Let me start with defining a term that is relevant – According to Wikipedia: “Purdah is the pre-election period in the United Kingdom, specifically the time between an announced election and the final election results. The time period prevents central and local government from making announcements about any new or controversial government initiatives (such as modernisation initiatives or administrative and legislative changes) which could be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election” but more about Purdah later.
As those who follow my blogs know, I have began to take an interest in Council Webcasts, possibly to the point of obsession (check here for my thoughts on the last time this happened), but just like with another of my passions, hustings, this is a good way to know what is going on in Council and to bring councilors to account for their actions outside the Council. Last night was a good example. The meeting began quietly and, while there was some niggle early on, it was nothing compared to what happened later, which I will get to.
Last night was one of those nights when I decided to sit down to watch the second best show in town (after election count), apologizing to my family for neglecting them and some of the duties I need to return to after blogging. Five hours of it! Nearly but not quite uninterrupted, finishing way past my bedtime! At least most of my interruptions came in the early part of the show. As with the best events it got better toward the end, although more accurately what we saw was a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly!
As a relative newbie to Council meetings, I am still getting my head round what goes on, especially as some of the things said relate to things happening outside of the main meeting, concerning which I may only be vaguely aware. But in fairness, there are a lot going for them in terms of tradition and are usually well run, albeit with interruptions from the floor, which viewers have just an inkling off. A lot of good stuff is raised and said amidst a degree of unnecessary c**p making meetings drag out longer than they strictly need to.
As I say, the meeting started off slow and livened up as the evening progressed. The evening started with questions from the public with the normal suspects asking them, with the standard responses we have come to expect – but even so worth raising the issues and good for democracy. Later there were petitions, including one I have plugged regarding the need for a dual diagnosis worker. I am tempted to give the champagne moment to Cllr Salter’s impassioned presentation. Then there was a lot of tooing and froing among councilors regarding things that have gone on in council e.g. committees, with a degree of superfluous pomposity with the likes of Cllr Aylen and Cllr Courtenay taking up more time than imo they strictly ought. Even so, quite revealing and a good hors d’oeuvre to what was to follow. During that time, I was inclined to award my going for the jugular moment to Cllr Flewitt who went on about the omission of Aids/HIV from some high powered health report. I found Cllr Moyies response disappointing (as he was regarding that on dual diagnosis) even though a lack of money is a show stopper.
The first biggie, from what I could make out, was the discussion on a proposition brought by the leader, Cllr Woodley, about holding elections every four years and reducing the number of ward councilors from three to two and thereby saving money, albeit a relatively small amount given the savings that need to be made in the light of forthcoming reductions in money into Council coffers. It was a good debate, with good points made by either side. I liked Cllr McMahon’s point about needing three councilors because of the amount of work to be done in a ward. I resonated with Cllr Walker’s point that being a councilor was more than a full time job and given that councilors receive a very modest in the big scheme of things allowance, they represented good value for money. I even thought Cllr Waterworth made some good points and was disappointed he blotted his copy book in the debate that followed. In the end the motion (along with two amendments) was defeated, on non party grounds, by an overwhelming majority, imo a good outcome.
The second biggie was a motion of no confidence on the Leader of the Council, given letters with his name went out to residents supporting change in energy supplier, which would provide some income for the Council and be a good deal for residents – arguably a win win situation. Except it was done in the Purdah period, which is strictly against the rules since it could be construed the current administration would be gaining an unfair advantage in the election battle now taking place. My take was it was a cock up and the Leader should have taken full responsibility and apologized rather than let the Town Clerk take the flak (which he did with aplomb and dignity). That should be end of it but it wasn’t – depending on one’s take it is where the entertainment really took off or, from another perspective, what transpired showed off the Council at its worst.
Lots of councilors spoke and a number did themselves little credit. There was also quite a bit of heckling in the chamber, although the camera (probably rightly) did not focus on this. From where I stand, while what happened should not have happened and there should have been more owning up to and contrition for rules being broken (i.e. by the man at the top (the Leader), not so much his underling (the Chief Exec)), what I saw was an unsavoury witch hunt by the Conservatives to do the man down. While Cllr Woodley handled the situation less well than is deputy, Cllr Gilbert, my take is that attack would have happened regardless. It was also hypocritical as there are worse examples of corruption within the national Conservative camp. The best comment on what happened was from Cllr Norman to the effect what we were observing was political point scoring masquerading as righteous indignation. I also like Cllr Dr. Vel’s moderation and do hope he gets to become the next mayor (we shall see). Perhaps one of the few helpful Conservative comments came from Cllr Davidson urging us to look at the bigger picture and the way things are done in future (for there are lessons to learn). What really annoyed me was each person on the Conservative side voted for the motion, giving a lie to the claim of candidates that they will put people before party, leaving me bemused when they claim they do not whip their members to vote the “right” way, regrettably doing little to reassure me they aren’t the nasty party. In the end the vote was a tie and the mayor, in time honoured fashion (despite being a Conservative), casting his vote to defeat the motion. I reckon there were three absentees on the rainbow side (Van Looy, Davies, Ware Lane) highlighting how precarious is their majority in the Council and adding extra significance to the May 5th elections. (No doubt all three had good excuses for absences, but that is not my point – ed.)
But politics can be surreal. Following this item there was the pleasant duty that fell on leaders from all the parties (including the Leader) to pay tribute, and rightly so, to three councilors: Longley, Crystall and Robertson (who ironically had a few minutes earlier supported the no confidence motion), who had all served a long time in council but who would shortly be standing down as councilors. This good was in stark contrast to the bad and ugly that preceeded. At that point the cameras were turned off and sleep beckoned.