April 12 2012


Party tricks

Soon after I was elected to the council in 2004 I received a rather aggressive letter from Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse demanding that I apologise to the electorate for misleading them by claiming that I had refused to join the Independent Political (sic) Group (see Biter bitten).
I have no idea how Cllr Allen-Mirehouse got it into his head that I might be susceptible to this sort of bullying and, in any case, had he done a bit of research he would have known that I was implacably opposed to the IPG and had said so in my election address.
Perhaps he thought I was the sort of person who tells the electorate one thing and then promptly does another.
As one of the top guns in the IPG he would certainly be well acquainted with such people (see Party animals).
But what is interesting is his claim that I had not been invited to join the group.
Seeing that the group doesn't appear to exist for the purpose of elections - no mention of it anywhere in election materials - who exactly does the inviting?
Immediately after the election it doesn't exist and only comes into being when prospective members get together at a secret meeting and sign the form (see Party animals).
So there would seem to be nothing to prevent any member who got wind of the time and place from turning up at this inaugural meeting.
After all it is held on public property in county hall and as the IPG doesn't exist prior to this meeting it can't have booked the room.
The fact is that I have an intense dislike for the IPG and everything it stands for.
As a rule, political parties are bound together by a shared ideology, be it nationalism, socialism, conservatism or the Liberal democrats.
Voters may agree or disagree with any or all of these policies and vote accordingly.
Members of the IPG have no shared ideology - at least none they are prepared to tell us about in a manifesto - so they must be held together by something else.
That something else, I would suggest, is the desire to acquire and retain power for its own sake.
There is a way of describing such parties, though you'll have to work that out for yourselves.
The notorious American bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks.
"Because that's where the money is" he replied.
And why do members join the IPG?
Because that's where the power is.
Not that the money should be entirely discounted because there is over £200,000 in Special Responsibility Allowances (SRAs) at the disposal of the ruling group, not to mention another £50,000 for membership of bodies such as the National Park, Police Authority and Fire Service.

Speaking out

Last week Grumpette and I travelled to Cardiff to sit in on the High Court hearing into Cllr Malcolm Calver's appeal against the decision by the Adjudication Panel for Wales (APW) that he had brought the office of councillor into disrepute by posting snide comments about his fellow members of Manorbier Community Council on his website manorbier.com.
Judgment was reserved so we will not know the outcome for several weeks.
Much of the case revolved around the extent that the added protection afforded to political speech by Article 10 of the Human Rights Act applied to the case.
The APW found that Cllr Calver was not acting politically when he wrote the blog and, therefore, he was not protected.
Counsel for Cllr Calver argued that this was to put too narrow a construction on 'political'.
'Political', he claimed, should not be construed as 'party political' or restricted to the activities of elected representatives.
He claimed that an ordinary member of the public who writes a letter to the paper, criticising the local council's two-weekly bin collection regime, is acting politically because they are seeking to influence the council's policy.
I think that is right.
But there is no need to go that far.
It seems to me that anyone who seeks election to a body that spends public money automatically becomes a politician whether they like the description or not.
Public money is finite, so when you vote to spend it on, say, education, rather than filling pot holes in the roads, you are in fact saying that education should have priority over road maintenance.
That is a political view, regardless of whether or not you are a member of a political party or group.
But there is another important issue at play here and that is the second leg of the case against Cllr Calver - the requirement of the Code of Conduct that you should show respect and consideration for others.
I have always taken 'others' to mean those with whom you come into contact in the course of your duties as a councillor - principally constituents and council officers.
I have no problem with that, whatsoever, but when the right to respect and consideration is extended to political opponents I begin to wonder where we are headed.
Clearly, you should respect your opponents right to put their case without interruption during debates in the council chamber but I would take some persuading that Parliament intended the requirement to go much further than that.
I would support this view with the following quotations from parliamentarians of the past:
"Lower than vermin". Aneurin Bevan on the Tory Party.
"A modest little man with plenty to be modest about". Churchill on Atlee.
"Like being savaged by a dead sheep" Denis Healey on being attacked by Geoffrey Howe.
"From Stalin to Mr Bean in the course of a week", Vince Cable on Gordon Brown.
Indeed, the ability to undermine, discredit and mock your political opponents is the lifeblood of democracy.
Cameron and Milliband are at it all the time.
I have heard it argued that remarks about your opponents' intelligence and truthfulness should be off-limits, but, as these qualities are relevant to the decision as to how we might vote, I can't see why.
And another question that was not discussed during the case, is the asymmetry created by rules that only apply to current holders of elected office who have signed up to to be bound by the Code.
Take the recent spat between Boris and Ken over their tax returns.
As elected Mayor, Boris is subject to the Code, Ken isn't.
So is it suggested that Ken should be free to say things about Boris that Boris isn't free to say about Ken?
I find it hard to believe that that was Parliament's intention.

Cross dressers

A few weeks ago, I received information from the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) on the political make-up of the 22 local authorities in Wales.
This made interesting reading because it seemed to show a strong inverse ratio between the number of Conservatives on a particular council and the number of members belonging to Independent Political (sic) Groups.
The figures are tabulated below.
What can be seen is that in councils where the Conservatives are well represented (Cardiff, Monmouth, Newport and Vale of Glamorgan) IPGs are negligible and, conversely, where there are large IPGs (Blaenau Gwent, Carmarthen, Pembrokeshire and Powys) the Tories are rather thin on the ground..
We are always told that correlation doesn't necessarily prove causation, but it does make me wonder, especially as, in the one authority about which I have detailed knowledge, the 37 strong IPG contains four card-carrying Tories and a large number of Conservative fellow-travellers.
If my hypothesis is right, it means that in many seats the voters will have a choice between the official Conservatives and closet Tories.
Not much fun if you support Labour, Plaid or the Lib Dems!
Oh, and I notice that two former members of the IPG (Rosemary Haynes and Henry Jones) who lost their seats at the 2008 elections have now resurfaced as Conservatives.
Are they recent converts or were they previously hiding their light under the proverbial bushel?

   Conservatives  Independent Pol Group
 Blaenau Gwent  Nil  25
 Bridgend  6  12
 Cardiff  17  3
 Carmarthen  Nil  27
 Ceredigion  Nil  12
 Conwy  18  14
 Denbigh  18  8
 Flint  9  19
 Monmouth  27  Nil
 Newport  18  2
 Pembrokeshire  5  39
 Powys  9  44
 Vale of Glamorgan  25  4
 Wrexham  5  14
 Ynys Mon  5  14

Measure for measure

One of Pembrokeshire County Council's Independent Political Group's principal selling points (perhaps the only one) is that it sets the lowest council tax in Wales.
And on the face of it this is a remarkable achievement.
This year, for instance, the increase in the band D rate is a mere 1.7% - half the rate of inflation.
This is some going considering the government's austerity programme and the £3 million hit the council took when it lost the High Court case brought by the care home owners.
Just how impressive this is can be gauged from the fact that to raise £3 million would require an increase in the amount raised from council tax (currently £37.9 million) of almost 8%.
One theory is that the council tax has been set artificially low this year (election year) with a big increase to follow.
Only time will tell!
However, what I can say, and have said on many occasions in the past, is that you shouldn't believe everything you are told about council tax.
Like all taxes the income from council tax depends on two things - the rate levied and the size of the thing being taxed.
In the case of council tax, the standard rate is the band D charge.
The size of the thing being taxed is the tax base, which is the number of band D equivalents in the authority's area.
Dwellings are rated from A (2/3 band D) to H (2X band D).
To arrive at the band D rate for the authority the total amount of revenue to be raised is divided by the tax base.
So an authority with,say, 90 band A properties would have a tax base of 60 and an authority with 90 band H properties would have a tax base of 180.
Clearly the tax base depends on the value of properties in the local authority area and an area with a lot of back to back terraces will have a much lower tax base than one with a preponderance of large executive properties.
To return to our example above: to raise £3,000 the authority with the 90 band A properties would have to set a rate of £50 (3,000/60) while to raise the same amount the band D rate for the area with the 90 band H properties would be £16.66 (3,000/180).
So the area with the expensive properties could boast that its band D rate was only one third of that of its poorer neighbour, though the amount collected per household would be exactly the same in both authorities (£33.33 = £3,000/90).
You can get some idea of how this works in Pembrokeshire by studying the following table which compares the council tax regime in 1998/99 with the current year.

   1998/99  2012/13  % increase
 Total tax  £17.9 m  £37.9 m  108%
 Tax base  41,572  52,653  27%
 band D rate  £430  £720  67%

As you can see, the amount of tax collected has more than doubled while the population has remained roughly the same.
And that while inflation, as measured by RPI, has risen by 45%.

Published and promoted by Mike Stoddart Candidate for Milford Haven Hakin. Pembrokeshire County Council elections May 3 2012

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