‘Coalitions of chaos’ is a phrase often used by Westminster MPs when they warn of allegedly nightmare scenarios if their own party does not win an outright majority at an election.
But cross-party coalitions and other types of power-sharing alliances are increasingly found in local politics in Lancashire.
One example is at Lancaster City Council, which has has had a Green Party-led cabinet for just over a year.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service spoke to Coun Caroline Jackson about her first year in office.
Listening to people you disagree with and building relationships with opponents or sceptics is essential for progress, she says.
These approaches may appear rare in the adversarial debates and confrontations we see from Westminster MPs, but Caroline Jackson and other councillors at Lancaster have been trying to nurture a different political culture where co-operation between different parties is the aim.
Caroline Jackson became leader of Lancaster City Council after the 2021 local elections left the council under no overall control by one single party.
Previously, the council had been Labour-led with the Greens forming part of an alliance administration for two years. But no Green held the leader’s role previously.
The Greens have been building a presence in Lancaster over years, and now have 11 councillors with four on the cabinet including the leader’s role.
Last year’s changes also included some Labour councillors becoming Eco-Socialists including the council’s deputy leader Kevin Frea.
Being Green-led makes Lancaster City Council distinctive among UK local authorities. Lancaster is the first Green-led council in the north. Elsewhere, Brighton & Hove Council is Green controlled while Stroud has a significant Green presence.
FROM LONDON TO LANCASTER
Caroline Jackson grew up in working class south east London and her family lived in a council house. Her dad was originally from Yorkshire and later lived in Durham. She was one of eight children. In London, the rock band Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band rehearsed nearby to young Caroline’s home.
She recalled: “A lot of women in that part of London worked in a jam factory or laundries. I was one of the few who went to grammar school. I was probably lucky. It was the year they took away the 11-plus exam and they had to assess us.
“We were so lucky to have a council house. Council houses are so important for families needing support. And I was also lucky to get a good education. At the time, the attitude at my school was quite revolutionary. Many girls back then left school, got a job in a bank for a year or two and then got married. However, the girls at my school were all expected to get a profession. I later trained to become a teacher.”
She taught English at secondary schools for 35 years, of with 25 were in Lancashire. She worked at Ripley St Thomas, where she was deputy head for 10 years, Skerton High, where she was deputy assistant and deputy head during special measures, and at Hornby High, which was later closed by the county council.
English and special needs education were her specialisms. She said: “I love the company of young people and I loved teaching English.”
Her own children are now grown up. She joked that they ran away when she used to discuss green issues with them as youngsters. But they are now more sympathetic as adults.
Her first husband was Peter Jackson, a well-known Lib-Dem activist in the Lancaster district. Her second husband, Brian, was originally from Glasgow. His working life included being a power station welder and a trade union convenor at Sellafield. He died four years ago and they married just before his death.
Today, when not working on council issues, Caroline enjoys reading fiction, a bit of live music or visiting Lancaster’s cafes. One of her favourites is The Herbarian.
JOURNEY INTO POLITICS
Caroline Jackson’s move into politics was gradual and partly stemmed from the closure of a school where she worked.
She said: “Apart from voting in elections, I didn’t really ‘do’ any politics. In Lancaster, the Greens have been active for years and they tended to be knocking on people’s front doors. So I got to know about them that way first.
“Then the closure of Hornby School caused quite a bit of political interest. The initial closure decision was taken under a Labour administration but it actually closed under a Conservative administration.
“A lot of politicians wanted to make something about it. Even the young Michael Gove, (the recently sacked Levelling-Up Minister) came to see us. The Conservatives invited me to to get involved but the Greens also invited me for a chat. I was interested in what could be achieved and my particular love for the environment was reflected in the Greens. It was simply that.
“The Greens asked if I’d like to stand as a councillor? I didn’t know anything about that. I read more information about the Green Party and felt I could live with them. I was accepted as a candidate.
“The Green Party may have some policies that may never be implemented. However, in general their beliefs about how people should be treated chimed with mine. I worked in schools for years and with young people facing difficulties. So I’m concerned about their futures and want to help.”
She bought a plot of land in Lancaster. which is now used for a range of activities including growing food. There were some links with the Transition City Lancaster movement which advocates local, everyday changes for more sustainable communities.
She said: “We didn’t want allotments and all the allotment politics that go with it. We just wanted somewhere for people to grow food together. We grow crops like potatoes and garlic, have poly-tunnels and fruit trees, and save seeds to adapt seeds and plants for local conditions. ”
But politics is needed as well as practical work, she said. “Politics gives you a focus and a place to exercise pressures towards making a greener world. Practical, non-political activity has a role but it’s not going to change the world. Having had that experience, I was much more open to politics and joining the Green Party.”
DIRECT ACTION ON FRACKING
In addition to council politics, Caroline Jackson has been involved in direct action beyond the party political sphere.
She said: “I got involved in anti-fracking movement in Lancashire and was arrested near Kirkham. In that case, we were not going to get anywhere with politics. Direct action was the thing for that. Politics has its issues and limitations, and there’s a place for direct action. We were close to the ‘Nanas’ anti-fracking activist group but I was not part of them.
“The aim was to slow things, cause disruption and draw attention to fracking. There was also a perception from critics that the protesters were older ‘layabouts’ or retired women. So we wanted to challenge that too.
“I was taken to court and fined £400. It was expensive but it was about making a point. These were not just a few ‘extremists’. Fracking became an issue that was unelectable in politics. Then came the Lancashire earthquakes. A moratorium was placed on fracking but it was never banned.”
She added: “Fracking companies have recently come back, saying it’s the answer for energy problems. It is not. It uses huge amounts of water in the process, which becomes polluted waste water which cannot be put back into the water cycle. Fracking briefly brought down energy bills in the United States but the environmental impact is appalling.”
Fellow Green councillor Gina Dowding, who is also a Lancaster cabinet member, a county councillor and a former Green MEP for the north west, has been active on fracking too. She has also been arrested, and has received huge numbers of letters and emails about fracking at Lancashire County Council, Coun Jackson added. She emphasised that Gina Dowding and Tim Dant have leading roles in the Green Party group at Lancaster.
THE DISTRICT’S MULTI-PARTY LANDSCAPE
The city council’s Lancaster and Morecambe area has a multi-party landscape including Greens, Labour, Eco-Socialists, Conservatives, Lib-Dems, Morecambe Bay Independents, the Bay Independent Group and other Independents.
Under the current no overall control arrangement, some parties have councillors in the cabinet while others. including the Conservatives, do not. However, they have some other influential roles on other committees.
Coun Jackson said: “No overall control – is there a theory or magic formula for that situation? I don’t think so except for being able to talk to people. For example, the leader of the Conservative group often calls me. I listen and we talk. In another example, I meet with Anne Whitehead. She is a Labour councillor on the cabinet who I have huge respect for. I’ve known Anne for 10 years as a councillor and I want her to be on the cabinet. In a joint administration, you have got to share the tasks and the credit. We have some big Morecambe political groups here too. They have representatives on the cabinet. That’s all part of the mix.”
CHANGING RELATIONSHIPS AND ATTITUDES
Relationships between councillors have had to be worked upon over the past year or so, Coun Jackson said.
“Relationships were not necessarily very good within the Labour group following the split. The Eco-Socialists left and we negotiated their way back into the cabinet. Kevin Frea has great knowledge and we need him.
“Relationships in the previous two years had changed. By the second year of the previous administration some people wanted change. It was also felt that my more ‘collegiate’ approach might be useful.
“The were multiple political groups and the atmosphere was not pleasant at times in the council chamber. That atmosphere was replicated at County Hall (Lancashire County Council). It was not helpful. I think that adversarial culture had invaded county politics a lot. However, we rejected that. We did not want that culture in our politics.
“In a shared administration, different parties have to work together but we don’t lose our political identity. As Greens, getting into an administration was an achievement in itself. If you’re a Labour councillor, you may have viewed it as a failure? But I think that attitude is changing over time.”
But changing our election system would help to create a new type of political culture too, she believes. She supports the Make Votes Matter campaign, which advocates proportional representation.
She added: “Proportional representation would revive the political environment and participation. It would also create space for far right politics and some people don’t want that scenario. However, I believe we have to be prepared to speak to people with views we disagree with and say that is not how we see the world.
“I think the Labour Party [nationally] has sometimes not known how to listen to people and has just seen them as ‘right wing’. But people have real issues about opportunities, jobs and housing etc. If Labour had listened in the past then perhaps some voters would not have gone to the political right?
“Listening does not mean you have to agree. But you have to take what people say into consideration. If people feel excluded, that they’re not having a good time, feel they’re not getting what they deserve then I can understand their anger.
“Our education system is also a problem. In schools, working class white boys do worst. If we keep ignoring that and our system suggest it’s their fault, what do we expect their views will be? They will feel that nobody cares about them. So they’ll get what they want another way
“It is a scandal that many young men don’t feel they have a future. Education and government policy has played a big role in this. And it’s got worse. Green education would be very different and much broader. It would include much more practical education, which would suit a lot of people.”
SKILLS, NETWORKS AND VALUES
Coun Jackson praised city council officers for playing a key role in developments over recent times, with enthusiasm and ability. This includes the new chief executive, Mark Davies, who is involved with national networks and speaking at events linked to climate change, innovative building techniques and other topics.
She emphasised: “Councils are full of people with all sorts of skills and networks. Councillors have wide networks which I tell officers to use.”
And common ground can be found between different political groups in many ways, including in supporting the area’s economy and decisions on how contracts are awarded, she said.
“We have been quite rigorous about who we work with, such as companies and contractors. In contracts, social value has to be demonstrated by contractors, for example in buying materials from Lancashire suppliers, This was previously agreed by Labour in the earlier alliance administration. We are very strong on the local economy so I think the Conservatives have found it hard to pigeonhole us on issues about the local economy.”
Caroline Jackson continues to be a strong advocate of young people. She respects the Lancaster Youth for Environment (LYFE) group who campaign on environmental issues and school pupil strikes in recent years to highlight climate change.
She said: “The younger generations are doing some good things. They are very articulate. They supported Greta Thurnberg’s campaign and came out of school. The schools were not happy when that happened.
“I fear that some youngsters think my generation has the power but isn’t using it – or is using power just to continue with business as usual. So some youngsters have turned off from the issues. Our system has arguably let down all generations but young people especially. They have also been through the lockdowns and are facing a world that seems to be quite hostile to them.
“Most of what we do [councillors and politicians] is business as usual. But change is happening too. Lancaster & Morecambe College has state-of-the-art facilities about how to change technology so things are not dependent on carbon. That’s about the future.”
LOCAL CHALLENGES AND CHANGE
She said last year’s controversial city council vote to support a deal with the Westminster government and county council for south Lancaster Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) deal was a difficult point for the Greens and Eco-Socialists, who opposed it. The HIF road and house-building targets would eat up 70 per cent of the council’s ‘carbon budget’ target to become net zero with emissions by 2030.
But other clean energy and energy efficiency work has progressed. Examples include renewable energy at Salt Ayre Leisure Centre, planned housing improvements, better buildings and the promotion of greener construction, engineering and other skills and techniques through local colleges, Lancaster University and the business community.
LINKING UP WITH OTHER CITIES
Coun Jackson said: “The council’s previous chief executive, Keiran Keane, and the new one, Mark Davies, have developed links with other councils such as Exeter, where similar projects are under way. An organisation called Exeter Futures includes Exeter University and the government’s trade department. Exeter has built 100 ‘passivhaus’ council houses. They think these can be built at a similar cost to traditional houses.”
Passivhaus is an international building standard for low-energy house design.
Lancaster City Council is also a member of Key Cities, a network of 25 councils which aims to promote innovation in urban living. Others in the north include Preston, Blackpool, Salford, Carlisle, Kirklees, Bradford, Hull and Sunderland.
Interestingly, these are smaller cities and towns rather than the so-called largest ‘core cities’ which have been the focus of government attention, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.
In other national connections, Eco-Socialist councillor Kevin Frea, the deputy leader of Lancaster City Council, is a founder of UK100. This is a network of council leaders who aim to deliver genuine change locally towards climate issues, working with the public and businesses.
Coun Jackson said: “Kevin is widely respected. When the first few councils passed their climate emergency declarations, he created a network to support that.”
A UK 100 Net Zero Summit is due in West Yorkshire this autumn co-hosted by the new West Yorkshire regional Mayor Tracy Brabin.
Also later this year, Lancaster City Council will hear if the government is going to financially support the planned Eden North eco-attraction at Morecambe.
Caroline Jackson’s second year as leader looks set to be another fascinating 12 months.