Returning Chorley opposition leader says his party has a job to do – even though it will be years before they could take control of the council

It is a brave politician who makes predictions about their own future - especially in an age when political fortunes seem more predisposed than ever to change like the wind.

Friday, 10th June 2022, 11:48 am

That might explain why Alan Cullens decided to hedge his bets when asked by a fellow Chorley councillor whether he would ever return to the borough authority after he decided to step down as a member and leader of the Conservative opposition group back in 2019.

“I said: ‘Never say never’,” he recalls.

It proved a prescient response, because just two years later, he was back in the town hall chamber - and, as of last month, is also now heading up the Tories once again.

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Cllr Alan Cullens has returned as leader of the Conservative opposition group on Chorley Council - and says that his party is ready to play its part in improving life in the borough

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Something else that he would probably not have wanted to predict upon his temporary retirement from the political frontline was the position he would inherit if he ever did make a comeback as Conservative group leader.

The answer to that was delivered at May’s local elections when the Tories lost three out of the four seats they were defending and Labour secured 13 out of the 14 that were up for grabs in total.

Cllr Cullens freely admits that his party was given “a bloody nose” and muses that it could have been even worse if the system by which Chorley Council elects its membership in thirds – with polls held in three out of every four years - had not ensured that most of the seats being contested this year were already in the hands of the ruling Labour group.

Chorley Council's Labour leader Alistair Bradley celebrated a near-clean sweep for his group at the local elections in May - but his Tory opponent says that the open relationship between the pair can help the authority make better policy

Yet that same system also works against the Tories by making it mathematically impossible for them to take overall control of the council for what their returning leader says would be “a number of electoral cycles”.

It might not be unreasonable to assume that motivation would be difficult to muster faced with that reality, but Cllr Cullens insists that the opposite is true, because of his party’s belief in the importance of opposition - not just as a path to power, but as a vital function in itself.

“I would say that as a group, we have come back even stronger, because we are refocusing and looking differently at how we campaign. We have a very strong group and we know what we have to do.

“There weren’t big swings to Labour in many areas [at the elections], it was more our vote that wasn't coming out - so that’s a base for us to build on

Labour currently has a healthy majority of 22 over the opposition Conservative group at Chorley Council

“With [there being only] ten of us, everybody also has a role to play in holding the executive to account.

“We have to be an effective opposition, because I think there are too many councils which don't have that and that’s the good thing about [Labour council leader Alistair Bradley] - he knows that an effective opposition will hold them to account.”

For Cllr Cullens, the best scrutiny is about shaping policy rather than landing superficial political blows. For that reason, he was glad - and grateful - that four out of the five amendments the Tories suggested to the couincil's budget earlier this year were accepted by the ruling Labour group.

And with just the two parties currently represented on the council, Cllr Cullens says that both sides of the political divide are “working to the same end” of making Chorley the biggest success that it can be.

“We chair the scrutiny and the governance committees, which gives us a knowledge of what’s going on. We can access certain information and there is an openness in the council and that comes from the leader - he is quite happy to ring me to have a discussion.

“But it also keeps people on their toes all the time - if you've got the information, you can suggest other ways of doing [things].”

If all this sounds like politics being done differently, then that does not mean it is politics without difference. Cllr Cullens alights upon longstanding Tory concerns about a claimed imbalance between investment in the town centre and elsewhere in the borough - “a myth”, according to Cllr Bradley during the election campaign - and also levels of debt.

“They have created a lot of borrowing - but a lot of that was offset by the very nature that they were using existing balances. With inflation running at 10 percent, those balances will go [and] interest rates are also rising,” says Cllr Cullens, whose return as Tory group leader was enabled by his recent retirement from work and a decision by his successor in 2019, Cllr Martin Boardman, to step down from the role.

As well as delivering a better outcome for residents, he hopes that Chorley’s brand of slightly less combative politics might attract more people to put themselves forward as candidates - and also give politics and politicians a better reputation amongst the public.

“I know from conversations with some of my Labour colleagues that we can all always find people [to stand for election] - but they have got to be the right people and of the right calibre.

“There are fewer people volunteering to do these things and, unfortunately, politics gets a dirty name.

“At the elections, apathy won - that was shown in the turnout [33 percent]. But one of the nicest things I heard during the campaign was a candidate being asked on the doorstep about what was going on in Downing Street - and they said [in response], 'I can't talk about Downing Street, but I can talk about your street'.

“That’s what local politics should be about.”

Cllr Cullens is unsure whether the volatile national backdrop played any part in his group’s losses in Chorley last month - but he does have a theory about Labour’s increasing dominance of Chorley Council since the party’s decade of unbroken control began a decade ago, after a previous recent history of hung councils or Labour and, less commonly, Tory, administrations.

“l’d put it down, very simply, to what I’d call ‘the Lindsay Hoyle effect’,” he explains.

The veteran politician has been the town’s MP for 25 years and was a Labour stalwart until having to take a neutral position upon being elected Commons Speaker in 2019.

Speaking after Labour's strong showing at the polls last month, Cllr Bradley said that their success was "an endorsement of our principles and policies".

"Local councillors working hard in their own areas has paid off," he added.

Cllr Cullens acknowledged: “Labour do campaign extremely well, they do get the people out - and we’ve got to replicate that. We are building from further back than them, but our aim should be to catch up and overtake,” Cllr Cullens adds.

If Chorley's opposition group does strike a different tone to the more confrontational one often associated with politics, even at a local level, then one thing remains undimmed – a desire to win, no matter how long, in their case, it may take.

'POLITICS IS IN MY BLOOD'

Cllr Cullens' first dalliance with politics did not point towards a future in the Conservative Party. It came at the age of just four - when he handed a bouquet of flowers to Liverpool Labour politician Bessie Braddock.

"My grandmother was very much involved in the Labour Party at the time and even on the day I got my results for my 11 plus, I was actually taking numbers on the door in a local election.

"It's always been there - I've always had some involvement in politics," says Cllr Cullens, who first got involved in Chorley’s political scene after moving to the borough in the mid-80s.

He has spent 13 of the last 18 years sitting on Chorley Council and was also elected to Lancashire County Council for a four-year term in 2021.