Playing politics (December 2022)

Governments, councils and indeed all organisations will always find themselves criticised by people who think things ought to be done differently. How they take their decisions and how react to any resulting criticism tells you a lot about them.

A broken system

It seems from COP27, and numerous other recent examples at every level from local to international, that there’s a crisis in how important decisions are made. I don’t know if things were always like this, or are like this now because the decisions we need to make relate to particularly difficult issues. It may be that, thanks to the web and social media, everyone (including me) now has an opinion which they immediately express, so creating a wall of discordant background noise.

Whatever the reason, it appears that the current methods of decision-making, particularly with regard to combatting climate change, are broken. It’s true that or elected representatives have mandates based on their manifestos but these are so general and so capable of avoidance that they aren’t worth a great deal. Worse still, the adversarial political system benefits those who can create divisions. Most of the really big problems the country faces are apolitical, in the sense that there is no clear solution based on conventional partisan orthodoxy. Climate change and the cost-of-living and energy-cost crisis are currently the two obvious ones. Solve those, you might argue, and a lot of other issues go away as well. What use is political dogma in these? None at all, I suggest.

Right or wrong?

One of the profoundly depressing aspects of public life is the belief that an election victory confers on the winners a monopoly of the truth. A ruling party will rarely if ever admit the other side can possibly have a good idea or wise suggestion. Behind the scenes, where councillors or MPs from different parties have to get along and make compromises to get anything done, things may be different. In public, however, all parties in general portray themselves as being in all cases right and the others in all cases wrong. Any criticism which emanates from someone with a different coloured rosette can be dismissed as just “playing politics”. From here it’s but a small step to taking issue with opponents personally. After all, if their policies and views are axiomatically wrong, what’s the point of respecting the person who expressed them?

National governments introduce wide-ranging measures which are genuinely political, in that they adhere to philosophies that support (or oppose) such concepts as capitalism or socialism. Locally, however, all councillors are to a large extent playing politics in just the way they so decry their opponents for doing. The reality is that West Berkshire Council, and most others of its kind, is first and foremost acting on behalf of central government as a social-care provider (this accounts for about half its expenditure). Much else is spent on equally statutory and apolitical matters like collecting rubbish, fixing pot holes and running libraries.

Discretionary or political?

In addition, all councils get involved with projects that are discretionary and thus controversial. That’s not the same as saying that they’re political. Looking at some of the most divisive and non-productive issues in West Berkshire over the last four years – Sandleford, the London Road Industrial Estate, the football grounds, the 2,500-home plan for Thatcham, Readibus and CIL payments – it’s easy to imagine these as having been implemented by any of the parties.

Local democracy apes the forms and manners of Westminster, including the rosettes. It’s an easy and convenient paradigm to follow, perhaps in much the same way that someone who has been brought up in a dysfunctional family tends to gravitate towards creating one of their own. Local councils are political breeding grounds: like at a football academy, a few members might rise to the top and end up cutting at national level. The average age of a local councillor (59) suggests, though, that for most of this ship has sailed and many of them genuinely want to, as the phrase goes, “put something back.” To do that, you might think, it’s necessary to play the political game and join a party.

Playing the game

Actually, it isn’t. Of the 300 local councils outside London, only 51 have no independent members. It’s true that many councils have only a handful; also that some independents are offshoots from a main party or standing on a single-issue ticket. One can set against that the fact that 37 of England’s 181 district councils, and 10 of its 58 unitary ones, are either controlled outright by independents or are run by coalitions of which independent members are a part. About 11% of councillors are independents – if this were replicated at Westminster there would be over 70 of them. The argument that one must be blue, red, orange or green to get a seat at England’s municipal table is thus a tad weak.

Here in West Berkshire and also in Swindon and the Vale of White Horse, however, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. These councils have no independent members. West Berkshire has, since its creation in 1997, only ever had one. None stood at all in the 2019 election and I’m not aware of any planning to next May. This district is thus, superficially at least, highly politicised. Conservatives have been in power here since 2005 and it’s thus hard to separate the discretionary activities of the council from the political complexion of the ruling party. The cut and thrust of elections, and the winner-takes-all municipal structure under the cabinet system of government which West Berkshire follows, deepens these divisions and the adversarial climate.

Political game-playing can also be a convenient comfort blanket. It’s a lot easier to keep the faith with a paticular policy if you believe the opposition parties are only attacking it out of political opportunism rather than because it might be flawed. Where everyone is waving a flag, the temptation to play this rather lazy card is almost impossible to resist, particularly if you also convince yourself that, as members of the opposition, their opinions are worthless anyway.

Nor is this attack-dog mentality restricted to members of opposing parties. The fury directed at those of another persuasion is often as nothing when compared to how members of the party are treated when they break ranks, fail to toe the official line or demonstrate independence of thought, perhaps in support of a resident. We can, perhaps, accept heathens and people of other religions, perhaps even need them in order to validate our own beliefs. Apostates, however, are another matter.

Collective importance

Being part of a political grouping at local level confers on its members a sense of importance that doesn’t always accord with what they’re meant to be doing. These are, first, to act as advocates for and representatives of the residents who elected them; second, to make sure that the important statutory work of the council is done properly. Neither requires a political construct. The best ward members perform both functions without worrying about how many cups might get broken at the local party HQ.

A more insidious aspect of this is that questionable decisions can, in a politicised council, become themselves politicised even if they inherently are not. This not only puts the weight of the local party machine behind promoting the idea but also demonises and denigrates those who presume to oppose it.

Vexatious or inconvenient?

There are also a number of people from outside the council who regularly offer opposing views. Most have a particular interest in matters including planning, environmental issues, finance, water drainage and sports provision. It’s impossible to generalise about their motives but it’s worth starting from the premise that they have better things to do with their time, that they really care and that they may know what they’re talking about; perhaps, on occasions, more so than do the people who are refuting the claims.

Anyone with an interest in and a knowledge of something is not going to write just the one letter and put up with a rebuff. They will write more. The tone of both these and the replies can become fractious. These may spill into newsprint, websites or social media where, because of being written for a wider audience, the sentiments become more robustly expressed. It doesn’t take long for them to be branded as vexatious. This, like the accusation of political interest, is perfect way of short-circuiting the issue. Once you can denigrate the character, motives or allegiance of a critic, it becomes a lot easier to ignore what they are actually saying.

Clearly there are cases where complaints are genuinely vexatious. I accept that it’s not easy to spot the difference. Even so, the organisation being criticised might use each as an opportunity to reflect on whether it could have done anything better, perhaps merely by better communication. I doubt that any other council does a good enough job at listening to, working with and harnessing the knowledge of critics from outside its bubble. On one level, this is logical: “we fought the election and won it,” a party might say, “so now we’re going to do things our way.” However, many of the issues that have caused such dissent are not the result of a manifesto pledge and so have no particular legitimacy.

Self-interest

There are also a couple of self-interested aspects. As The Godfather taught us, it’s often wise to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Furthermore, involving someone in a decision, in however  minor a way, gives them a vested interest in its success and thus makes them less likely to criticise it.

There’s also always the possibility – outlandish as it may seem to those in power – that the critics may in some matters actually be right.

Shared views

What I would like to see in the coming elections, in West Berkshire and elsewhere, is less about where the parties differ, but what they agree on.

If I were in charge of things [Oh God, here we go again – Ed.] I’d put the leaders of the parties that had any chance of winning any seats on 4 May in a room and tell them this. “You can have as much coffee, tea, water and sandwiches as you want – but you’re not coming out until you can come up with at least three things, supported by at least a hundred words of detail, on which you can all agree. Stuff like “we want the district to be be nice and everyone to like each other” ain’t going to cut it – it’s got to be something you can accomplish. Get in there – I’m locking the door…”

Let’s suppose that they all agree that, amongst other resolutions, a housing company is required to build social-rent homes in the district is needed. That’s good to say now as the officers will realise that, no matter who wins outright or what coalition they’re confronted with, this is going to be something they’ll be asked to sort out. So, why not start now? There will need to be at least two others, remember…

If any of these outcomes are what you most want to see happen, it suddenly matters a lot less which party you vote for as any combination will have the same policy on this or these matters. You can then consider, based on whatever evidence is available, which candidate is likely to be your most effective advocate. Let’s not forget, they’re elected for this reason, not to pump some party line.

Another benefit of this is that if the leaders were locked in a room for however many hours it takes, they might get the idea that they’re all after many of the same things and that, on this local level, party differences are fairly meaningless.

The hardest word

Then there’s the S-word. Either because they genuinely believe they are never wrong, or because they fear it least using it will open the twin floodgates of electoral disaster and legal liability, or because they worry it might make them seem weak, I can’t remember a politician of any political complexion say “I’m sorry.” This doesn’t, of course include utterances like “I’m sorry if some people do not agree with this decision,” which conveys no sense of apology but, all too often, merely a regret that most of us fail to see that it was the right, the best and perhaps the only thing to do.

“There can be no doubt that criticism is good for people and institutions that are part of public life…and should be an effective engine for change.” Which vexatious, politically motivated troublemaker came up with that comment, then? It was Queen Elizabeth II, in 1992.

All this is not directed against any one party. We happen to be blue in West Berkshire but I don’t see anything significantly different in the Vale of White Horse (an area I know less well, admittedly), which is orange. It’s really to do with human nature; and with the way local politics operates as a kind of poor-relation, breeding-ground and miniature-village version of the Westminster model.

May the fourth be with you

All this will be brought into ever-sharper focus as we move towards the elections in West Berkshire, the Vale of White Horse (and many other districts) on 4 May 2023. It would be good to imagine that, at this particularly challenging time, there was more focus on what values and aspirations the candidates share rather than what divides them. Whatever the results, it would be equally good to imagine that, whatever the results, the new councils operate the machinery that they have briefly inherited in a better way. It would also be great if both during and after the election there could be less name-calling, vituperative statements and and knee-jerk Twitter rants. 4 May presents us with the opportunity to dispose of these councillors who seem particularly prone to this kind of behaviour and to support those who seem genuinely to say that they will not give in to it (assuming anything that’s said during a politicised election can be taken at face value).

I’m not holding my breath, though. The example set by the big girls and boys in Westminster, which appears to hold these failings as virtues, is too powerful to be ignored. Most local councillors are, in imitation of this, playing politics: a rather pointless game in which the rest of us are, if only to criticise it, compelled to take part.

 

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Brian Quinn

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