to ruin your campaign”.

Of course, it’s right that each party should campaign wherever they stand. However, if this incident happened in the way that it was told to me, it suggests that there are bridges to be built between the two sides before they could form a coalition. Parties working together towards an inevitable coalition do not seek to sabotage each other’s campaigns, particularly in a ward where one has a strong chance of unseating the leader of the council.

The Lib Dems’ hard-fought campaign against Labour in St Peter’s was partly one of attacking the man. They accused Roger Lawrence of having a low profile in the ward and lay blame for its problems partly at his feet. While the Lib Dems locally do not rule out a coalition with Labour, they acknowledge that Roger Lawrence’s re-election as leader of Wolverhampton Labour group would make such an alliance nigh-on impossible. Additionally, the Lib Dems’ recent gains in the largely middle class Park ward are partly due to local frustration with Labour. A Lib/Lab coalition could set the Lib Dems back on their path to a greater presence in the city. However, Labour are certain that such a coalition is at least on the table.

So then, that Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. The question is: who seeks to lose most? As junior partners, the Lib Dems would be a natural target for blame if things went wrong and would be unlikely to receive plaudits for success. They’d benefit from a cabinet post or two and the realisation of some of their policies.

However, in Hammersmith and Fulham, the Conservatives ruled out coalitions because they were concerned that such compromises on policy could tarnish their reputation. With another local election in two years, should the current climate continue, the Conservatives could win enough seats to take overall control in Wolverhampton. By playing a longer game, the Conservatives could avoid compromise and give Labour another two years in which to pursue unpopular policies such as annual council tax rises.

Nonetheless, despite rumours of grand coalitions and sniping on the campaign trail, talk from both sides suggests that the Conservatives are keen to get coalition discussion under way as soon as possible. They’ve even floated the idea of a cabinet post for the Lib Dems were the Conservatives to take full control in 2010.

So, while both sides would prefer not to be in opposition, they have their reasons for avoiding a coalition. Crucially, the Lib Dems’ advantage of being neither of the other two parties would take a hit in a coalition. Which leaves the fourth option: no overall control.

While neither Labour nor the Conservatives see it as a serious option, no overall control would give the Lib Dems a great deal of power without compromise. Okay, they wouldn’t have any cabinet posts but their effective veto during the election of cabinet members would give them an excellent negotiating position and could see the other parties promise to implement Lib Dem policies. During the everyday running of the council, the Lib Dems would hold the deciding votes whilst retaining their independence and avoiding the messy business of campaigning against their coalition partners at the next election.

Whatever happens, things are certain to change in Wolverhampton. With the loss of several cabinet members, at the very least there’ll be new portfolio holders. One middle-ranking council officer told me that many officers had only ever worked under a Labour administration and they’d be in for a few surprises were the Tories and Lib Dems to take control. Most party activists and political anoraks in the city are convinced that a Tory/Lib Dem alliance will happen and it probably will. However, there’s a lot of discussion to happen before we know. With the first meeting between the Tories and Lib Dems due to take place on Wednesday, we could be in for a few more days of speculation.