John's Jottings for January 2003

John Ward

Please note: these Jottings are purely personal comment, and do not necessarily or directly represent the policy of either the Conservative Party or the Conservative Group on Medway Council.

Council Chamber conduct: what's really going on?

A long one this month, but well worth reading, I'm sure you'll agree. It has been re-edited to take out some unfortunate earlier editing that rather skewed the intent in a couple of places. I really mustn't do this kind of writing/editing during the Christmas festivities in future...

Visitors to the public gallery at any of Medway Council's meetings in recent months might well wonder what all the hostility is about. The local press has also reported on behaviour at recent meetings, though this has included public misbehaviour as well.

The standard of conduct by some members of the Council has not always shown the elected representatives of the people of Medway in a good light, and reflects badly on all of us in the chamber as we tend to get tarred with the same brush.

So what has brought about this apparent change?

Well, to be fair, there is always an element of political point-scoring going on, and the general knockabout that goes on at all full Council meetings (and a number of other meetings as well) is harmless enough. It just goes with the job, and is a way to safely defuse most situations. It also helps to keep one's mind sharp—useful when most members have come to the meeting after a day at work and perhaps a journey from London.

In this respect local Councillors differ from Members of Parliament who are paid a full salary so do not need separate paid employment. Even so, the behaviour in Parliament follows much the same pattern as it does in this Council and other local authorities.

What has heightened the intensity of this non-constructive activity (as one might call it) are the impending local elections. Again, this affects not only Medway but many other Authorities, so the changes experienced here are probably typical of what is happening in various other Council Chambers up and down the country.

However, here in Medway there is a very understandable reason why the Labour group have become so vehement: it is out of sheer desperation. What has happened is that they have belatedly realised that the new ward boundaries threaten to lose them several seats (i.e. more than the proportional drop that would be caused by the overall reduction in seats from 80 to 55).

Labour has been doing better than their overall support in the Medway area suggests, for example by winning mainly in low-turnout areas such as Holcombe, Luton and Temple Farm, all of which had a turnout of under 20% at the last local election in Medway. Indeed most of the lowest turnout wards are Labour-held.

Loading of the population in the previous decade and more by providing huge quantities of social housing (thus bringing into the area what the then Labour-run Councils believed would be mainly their supporters) still gave Labour only 34% of the vote in May 2000. In recent years this trend of social housing provision has slowed to something more appropriate for this area.

Yes, the Labour group on Medway Council fully realise that they face significant reduction of power in the next Council to be formed on 2nd May 2003. They have even split into two factions: those who accept the inevitable and those who are determined to use every method they can find to fight on, no matter how dirty that fight needs (in their eyes) to become.

Winning is all that matters with the members of that faction, which is why (when you look closely at what they are really doing) despite the way they dress up their claims and statements, they have very little to do with benefiting Medway or its people and have everything to do with gaining or keeping votes. They are helped by the fact of the Council's staff being heavily-Unionised (mainly UNISON).

Now we can see what is really going on, and the sharper members of the public who have been in the gallery will undoubtedly have noticed a few giveaway clues—indeed, I have had several of them contact me to confirm their suspicions. I was able to tell them they were right... Some of the things to watch for are:

And where are the LibDems in all of this? Well, to be scrupulously fair, although they have joined in with some of Labour's shenanigans (including most of their group walking out on one occasion and a no-confidence vote), they are overall the best-behaved in respect of heckling.

Okay, sometimes one cannot help but react to an obvious falsehood from across the chamber, and sometimes the comments that arise can be amusing which can help to break the tension, but I limit myself to facial expressions and perhaps a (very) quiet laugh. I do find most heckling unhelpful and occasionally embarrassing.

Next time: Taxation