April 15 2008

No politics please

The Western Telegraph's election coverage so far has consisted of a Tory press release informing us of the party's intention to "Turn Pembrokeshire blue" on May 1 and a short article by news editor Lee Day in which we are told that 13 of the sixty seats will be uncontested.
I doubt things will improve because the Telegraph takes a rather detached view of local politics; largely restricting itself to regurgitating county council press releases (propaganda).
However last week's edition did carry an editorial on the role of our elected councillor in which it repeated the tired old cliche that there is no room for party politics in local government.
Perhaps the newspaper should be asking why, that being the case, the so-called Independents, who go around at election times spouting this no-party-politics mantra, then get together and sign up to the Independent Political Group (IPG) once the votes are safely in the bag (see Party animals).
Of course, the Independents claim that the IPG is not a political party.
This is true in that it is not registered as such with the Electoral Commission.
However, it holds secret group conclaves before all meetings of full council where the group [party] line is agreed and the members then turn up and vote as a block.
And, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, etc.
Interestingly, just before the 2004 elections the Telegraph did begin to ask questions about the IPG by drawing attention to the fact that 13 known members had neglected to include the description "Independent" on the ballot paper, but after that brief sally the subject was quietly dropped (Running on empty).

Taking a view

As a would-be candidate at the forthcoming election, I was interested to read what the Western Telegraph's editorial had to say about the role of councillors in local government.
According to Wales' biggest selling weekly snoozepaper we ". . . need to remember that being a councillor isn't meant to be about getting your views across. The job is supposed to be about representing the views of the people who have elected you . . .".
Surely, that can't be right.
There are over 1,800 voters in the Hakin ward that I currently represent.
I have not enquired closely as to their political beliefs, but it is a fair bet that they range from the truest blue to the deepest red.
That being the case, short of being a political chameleon, it is simply not possible to "represent their views".
There might even be one or two BNP members whose political philosophy I would find totally abhorrent.
Am I supposed to represent their views, too?
What is true is that it is the duty of every councillor to represent the people in their ward, whoever they are, and whatever their views.
So, if our hypothetical BNP member rings up to complain about an old three piece suite that has been dumped on the pavement outside his home, he has a right to expect his councillor to take the same steps to have it removed as he would if the complainant was his best friend.
And, if our BNP member submits a planning application, he has the same right to have it determined in accordance with the development plan as everyone else.
Indeed, in the case of planning applications, the elected member may find himself in the position of being under a duty to ignore the views of those who elected him.
As the law says, planning applications must be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
And, as the Monitoring Officer has recently made plain to members, public opinion, unless based on planning grounds, is not a material consideration.
Furthermore, the Code of Conduct, which all members sign up to on taking office, requires councillors "to reach decisions on the basis of the merits of the circumstances involved and in the public interest".
Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to be objective about these things when a crowd of your constituents, on whose votes you depend, are waving placards outside county hall.
The natural temptation is to say to hell with planning law and the Code and go with the electoral flow (Away with the fairies).
Which only goes to show the folly of setting aside the constitutional principle of the Separation of Powers by allowing politicians to participate in what are essentially judicial decisions.

Influence peddling


What the Telegraph is advocating, I think, is what used to be known as pavement politics.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, except it shouldn't be to the exclusion of everything else.
Naturally, we all want to get re-elected and we all know that successfully dealing with a constituent's problem is likely to make them better disposed towards us when we come knocking on their door at election time.
However, I would caution against rewarding councillors for only doing what is, after all, their job.
The problem arises when members seek to build their electoral support by doing favours for their electorate which are, strictly speaking, illegal.
The idea of favours for votes is catching - a dodgy planning permission here, a council house there and a queue jumped somewhere else and you soon become electorally untouchable.
This sort of influence peddling - known as pork-barreling in America - is the bane of democratic politics and acts as a reminder that it is but a short step from the pavement to the gutter.

Only a game


Over the past few months I have had reason to cross the Cleddau Bridge on a fairly regular basis.
Being a competitive sort of fellow, I have been trying to work out a strategy for emerging from the toll booths ahead of the car that I'd followed across the bridge.
This is essentially a game of luck in which success depends largely on the driver in front choosing the wrong queue.
Other crucial factors are the number of people in the queue with tickets as opposed to cash.
And I've worked out that some of the ticket collectors are quicker to lift the barriers than others.
Though, as you're already committed to the queue before you can see who is in the booth, this is a piece of useless knowledge.
In any case, the gains/losses are measured in nanoseconds (defined as the interval between the lights changing to green and the driver behind tooting his horn to tell you to get a move on).
The other morning as I approached the bridge I noticed that there was a single car in the middle lane and three on the left.
For some unaccountable reason, the driver in front joined the left hand queue.
"Ah!" I thought to myself, " a chance for a double strike".
A hand reached out of the car in front holding what at first I thought was red ticket.
Then I realised it was a ten pound note.
In what seemed like an eternity while the attendant to sorted out the change, not only had my quarry escaped, the car that followed me across the bridge was also in front of me.
However the beauty of this silly little game is that, as no one else knows you are playing it, nobody else knows when you lose.
And the other advantage is that when you come out on top you can credit it to your superior strategic thinking and when you lose you just put it down to bad luck.
As my father used to ask when I returned late on a Saturday night from the rugby club: "Well, did you win, or did the referee rob you?"

Published and promoted by Mike Stoddart Court Farm Liddeston Milford Haven SA73 3QA Candidate Hakin Milford Ward, Pembs County Council elections 1 May 2008.

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