There is a Borough in North Kent called Swale. There is no such place as Swale. The district takes its name from a channel that runs between the Isle of Sheppey and a mainland that includes the towns of Sittingbourne and Faversham.
Traditionally, it is a mixed area of agriculture and industries that have generally declined and disappeared. There is a mix too of relative prosperity and poverty. There are families who tend to work locally in low paid and unskilled employment and others who commute either to London or to the Medway towns. It has a poor ratio of GPs to patients, mixed quality in its schools and a heavy call on social services.
Yet politically it leans to the right. In economic outlook it is sceptical of government intervention, it is not socially liberal, and it was overwhelmingly pro-Brexit. This is reflected in most elections.
Swale includes the parliamentary constituencies of Sittingbourne and Sheppey and part of Faversham and Mid Kent. At the last general election the Tories had majorities respectively of 24000 and 22000. It is hard work for other parties, though Labour did win Sittingbourne and Sheppey during the Blair era, the last in 2005 with a majority of 79.
As the Borough elections of 2019 approached the Conservatives enjoyed a hegemony on the Council. They had been in control from 2002 and by 2019 held 32 of the 47 seats. Of the opposition of 15, there were only 5 Labour and no Liberal Democrats and Greens. The opposition agreed that the continuation of Tory hegemony was a dire prospect. They were complacent, indifferent to serious issues such as homelessness and run by a small secretive minority who did not even share decision making with their own backbenches. The various parties never made any kind of electoral agreement but discussions took place around sharing knowledge of each other’s targets. The realistic aim was to seriously reduce the size of the Tory majority.
The targeting strategies worked well for all parties. The Liberal Democrats and Greens confined their real aspirations to the Faversham end of the Borough. The former was focussed on the town of Faversham, where they had already won a County Council seat. The Tories were dismissed from a town they had previously monopolised. The Green Party had never won a Borough seat and understood a concerted campaign in one ward might be the way to go. So, they found two good candidates to assail the Council Leader and his running mate in the rural parishes east of Faversham, called Boughton and Courtney.
The Tory Leader had become a toxic figure, too long in the post. In the run up to the election he achieved some National notoriety by appearing to support Tommy Robinson in a twitter post that he was too slow to retract.
Elsewhere in the Sittingbourne and Sheppey part of the borough, Labour were working the more urban wards, whilst the independents were prominent in the rural and suburban wards, campaigning very strongly against the Tory Local Plan.
The outcome was a dramatic shift from the Tories to what was to become the Swale Rainbow coalition. They were still the largest party but reduced from 32 to 16 seats. The Greens beat the Leader, and other major lead figures fell to Labour and the Independents. The Coalition, if such there was to be, had 30 seats and there was one stray refugee from the UKIP party. Labour was up from 5 to 11; a group of Independents calling themselves Swale Independents had 10; the Lib Dems 5; the Greens 2 and there were 2 other Independents, closely associated with the SIs but keen to present as a separate group. The Tories were at a disadvantage, fighting on all fronts whilst others could concentrate resources, knowing that others were active elsewhere.
The groups held immediate exploratory meetings in which it was clearly established that simply basking in the demise of the Tories was not enough to sustain a coalition for four years. We discussed in some detail the high level objectives that we all shared and we agreed to ignore any difference we might have on Westminster politics, such as relations with Europe where the Independents were not on the same page.
At that point, we still had a Cabinet system and we agreed that all five groups needed to have Cabinet responsibilities. There was risk in this because it meant appointing people to key posts who had only just been elected to local government. Happily, they turned out to be outstanding portfolio holders. Throughout I have felt proud of their achievements and oblivious to what party they belonged to. As leader of the largest coalition group, I became Council Leader though I said that before we reached the next elections I would stand down, a commitment which I kept in 2022.
Our agreed Corporate aims were to make Swale a more open Council, firstly by introducing area committees and then replacing Cabinet with a committee system. We were all agreed that the Tory Local Plan was unacceptable. Labour put great emphasis on the Council tackling homelessness and playing a greater role in public health, and in this we were supported by the Liberal Democrats. The Greens ensured that we tackled the climate change emergency, something we have done with energy and resources. They also pressed early for a living wage for Council staff.
In my view the Rainbow Coalition has worked. As Leader, I felt the need for both diplomacy and firmness at critical times. We have achieved at a time of financial difficulty and a pandemic.
The elections this time will be different. The Tories will not regain control. I think there is a lot less cross party tactical discussion.
There will be many other parts of Kent looking to form anti Tory alliances and they may, or may not, want to consider our experience in Swale.
Roger Truelove was the leader of Swale Borough Council from 2019-2022. You can follow him on Twitter here.