Fringe Box



Opinion: The Election of a Local Political Leader Is Not a Private Affair

Published on: 4 Nov, 2015
Updated on: 10 Nov, 2015

opennessBy Martin Giles

There is little doubt that the controversial demise of Stephen Mansbridge has brought Guildford Borough Council (GBC) into the limelight.

This year there has been some real media attention, although not the kind councillors might prefer, even if there is meant to be no such thing as bad publicity.

I was struck, when I first started reporting local council affairs, that many of their, so called, public meetings were, to all intents and purposes, private. No one from the public was  present and I had the distinct impression that so used were the councillors to a lack of any interest in their deliberations that they almost forgot that an interloper was present.

Anyway, I suspected they thought that even if I was there as a journalist would anyone really be interested enough to read my reports? They were probably right to be sceptical. Even now, after a couple of the biggest GBC stories for a quite a few years, following local politics is a minority interest.

Opinion Logo 2Although I often bang on about how important the borough council’s decisions can be to our day-to-day lives and the future of our town, most continue oblivious and, even if they bother to vote in local elections, express an opinion mainly shaped by national political events, trends and fashions.

It is a great shame but we can only keep chipping away at the monoliths that are apathy and disengagement.

I once asked Stephen Mansbridge did he really want to change the situation? Didn’t large scale apathy suit his party? If most shrugged their shoulders when it came to local elections wouldn’t the reliable Tory faithful almost ensure a continuing majority?

To his credit he paused and then conceded I had a point but his and, it must be said, Monika Juneja’s real efforts to encourage everyone to take part in the Local Plan consultation seemed to show that they did want local residents to get involved and to express their views.

Actually they succeeded, many more did respond in Guildford than in other boroughs, during similar consultations. This was despite the design of the response proforma which was ridiculously complicated and off putting.

No wonder we still don’t know, more than a year after the consulting closed, what the result break down is. Will they be published before the Chilcott enquiry report?  (I won’t even mention publication of the report on the GBC complaints procedure review.)

But surely now we can expect a change. Surely now we should see local councillors truly living up to their own objective of openness about their decisions and how they are reached. Why should it be so difficult? There should be very little that needs to be secret at Millmead. Secrecy can never be justified if used to prevent embarrassment.

Sadly it still seems to be part of the council’s culture. They still, even in the wake of a council leader having to resign because of his lack of openness, show little sign of the necessary change in behaviour, in a change of their instincts.

If you want an example consider the current Conservative group leadership election. A leaked memo to The Dragon showed that they fear answering any kind of questions on the subject.

It is not good enough.

This might be a party election but the elected leader, unless convention is broken, will become the next council leader with a great deal of influence over the council’s strategy and the formulation of the Local Plan, a plan which will shape our borough’s future for the next few decades and beyond.

Of course only the Tory councillors have a vote but that does not mean to say that the rest of us don’t have an interest. At a national level can you imagine political parties telling the media to mind their own business during a leadership election? Of course not and for good reason.

These things must be done openly. Everyone should know who the candidates are and they should explain why they are standing and state their views on some of the main issues of the day.

This would be advantageous to the voting councillors too. They could judge the calibre of the candidates when exposed to some interrogation. They could also openly discuss the election with party members and others within their constituencies allowing themselves to be influenced accordingly.

This election is not for the chairmanship of a stamp collecting club it is for the leadership of a political party group, a party that has been entrusted to govern this borough. It is about time they entrusted us to be better informed so views can be properly expressed.

Or are they worried that greater exposure will simply show just how limited is the range of what’s on offer?

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Responses to Opinion: The Election of a Local Political Leader Is Not a Private Affair

  1. Natasha Barnes Reply

    November 4, 2015 at 7:50 pm

    I commend The Dragon on it’s constant update on local politics, as it has given insight to what goes on at Millmead, and is usually balanced in its reporting.

    However, I must confess I was a little disappointed with the “Don’t talk to the Dragon” article, and likewise this.

    Matt Furnis’s email, sent on behalf of their acting leader, advised the Millmead Tory group not to speak to the press of public so that different messages go out. Surely that’s not unreasonable?

    With regards to the candidates, we know at least two are standing, and I think it’s fair to say members of their group will be far more familiar with their credentials than the wider public, so why would they want to be influenced by them in that regard?

    I don’t recall being privy to the details when the Lib Dem group changed their leader from David Goodwin to Caroline Reeves; were they hiding something too?

    I’m as anxious to see considerable change at Millmead as the next person, but I honestly don’t see anything wrong in that memo that was sent out asking group members not to give different messages to different agencies: it’s in the interest of any group or party that all it’s members are “on song”.

    How they elect their leader is by and large their business. The election of the council leader is open to all 48 councillors, and, as I understand it, will be done at a full Council meeting which is open to the public and will even be webcast.

  2. George Dokimakis Reply

    November 5, 2015 at 8:44 am

    The article gets straight to the crux of the issue.

    In response to Ms Barnes:

    The election of the Conservative Leader has massive implications for the borough’s residents as he/she will become the next Executive leader.

    No one cares about the election of the leader of the Lib Dems or indeed the Guildford Greenbelt Group or Labour because they are in opposition and do not run the council. If any of them did the same concerns would apply.

    If the councillors voted independently and did not follow party policy then yes, it would be irrelevant but we know that whoever wins that post in the Conservative election will become the leader of the council.

    As for the “choice” in the Conservative election, Mr. Dennis said in his own words that he is there simply so there is a choice at the ballot and if there was anyone else standing, he would withdraw his nomination. So one of the two candidates is not interested in actually winning but simply to provide a false sense of democracy and legitimacy in the election.

    As for not speaking to the public, there is a difference between ensuring they have a common message to the residents of Guildford Borough and not saying anything at all. It raises the simple question of what do they fear their councillors might say?

    What confidence do we have that the situation in the council will improve following Mansbridge’s era if the first sign we get from the Conservative party says transparency is not for them?

    George Dokimakis is a member of Guildford Labour.

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