Labour's death wish: September Copeland Council
The September full council meeting of Copeland Borough Council took place today. It began with presentations to various schools who had done excellent work to improve their local environment, and there was some discussion on traffic (see previous post) but the meeting was dominated by an extraordinary row about the "Choosing to Change" programme.
When an administration at national or council level has been in power for too long it sometimes develops a kind of "death wish." When this syndrome takes hold there seems to be no sequence of events which they cannot turn into a festering self-inflicted wound. It's a bit like the political equivalent of Necrotizing fasciitis.
And both Gordon Brown's Labour government and Elaine Woodburn's Labour administration in Copeland have advanced cases of this "death wish" syndrome. Cases which, if the electorate makes the right decision, will be terminal.
Having repeatedly been the subject of truly dreadful audit reports and surveys, which provided objective evidence for the view that Copeland is one of the ten least effective and most unpopular councils in England, the administration finally decided earlier this year to apply to take part in a government reform programme called "Choosing to Change."
As one aspect of "Choosing to change" is supposed to be about boosting local democracy, and making decision making more clear and transparent, it's ironic that the manner in which the decision to take part was made appears itself to have left something to be desired in terms of clarity and transparency.
But it appeared to be a good sign that the council was recogising the need for improvement and taking positive steps to try to do something about it.
Copeland council's Overview and Scrutiny Management committee, which has a Labour majority, held a meeting on 1st September at which virtually the whole programme was taken up with an investigation into the decision to apply to take part in "Choosing to Change."
Because it clashed with a meeting of another council committee of which I am a member, I was not able to attend the whole of this meeting, but what I saw of it was positive and constructive. The committee members voted unanimously for seven recommendations to try to help the reform process, which were due to be presented to full council this afternoon. I thought that these were very sensible recommendations, and most of the noises coming out of the administration were positive.
If the administration had the sense God gave a wombat, they would have accepted the recommendations, today's council meeting would have been extremely boring, and the Whitehaven News headline this week would probably have read something like "Copeland Council finally start to get their act together."
Well, I don't know what the headline's going to be, but I suspect it is more likely to feature words like "Blazing Row," "shambles," or "Defection."
A number of sections were removed from the report of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee without the agreement of the chairman or vice chairman. Now this may sound boring to most people, but stop for a moment and think. How would you feel if you had put a lot of hard work into an important report which you would be presenting in public, and somebody took six paragraphs out of your report without consulting you?
And at the council meeting the Labour group, while accepting six of the seven recommendations, put a "party whip" against the last one which called for cross-party working.
As I was not at the Labour group meeting last night, or at either of the impromptu meetings which Labour councillors were dragged into in a room next to the council chamber this afternoon, I only have hearsay evidence for what went on. But it would appear that there was some heavy duty arm-twisting.
What is beyond doubt is that the Chairman of the O&S Management Committee, Cllr Brian Dixon, was so cross at the pressure being brought to bear on him that he resigned the Labour whip at the meeting and crossed the floor, taking a seat near the Independents.
A Labour amendment to delete the "cross party working" recommendation was carried on a recorded vote with at least two Labour councillors, not counting Brian Dixon, refusing to support it. The mood of the debate was fairly poisonous, and what should have been an opportunity to start the process of reform which everyone agrees Copeland needs turned into yet another destructive row of the kind that brings local politics into disrepute.