Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Locked Away in a Cabinet

Those with narrow or slanted views of politics are just as susceptible to reaching incorrect conclusions as anyone else making the same kind of error.

Take this look at Medway Council's democracy, which is probably well-intentioned but reaches the wrong conclusion and indeed falls into the trap that was set  almost fifteen years ago for those who have issues with the way the majority of councils are run nowadays. This is to blame the make-up of the elected Council for any perceived lack of local democracy, thereby missing the actual cause and maintaining the status quo.

The real culprit for any lack of local democracy is the Cabinet-and-scrutiny political system that was introduced and indeed enforced onto the majority of Councils by the then Labour government back in 2001. I know: I was there...

I have said it before, and have known it all along: although it was easy enough to 'sell' to a compliant Labour government (a Conservative one would probably have seen through the ruse and not implemented it), the real – and only – purpose of the Cabinet system was to give Whitehall 'mandarins' more-or-less complete control over the local agenda.

The first thing the change did was to take voting rights on most policy matters away from all Council members who were not in the Cabinet – even the mayor lost those rights. In Medway Council, with (in those days) eighty members and a ten-strong Cabinet – the maximum number allowed, by the way – this meant that seven-eighths of councillors lost those voting rights overnight, on 1 October 2001. I was one of those seventy.

Even items of business that had to be ratified by the Full Council had by then already been discussed, debated and effectively decided by the Cabinet – and it is very difficult to come along after the event and try to oppose them. Indeed, the 'call-in to Council' facility for any Cabinet decision was very rarely applied by the opposition. We kept a record, which I have on file here...

Now, in the only model of the (limited) options offered, this meant the Council Leader chose his own Cabinet. This made sense, because in those days the ruling group had only 38 members, and the opposition – who had nearly always ganged-up to oppose them – had 42. Therefore, had they been given the opportunity to choose the rest of the Cabinet, they'd have stuffed it with their own members and nothing would ever have been approved – everything the Leader proposed would have been opposed. The council would simply have stopped and nothing new would have gone ahead.

If there were any doubt of that having happened given the chance, I witnessed that motivation in operation in every situation where the opposition members could gain their own political advantage from doing so. For example, they voted all the Scrutiny and other committee chairmanships (and the vice-chairmen) for their members, with none at all from the ruling group.

As if that wasn't bad enough in terms of local democracy (although I had no serious issues with it personally, adapting to suit), those opposition chairmen abused their positions in several ways – too long to go into here, though I have covered them in the past, including on my old Councillor website – manipulating as much as they could to suit their own party's ends.

It is to be noted that, when the Scrutiny Committee chairing changed hands to the ruling group, ALL those bad practices ended. The Labour spokesmen boycotted their invitations to pre-meeting briefings and the like, in a sulk, whereas others (Lib Dems and Independents) were at least more concerned with doing their elected jobs than everything having to be geared to their party's own interests.

This of course all helps to show that it is not the specific party that is the problem: it makes little if any difference – with the possible exception of Labour, but that is just in their nature. It is the way the system is designed that allows and (I often think) encourages such practices.

The result is the intended (by the mandarins) centrally-dictated Cabinet agendas, which if you look have only token localism and are essentially the same nationwide. Even the format and content of what goes into all those Plans and Strategies is dictated by Whitehall, while contract letting hardly requires the full Cabinet to decide.

What is the point in paying Portfolio Holders five-figure salaries if they can't even make such decisions themselves, and have to hide behind 'we work as a team' style excuses? There is nothing in a typical Cabinet agenda that is truly from and for the people of the area, only time-wasting dross!

Eric Pickles has offered councils the opportunity to scrap the Cabinet-and-Scrutiny structure, allowing councils to keep any of the benefits (such as summoning and questioning rights of various officials from the likes of the emergency services and health bodies) in the process.

Before this was passed in Parliament, I – and I alone – asked the question at a meeting of the full Medway Council whether they would be taking up this offer. The response I received was not only non-committal, it was sufficiently hostile in tone to tell me that they were not interested in pursuing this – and indeed they haven't done so.

Those in charge are far too comfortable to change now: another trap that was planned from the outset, but that only a few of us realised right from the start. They won't change unless this optional reversal becomes a legal requirement – but, unlike Labour, Conservatives aren't naturally inclined toward imposition unless it is genuinely necessary, so that is unlikely ever to happen.

Thus we end up with an ongoing fairly rigid structure that inevitably (seemingly unavoidably) produces the effects the linked piece points out in its simplistic analysis, with potential agitators wasting their efforts pointing at the wrong culprits. Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey dines with Sir Arnold to report that everything is still going according to plan, and their own positions remain unassailable.

Note that the moral of this story is that only those of us with the insight and maturity to at least tackle the underlying problems that now exist within local democracy have managed to get something concrete on the public record that could prove valuable in what might lie ahead. The Sir Humphrey types continue to dismiss the others as gullible sheep...

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