Saturday, 13 July 2013

The LibDems on Durham County Council – Opportunism not Opposition

A wise politician knows his opponents and so, in that spirit, I follow a number of people with whom I disagree.  One of them is Nigel Martin, erstwhile LibDem leader on the County Council.

 in his blog, Cllr Martin shared his ‘gripes for the day’.  This is my reply.

Gripe No.1
Cllr Martin’s first gripe is about Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting at Seaham.  In order to make itself more accessible, the Cabinet routinely holds its meetings in different locations around the county.  Cllr Martin has no beef with this in principle; his complaint is that the only ‘local’ matters on Wednesday’s agenda involve two Durham issues – St Oswald’s School and the approval of a lottery bid for Wharton Park.
‘Why not hold it in Durham?’ he asks.

Now I have only been a County Councillor two minutes, but even I can appreciate that the dates and locations for Cabinet meetings have to be set well in advance, and certainly long before the specific agenda of any particular meeting has been decided.  A glance at the online list of Cabinet meetings confirms this.  So – given that neither can we set agendae months in advance, yet nor can we change the location of meetings at the last moment – it doesn’t take a genius to realise that location and agenda are not always going to dovetail neatly.

So – it’s a petty quibble by Cllr Martin … but I could have forgiven even that had it not been for the fact that, emblazoned down the right-hand side of his blog, twice, was the information that Cllr Martin is a Friend of Wharton Park!  So, for a member of the opposition, this Cabinet meeting should have been a red-letter day – the time when the Labour Cabinet approved the lottery bid for the cause of which he was a proud advocate.   To moan about that meeting is bad form, is it not, and smacks of political opportunism. 

Gripe No.2
It is this accusation of opportunism, however, that I need to pursue more vigorously as I come to Cllr Martin’s second point – his motion to have all meetings of the County Council and Cabinet broadcast.

Cllr Martin’s proposition, of course, is the second LibDem motion I have encountered in my short time as a County Councillor.
At the last Council meeting, Cllr Wilkes laid down a motion to charge supermarkets an 8.5% local rate, to use to boost jobs, shops and services (as they do in Northern Ireland).  Although we rejected it (the current English local rate is more beneficial for small traders, and in County Durham we cannot afford to discourage supermarkets, which are major ratepayers) I can remember thinking that it was a jolly good suggestion, and good on Cllr Wilkes.

As those of you who follow me on facebook know, however, last Thursday I went to a NALC conference in Sheffield.

One of the workshops I attended was on the Sustainable Communities Act, run by a group called ‘Local Works’.  Imagine my surprise then when, towards the end of the session, the chap from Local Works exhorted us to join the Local Works campaign to charge supermarkets an 8.5% local rate, to use to boost jobs, shops and services (as they do in Northern Ireland)!
I felt cheated, to be honest.   It was not Cllr Wilkes’s idea at all, but a crowd-pleaser he had stolen to run with, presumably to win favour electorally.

Another of the workshops I attended, you may know, was on engaging with the local community, a session which descended into a debate about … yes you’ve guessed, Eric Pickles’s controversial idea to allow all meetings of the County Council and Cabinet to be broadcast.
i.e. ANOTHER current bandwagon the Lib Dem have thought to jump on!

Actually, Cllr Martin ought to have gone to that workshop – if he had, he might have deemed it wiser to delay his motion.

For filming council meetings is – as anybody but a bandwagon-jumper would have realised – fraught with legal and practical difficulties.
Some of the issues which came out of the workshop were:

  1. what about councillors who don’t want to be filmed – do they have to be forced to allow themselves to be filmed?
  2. what about officers – do we have to insert clauses into their contracts stating that they must allow themselves to be publicly broadcast?
  3. what about visitors – will we have to get them to sign disclaimers/permissions to be broadcast publicly?   And what will happen if any of those visitors are children?
  4. what about fair use of those broadcasts – are we going to assert conditions requiring that they might not be edited to misrepresent … and how are we going to enforce such, should somebody for example stitch together a collage of clips of Cllr Martin to make him look ridiculous? 
Personally, I agree with filming council meetings, but I have the sense to realise that – even if and when we decide to do it – it will require more than an opportunistic motion trying to grab the limelight.
It will need a very careful re-writing of the Council’s constitution in this regard, and clear rules about what, when and how.  It will cost.  And it will be a legal minefield, and it needs broaching and introducing wisely.

Which is not something we are likely to get from Cllr Martin’s motion. 

The difference between Opportunism and Opposition
As I have written before, the TRUE job of an opposition is to track the ruling group, to monitor them, find their mistakes, and hold them to account.

To be fair, the LibDems on the County Council may be brilliant at that. I have only been a County Councillor three months. 

Nevertheless, I have not seen any evidence of that so far. All I have seen thus far of the LibDems is two stolen ideas, floated as shallow, ill-considered motions to Council, opportunistically seeking a bit of publicity and public approval.

I'll be watching them, and I'll tell you if they start to do any better.

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