22 June 2004

All change - no change

Less than two weeks ago the voters of Pembrokeshire went to the polls to elect a new county council.
The headlines were all about the demise of the Independent Political Group, seven of whose members lost their seats, including the Leader Maurice Hughes; three of his Cabinet; and the chairman-elect.
Some of these defeats were truly spectacular, with Roy Folland limping in in fourth place with a vote less than a third of that of the winner, and Brian Howells trailing in last in a three-horse race in Fishguard.
Now the dust has settled, what do we find?
Well, if rumours are to be believed, the Independents are back in power with an increased majority.
And how has this Phoenix-trick been accomplished?
By recruiting most of the new members, some of whom were responsible for the downfall of their erstwhile colleagues.
What this means, in effect, is that this wonderful creation, the Independent Political Group, was running two, sometimes three, candidates in the same ward.
A classic case of heads I win, tails you lose.
As is well known, Old Grumpy has deep-seated objections to the IPG because I regard "independent" and "political group" as mutually exclusive terms and the whole enterprise as fundamentally undemocratic.
I would have no problem whatsoever if the members of this group coughed up a fiver each and registered themselves as a political party - Pembrokeshire People's Party, perhaps - or even if they made it clear during elections that they were members or prospective members of the group.
But, when I hear of people knocking on doors and proclaiming themselves as independent independents or truly independents and then joining the IPG, as soon as the votes are counted, I experience a rather unpleasant churning of the stomach.
If a used-car salesman was to make a comparable misrepresentation, the council's trading standards officers would be on him like a shot.
I suppose it is small consolation to know that some members of the IPG also feel a twinge of guilt about their association with the group.
There were a dozen of them, you will remember, who decided not to include the description "Independent" on the ballot paper, including the deputy leader John Allen-Mirehouse.
Last week, I was talking to one of them who told me he was "an independent independent".
"How can you be?" I retorted, "when you are a fully signed up member of the Independent Political Group."
He admitted to being a member of the IPG but insisted he had not signed anything and repeated that claim several times, in front of witnesses.
According to my "Cross on Local Government Law": A "political group" comprises two or more members who give written notice of their wish to be treated as a group. It must have a leader and deputy leader. A member is to be treated as a member of a group if he is party to such a notice, or otherwise gives notice, signed by the leader, deputy leader or a majority of group members that he wishes to join the group.
So, you have to sign up before you can be a member.
In fairness, it is more than five years since this particular chap gave notice of his wish to join - on 12/5/1999, to be precise - so the event may have slipped his mind.
Less easy to explain is the behaviour of Cllr Jim Codd whose election address published in the Tenby Observer contains the words: "I am a truly INDEPENDENT candidate - having no affiliations or leanings to any political party or group."
Cllr Codd signed up for the IPG on 29 June 2001 (the day after the bye-election at which he won his seat) and ever since has been receiving agendas for meetings that clearly show him as a member of the Independent Group (see Party animals).
Now, it may be that the voters in East Williamston couldn't care less about the political affiliations of their elected representative, but it would preferable if they made that decision on the basis of accurate information.
And Cllr Codd clearly thought it was important, or he wouldn't have bothered to give it such prominence in his advert.

More of the same

Another who kept any hint of his connections with the IPG off the ballot paper was my opponent at the election Cllr George Max, though when I was asked, as I frequently was, whether voting for me would help to get rid of Maurice Hughes I was forced to tell electors that Cllr Max was a loyal supporter of the despised leader.
Nor was there any mention of the Independent Political Group in George's election address.
At least he was consistent in this because there was no mention in the election address he put out when he won the seat in May 1999.
That was not the only similarity between his 1999 and 2004 appeals to the voters.
Indeed, except for the date and a couple of minor changes to the titles of the committees on which he sits, the two documents were identical.
Same layout, same photo and same platitudes.
Just goes to show, all this stuff about never changing a winning team is not to be taken too literally.

Misplaced effort

One reason the Independents emerged from the election unscathed was the dreadful showing of the Labour Party, which emerged with two seats fewer than it started.
This was not for lack of effort because, on polling day, I counted no fewer than five party workers buzzing around Hakin trying to get out the vote.
These included Ken Edwards and Simon Hancock, who had both been returned unopposed in Neyland.
The devil makes work for idle hands and all that, and, from what I heard on the doorstep, the tactic was to brand me as some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth xenophobe who wanted to pull out of Europe.
As most voters are even more anti-European than I am, this was bound to be counter-productive.
Indeed one chap on seeing me standing on the doorstep exclaimed: "You're that anti-European feller - you'll have my vote".
It seemed too much trouble to explain to him that the county council elections and Europe were two entirely different things and I was glad I hadn't bothered when he turned up at the polling station and gave me a big thumbs up and a smile as he left.
In the post mortem that followed Labour's poor showing, it must have occurred to the party hierarchy that, had these five party stalwarts been deployed in Milford East, they would have only needed to turn out three votes each to save Barrie Woolmer's skin.
Still, left-wingers have always had trouble understanding basic economic principles like the laws of diminishing returns and marginal utility, which is why Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have decided to abandon socialism altogether in favour of free markets.
News of these developments is bound to take time to percolate down to out-of-the-way places like Neyland, I suppose.

Biter bitten

Last Saturday I received the letter printed below from the Chairman of the Independent Political Group, Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse.

Dear Councillor Stoddart,

I note from the front page of this week's Western Telegraph that you are quoted as saying that you have refused to join the Independent Group on Pembrokeshire County Council.

I find it hard to understand how this can be, as the Group has never invited you to become a member and, as far as I am aware, has no intention whatsoever of doing so.

I am sure you had no intention of misleading the electors of Pembrokeshire, so in these circumstances, I look forward to your apology and correction in the next edition of the Western Telegraph.

Yours sincerely

John Allen-Mirehouse
Independent [Political] Group
Pembrokeshire County Council

I am afraid I have had to write back to Cllr Allen-Mirehouse pointing out that the words about which he complains are neither in quotation marks nor presented as reported speech i.e. Old Grumpy told our reporter etc.
The offending words represent the reporter's interpretation of the situation, not mine.
So, the claim that I have been "quoted", which forms the basis for his silly demand for an apology, is simply wrong.
I have also expressed surprise that the Independent Political Group authorised this rather pathetic attempt to browbeat me.
I resisted the temptation to advise Squirehouse that, if he was concerned about people misleading the electorate, he might consider having a word with his colleagues Jim Codd and Anne Hughes (see Party animals).


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