It does seem at times that the topics that most engages councillors are those that directly affect the way they do their job. Item 25 on last night’s Full Council agenda was entitled: Possible Changes to the Constitution.
At this point I should issue a spoiler alert; the result was no change – we will maintain the status quo.
It is not often that I find common cause with Nigel Holdcroft, former Conservative leader of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, but I did find last night’s proceedings odd. The irony here is that the debate boiled down to whether there are some councillors who are more equal than others, and in the debate itself this was a self-evident truth when Group Leaders’ utterances are considered to be more important than the rest of us.
We had a number of contributions, me included, before we concluded with a somewhat farcical (and twice taken) vote. Cllr Moyies evidently has troubled understanding the meaning of ‘or’.
In the vote we saw both UKIP (those that were present) and the Liberal Democrats (including their Cabinet member) voting en bloc to investigate the possibility of moving back to the committee system.
In the end it was a tight vote: 21 in favour of retaining the Cabinet, 19 for the committee system. Two abstained (Cllrs Flewitt and Woodley), and I wonder why. They were elected to make decisions, not sit on fences. The Mayor voted, which was also unsatisfying – I think chairs should only cast in the event of a tie.
The vote was carried by seven of the nine Labour councillors siding with the bulk of the Conservatives and a couple of Independents. I think us and the Tories wanted to maintain the status quo for differing reasons: they liked the model, we did not want valuable money diverted when so many cuts are to be made.
The keen-eyed will note that there were 42 councillors present for the vote, meaning nine were absent. Labour and the Liberal Democrats had a full complement; UKIP had two missing (commented on by Matt Dent here), the Independent Group had three absent, and the Conservatives were down by four. Whilst there will always be the occasional absence, last night’s was the most sparsely attended that I can recollect in my two and a half years as a councillor. It is not just at Full Council where absences occur, many of the committees are seeing gaps. I do not keep a track of who attends what, although I am tempted to begin doing so. It is noticeable that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are ever-present, yet the other groups, especially UKIP and the Tories, are less than assiduous in being present when requested.
Here is (roughly) my contribution to the debate:
When this council voted to broadcast its meetings on the internet I expressed my opposition to this – not on the principle (I am in favour of opening up our democracy) but because in a time of cuts this was a frivolous expense. I felt then that this was essentially a vanity exercise when many vital services were being squeezed.
I am ambivalent about the prospect for a return to the committee system. I have not experienced this system first hand, but my experience of the Cabinet system has not been unfavourable. I am more vexed by decisions made in this place than I am with the mechanics of how those decisions are reached.
We are facing yet more cuts this year, indisputable even if we can haggle over the precise figure. To consider making a change, invisible to all but a tiny minority of the electorate, at times of austerity is to navel gaze. This exercise comes with a cost, and one or more services that we provide will suffer because of it.
It is not a doorstep issue in my ward – residents have far bigger issues to animate them. As to the issue of councillors not doing their jobs that is for the electorate to judge; I only hope that Cllr Terry was not thinking of me when he made this judgement. I do find it ironic that there is a pressure group locally who complain about a lack of democracy – yet are self-appointed unelected spokespeople themselves.
I encourage all to think on this when casting their votes.