Since Trafford’s electoral wards were redrawn in 2004, Altrincham ward’s three seats were persistently held by three Conservatives.
It seemed the ward, and Trafford Council as a whole, would always be a safe bastion for the Conservative party.
However, this all changed in May 2018 when the local elections saw the council slip to no party having overall control. Amongst the Conservative losses were two of Altrincham ward’s seats to the Green Party.
This year Green Party Cllr Michael Welton won the final Altrincham seat.
When I arrived at Forsyth Music Shop to interview Cllr Welton about this power shift, he asked me, “Have you ever been here before?”
When I answered with “only to the ground floor” he responded, “Well then you have to see the whole thing!”
His enthusiasm is immediately apparent and it’s this that he attributes not only to his win, but to the Green Party’s success in Trafford in the last two years.
“The Green Party local election strategy is about knocking on doors,” said Cllr Welton. “It’s about organising litter picks or community events where you have direct communication with voters. It’s an old-school strategy that’s not about spending lots on social media which you can’t target at ward level.”
Cllr Welton seems particularly suited to this outward-facing style of politics. Alongside his MA in Middle Eastern Politics, time working in the Foreign Office and political journalism, he spent 20 years in the EMI Records signed acapella group The Magnets. He sees himself as an alternative.
He described an environment on the doorstep where voters wanted exactly that: alternative representatives from smaller parties who could beat out candidates from both the Conservatives and Labour. According to him, Altrincham voters were particularly focused on environmental issues.
“A lot of small c conservatives are among the most concerned for the natural world. There’s little difference between the word ‘conservative’ and ‘conservation’. We have a lot of very interested voters who want to know what we’re doing in the council in terms of climate emergency motions and single-use plastics.”
Unlike other Labour-controlled Greater Manchester councils, their majority in Trafford is slim. Cllr Welton sees this as an opportunity for smaller parties to put pressure on Council Leader Andrew Western and the cabinet.
“We were in the fortunate position after last year that, because it was a hung council, if it looked like we could get cross-party support for our motions or amendments, such as the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) having a proper carbon budget, we had a major impact on the green agenda.”
The GMSF has been a major sticking point in Trafford since 2016 and is considered to be one of the primary reasons the Conservatives lost council control. Voter perception was that the Conservatives didn’t do enough to stop the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, and thus ostensibly Labour, from making plans to build housing on Trafford’s Green Belt.
Andrew Western has long been critical of the plans to build on Trafford’s green belt and has been successful in stopping building plans in Trafford’s Flixton. However his council is supporting the latest plans which still involve green belt building, albeit less of it.
Cllr Welton sees the Green’s role as one of ensuring plans are environmentally sound. He joined the Climate Emergency Task and Finish Group, a scrutiny committee focused on ensuring the council follows through on their declaring a climate emergency, in November 2018.
The committee is focused on implementing green initiatives to bring emissions in Trafford as close to zero as possible as well as ensuring the large scale plans of the GMSF do not impinge on Trafford’s environment. He is critical of the council’s commitment to this.
“There is a budget behind [the committee] for a non-political expert but the council is yet to appoint somebody. That’s a real concern as it’s the executive’s job to find that person and we’re lagging; the committee can’t function as it should. Getting that person in will be a demonstration of the executive’s commitment to green motions.”
But Cllr Welton believes pressure will pay-off in terms of what decisions are made going forward for Trafford. Describing Labour as “committed” to green initiatives, he believes the embarrassment of opposing Green motions will push them to act alongside attributing this to their gaining control of Trafford.
Much of his focus is on ensuring the council invests in the 1,800-mile cycleway for Manchester: the Bee Network. With projected costs of £134 million, Cllr Welton wants to see the council budgeting to invest council money in the initiative.
“We want Trafford Council to lead rather than coming up behind. In terms of piloting the Bee Network, we’re lagging behind Salford and other Greater Manchester boroughs.
“Last year 2% of the Highway capital budget went into cycling infrastructure. What would it look like if it was 10% or 20%? If we can persuade the council to take more radical action on this, we’ll be doing our job.”
On a national level, Cllr Welton sees a need for vote reform to ensure governments are placed under the same pressure.
Describing both main parties as a “broad church” and “virtually ungovernable”, Cllr Welton believes that the local elections reflect that people want to see a diversity of representation; he says the two main parties only stay together because of the first past the post system.
“If we had a proportional system, [The Green Party] would have 27 or more MPs in the Houses of Parliament. Part of the problem with politics in this country is there are vast swathes of opinion that aren’t represented,” said Cllr Welton.
“Probably Brexit wouldn’t have happened if UKIP had been properly represented in parliament. They would have had their arguments tested in the House of Commons and defeated.”
Cllr Welton sees unity on a local level that isn’t present in our divisive national politics.
Within Trafford Council he described an environment in which councillors – be they Labour, Conservative, Greens or Liberal Democrats – are focused on “getting the job done for local people”. It remains to be seen if the new council make-up will manage to do just that.