An Excess of Hot Air

David Amess, it seems, isn’t the only one with a desire to speak.

Your blogger wasn’t at Thursday night’s full council meeting, but thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I don’t have to be. Yes, Southend Borough Council now broadcasts its meetings online, so that ordinary voting residents can be bored to tears too.

I jest, mostly. The meeting was interesting to someone who has a pre-existing interest, and probably should be interesting to anyone who has a stake — i.e. all of the residents of the borough. Whether or not that was the case, I couldn’t say.

It did however last nearly five and a half hours. Five and a half hours of talking. Starting at half six, and finishing at midnight. Apparently the public gallery was fairly full at the start. I don’t imagine it was by the end.

The discussion of the electoral changes was at the end of the agenda, which some might argue isn’t the best place to put something directly impacting the voters. Out of the way. Though the administration, having already been forced into a u-turn on closing children’s centres, might have been glad of that.

In the event, Cllr Holdcroft repeated his arguments that it would make things simpler for the voters, and Cllr Cox repeated his still-flawed comparisons with the US senate as he called for a reduction in the number of councillors. That would be one way of keeping the length of meetings down, I suppose.

Elsewhere counter-arguments included that frequent elections are the only things which might keep politicians honest — something which might chime with voters — and that the estimated £50k savings were a miniscule drop in the barrel. We also heard a slightly rambling story from Cllr Norman about the Suez crisis turning Prittlewell Labour, and the — less compelling — claim that all-up elections could decide four years of governance on a whim.

The motion failed (naturally). Cllr Holdcroft characterised opposition as “this was their cosy club and what a disaster if the electorate chose to sweep us all out and replace us” (naturally). Cllr Cox accused the opposition councillors of being “mere lickspittle to their party leaders” (naturally).

But the issue that stood out to me was the sheer bloody length. I can’t help but feel this is the result of the full council meeting only every two months or so. Perhaps if they met more frequently (every month, say?) then they might be done at a sensible hour.

Amess wants to speak…

david amess

Interesting to see that Southend West’s very own political brawler David Amess is running for the vacant deputy speaker position at the House of Commons.

For those who aren’t quite as familiar with Parliamentary kremlinology, the deputy speaker — or Deputy Chairman of the Ways and Means — is basically John Bercow’s assistant. He annoys fellow MPs when Mr Bercow is otherwise engaged.

There’s probably some joke I could make about politicians all being accomplished “speakers”, and the accompanying hot air Parliament, but I won’t insult your intelligence…

It doesn’t seem like dear David is in the front running for the job, which would inflate his salary over the £100k mark, but according to that infamous political abrasive Guido Fawkes, he made a good stab at convincing Labour MPs last night:

“Colleagues, I know my limitations. I don’t like pomposity, bullying or cruelty. And for those of you who don’t like me, think of the prize: never to hear me droning on again or making a partisan speech!”

Which is an interesting argument, to say the least. As tempting as it might be never again to have to hear Amess wax lyrical from the green benches, my thoughts are drawn to the residents of Southend West. If Amess wins the unlikely fight, then by parliamentary convention his constituency will be voiceless in Parliament until 2015 at the earliest.

Why does he want the job:

The fact is, I really fancy this job, I wouldn’t mind the salary and I’d love the prestige that goes with it.”

Nice to know where his priorities are, I guess.

All-up vs Thirds

The Southend blogosphere (and what a detestable term that is…) is all a twitter about the upcoming debate and vote at the next council meeting whether the borough should switch to electing its councillors all at once or in thirds. As I noted at the end of last week, council leader Nigel Holdcroft has already declared himself for the changes — as well as possibly against democracy.

Now a few more voices have spoken up.

Firstly, the stalwart Cllr Cox has followed his leader’s, erm, lead. Tony wants all-up elections, and makes a pretty sound argument for it on the basis of cost, saying:

“By electing all councillors once every four years it is estimated that it could save £50,000 every year. Whilst I complete accept the concept that you can not put a price on democracy, we elect MP’s and MEP’s once every five years and I do not get a sense from the residents that I speak to that this is undemocratic.”

His estimate of the savings is a little conservative (pun not intended) next to Nigel’s. He also then goes on to (like Nigel) call for a reduction in the number of councillors, making a somewhat spurious comparison with the US Senate (ignoring, seemingly, the US House of Representatives).

James Courtenay, on the other hand, comes out swinging a bit more heavily. His post on the subject reads like a direct attack on opposition councillors. Probably because it is. He does trip over his own feet a little:

“If MPs can be elected for a five-year period, the Mayor of London and the President of the United States for a four-year period, I’m not quite sure why Southend-on-Sea Borough Councillors can’t be elected for a four-year period as well.”

A good point, James, but rather forgetting that councillors are already elected for four-year terms, and this change wouldn’t alter that.

But the unifying theme of all three blogs is that the changes are doomed, and opposition councillors will definitely vote them down. Which seems like news to the only one who I can see has broached the matter; Julian Ware-Lane:

“I can reveal that Labour is still debating its view and so his headline is untrue. It may come to pass that we also reject the change, but this has yet to be agreed”

Now, far be it from this blogger to cast aspersions, but this seems to be a deliberately political manoeuvre. The administration is already trying to portray the multi-party opposition on the wrong side of a vote which hasn’t even happened yet. Expect to see this feature in election campaigns come May.

I haven’t made up my mind on whether or not I support all-up elections, but as things stand I’m sceptical that it would be the per se improvement  which Conservative councillors claim. The next council meeting is on 17th October, so there’s still plenty of time for back and forth debate. Who knows, maybe someone will present a convincing argument which will convert me wholesale to one side or the other.

Inconvenient Democracy

nigel holdcroft

The leader speaks!

Yes, the esteemed leader of Southend Borough Council Nigel Holdcroft has added a flurry of posts to his blog (which I praised last week), and amongst them is a particularly interesting one entitled “Local government – democracy under threat?” I’m not really much of a fan when it comes to alarmist titles, so I’m immediately slightly incredulous.

Nigel’s basic argument is that the proposal “all up” elections in the borough — where all 51 councillors are elected every four years, rather than councillors being elected a third at a time to serve overlapping four year terms — is likely to be rejected at the next council meeting, and that is a bad thing.

Nigel’s arguments in favour start with a saving of £80,000 for each year where there isn’t an election — not having to hire tellers, counters, venues, print ballot papers, etc. But he then goes on to make some, erm, more controversial points, including:

“…it will also prevent the disruption that these never ending elections cause.”

I’m always nervous when politicians treat elections as a bother. I’m sure they are from Nigel’s perspective, but it’s a short rhetorical hop from there to “the disruption that these never ending residents cause.” And then we really are screwed.

Elections are expensive, tiresome and often dull. But they are also the backbone of a democracy. Electing councillors in thirds or all at once is immaterial, but the attitude of a council leader towards elections as an inconvenience, publicly expressed on his blog, is a cause for concern.

Interestingly, he also says at the end of the blog:

“I also continue to believe that issues such as a reduction in the number of councillors and combining authorities…is essential in not only making local government more costs effective but also perhaps more relevant to local residents.”

Which sounds like he’s saying that he wants to make local government less local to make it more relevant for local people — electing fewer people, less frequently.”

I’m not convinced this would be a particularly positive move. Maybe Nigel’s blog title wasn’t quite so hyperbolic — but the biggest threat I can see to democracy is from Nigel’s own suggestions.

By-election in West Leigh?

2522833190_b3562ebbe9_z

Today’s Echo (which your blogger studiously reads each morning, resisting the temptation to correct spelling and grammar errors in schoolmasterly red pen) is rife with speculation about West Leigh ward’s Cllr Gwen Horrigan. Apparently Cllr Horrigan has been ill for some time, and is approaching the six month point at which she will be forced to stand down if she is not sufficiently well to attend meetings.

At first glance it appears a little harsh, towards someone which has served twenty one years on the council. But as letter-writer Harry Baker points out, Cllr Horrigan receives an allowance (the basic allowance at time of press being £8,402 per annum) in order to allow her to do her job. If she is not able to perform that job, as presently seems the case, then that allowance would seem undeserved.

Which, as I say, feels a little harsh. But them’s the rules.

If Cllr Horrigan is not well enough to attend a meeting by November then her seat would fall vacanct, which usually triggers a by-election. Conventional wisdom would suggest, in that case it would be safely held by the Conservatives. The results from 2012 (the last vote in the ward) and 2011 (Cllr Horrigan last re-election) are as follow:

2012 chart

Party Votes
Con 1307
LD 803
Ind 278
Lab 240

untitled

Party Votes
Con 1769
LD 1157
Lab 400
UKIP 214

So majorities in the five to six hundred range in both. Of course, by-elections change the rules slightly, and turnout can distort elections at any time. If enough Conservative voters choose to make a protest vote for UKIP, then the resultant split could give Southend its first purple councillor (or give the Lib Dems or Labour a way in). Unlikely, but as I say not out of the realms of possibility.

Intriguingly, given that the Conservative administration has a majority of only one, I would question whether they presently have a working majority at all. Cllr Horrigan’s absence means that the ruling Conservative group and the combined opposition councillors both number 25, it’s theoretically possible that the chamber could be deadlocked. Of course, since “independent” Dr Vel can usually be counted upon to vote however the Tories vote, it’s purely academic. But it shows how close things are in Southend at the moment.

But what strikes me is whether there should be a by-election at all. Granted, the residents of West Leigh deserve representation. But all of Southend’s wards return three councillors to the civic centre. But by-elections are costly (anything up to £10,000 of local authority funds, from what I’ve read), and there will be borough-wide elections in May of next year. This includes West Leigh, where council leader Nigel Holdcroft is expected to stand down. That is almost seven months away, but were the potential by-election to be held there it could be done for no extra cost to the borough.

And given that local services are already being axed for lack of funds, perhaps saving a little money might be worth the delay.

Southend political blog-o-graphy

southend ariel

How to start off a new local politics blog? It’s something I’ve been grappling with over the weekend. I’ve gotten a statement of intent (alternatively: a hi, here I am) post down, as well as a first foray into local issues, but where does a blogger go from there.

Perhaps a good route is to learn from my contemporaries, so as you may (or may not) have noticed, the little list of links in the sidebar has been steadily growing. And there, perhaps, lies my next step. An overview of the other political blogs operating in Southend, a who’s who, what’s what, and what are they up to.

Sounds like a plan.

Southend has 51 councillors. Of those, I count thirteen who keep some sort of blog. That’s eleven councillor blogs (there’s some joint blogging going on, as will become apparent shortly). Let’s start from the top.

  • Councillor Anne Chalk: An independent representing Shoeburyness ward, Anne’s blog seems to be updated in fits and starts. The last new post was over three months ago, but the end of May saw a flood of four posts within the space of five days (perhaps she suddenly remembered the blog existed?). The content seems to oscilate between local and national issues, but with an ongoing focus on attacking the Conservatives.
  • Brian Ayling: Another independent, Cllr Ayling represents St Luke’s, and his blog makes Cllr Chalk’s seem like a shining gold-star example. Two solitary posts adorn this sad, neglected website. The first is a manifesto of sorts (paralytically vague), and the second a find-your-polling-station tool which doesn’t really work. Both updates in March and April 2012. Can you tell when Cllr Ayling was elected?
  • Victoria VoiceA joint blog, representing the three Labour councillors of Victoria Ward — Ian Gilbert, David Norman and Margaret Borton. Most of the work seems to be done by Ian, and it’s mostly focused on local issues — with a few concessions to national politics, usually harking back to Southend. Not the most regularly updated of blogs, but frequent enough that it doesn’t give the impression of lack of interest.
  • James CourtenayDespite being a cabinet member, James’ blog is focused almost exclusively on local issues, mainly to do with Blenheim ward. It’s updated regularly (start of September being the last one), but is a little dry unless you’re smack bang in the middle of Blenheim (and even then…). But it keeps residents informed, so is doing the work of a councillor’s blog.
  • Julian’s Musings: One of the shimmering gems of Southend’s blogosphere, regardless of which side of the fence you sit. Julian’s blog was regular, active and relevant even before he became Labour councillor for Milton ward in May, and hasn’t left off since. Updated several times a week, with a mixture of local issues and general politics (as well as, shock horror, some non-political posts), it’s definitely one to aspire to.
  • burdettsblogIf Cllr War-Lane’s blog offers one end of the spectrum, Kursaal Tory Louise Burdett must be the other. Last updated over a year ago, the historical posts flit from first to thrid person, without apparent overarching theme. It’s rather dry and technical too, when she deigns to update it. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any fresh activity when polling day 2014 approaches.
  • markflewitt: St Laurence Tory Mark Flewitt’s blog is an oddity. Regularly updated, featuring a mixture of local politics and non-political, it manages to feel…superficial. Perhaps its his tendency to write in the third person, which makes local issue posts look like news articles with his comments pasted in.
  • Councillor Martin TerryThe leader of the independents (surely a contradiction in terms?) is another case of a blogging wilderness. His last update was in November, advocating a (yep) independent candidate in the Police Commissioner elections. For someone who claims not to be interested or involved in party politics, his sparse previous posts have spent a lot of time scrapping with the local Conservatives.
  • Councillor Nigel Holdcroft: Yes, the leader of the council himself blogs! And, miracles abound, it seems like he does a fairly good job of it. It’s pretty much exclusively focused on local issues, and has an engaging tone. It could be added too more regularly, but considering the responsibilites Cllr Holdcroft must have its a sterling effott.
  • Paul CollinsThe only (to my knowledge) Lib Dem councillor blog is another strong contender. Updated regularly, and focused on local issues and activities. I couldn’t even find a picture of him pointing at anything! The only slight drawback is that the Lib Demv mycouncillor platform does make it look like…well, all the other Lib Dem blogs in the world.
  • Shoebury BloggerFinally, we come to Cllr Cox, who is almost a legend of his own in Southend politics. His blog is the only one which, to my mind, rivals Cllr Ware-Lane’s. Regularly updated, with much about what’s going on in his ward, it’s also brutally tribal. Not that you’d expect anything different from a member of the Tory ruling administration, but Tony does come across as a bit of a bruiser. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I suppose depends on the colour of your rosette, but it’s certainly a good local politician’s blog.