Two Liberal Democrat councillors in Sandwell have crossed the floor and joined Labour, leaving the Lib Dems unable to move and second a resolution in the Council Chamber with their single remaining councillor.
Last year a Conservative councillor did the same thing, and at the time I was calling for a bye-election because having been elected for one party I felt it was wrong to shift allegiances without going to the electorate and asking them to endorse your decision. I still feel that way. I think if Elaine Costigan had gone back to the people of Wednesbury North last year and said she was so disillusioned with the Conservative Party that she had decided to join the Labour Party we would not only have won the seat comfortably (as was shown when she got a massive majority in May this year) Labour would have won a propaganda victory over the Tories. It was, as Tessio said to Tom Hagan before he was taken out and garrotted in The Godfather, nothing personal, just business.
Whilst I think the same thing for Joyce and Tony Underhill, (about the elections, not the garroting) I have a good deal of sympathy for their position. They haven’t so much left their party as seen their party leave them. They are both decent, honest, socially-minded, left of centre, community liberals, who have no doubt looked on in horror as the Orange Book Tendency has taken their party further and further to the right and in to coalition with a vicious right-wing Tory regime. The savaging of the NHS, the waves of cuts to local government services, the reversals on absolute commitments around tuition fees and on the hiking up of VAT must have all hurt very much. As I say, it is a different situation to the Tories… they knew what they were voting for, and they got what they wanted.
On the bye-elections, my view is that Joyce and Tony should, as a minimum, have gone Independent and then stood for Labour when their next term came round. They stood against Labour candidates in the election, and if they had been Labour members then they would have been expelled from membership. But, Labour’s rules allow those councillors from other parties a route in to membership without the requirement to be shortlisted and selected by your local party, which has always struck me as rather odd.
So, the Labour hegemony in the Council chamber in Sandwell is extended even further, and as quite a few of the Tories don’t seem to know whether they are supporters of the party or not, that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. What does seem likely is that Liberal Democrats in Sandwell are about to become extinct in 2012, and whilst I extend a warm but cautious welcome to Joyce and Tony, that is something I can welcome wholeheartedly!