Sunday, September 06, 2015

Pushing the "Bonkers button"

I have observed since I was involved in student politics, but since in council and parliamentary politics as well, that there are some hot-button issues which cause large number of people involved in politics to start acting irrationally as soon as they come up.

It's almost as though these subjects act as a "bonkers button" which send large numbers of political activists and politicians temporarily insane.

A colleague who I greatly respect made the point at a Conservative meeting last Thursday that calling people terms like "swivel-eyed loons" does not help get them engaged in a constructive way, so I want to make clear that this is not what I am doing in this post. What I want to suggest is that some subjects make people who definitely are not "swivel eyed loons" temporarily lose their marbles.

Usually it is a subject that the people concerned feel very strongly about.

I first noticed this as a student when some people on both sides of the argument concerned became instantly demented as soon as it was suggested that the student union at their college or university might "disaffiliate" from (e.g. leave) the National Union of Students. With some (mostly but not always on the right) willing to do anything no matter how daft to promote the cause of their college leaving, and others (mostly but not always on the left) becoming hysterical at the very suggestion.

Another example which became very obvious in my time as a councillor during the last Labour government was the issue of council house rents.

That government imposed a set of financial plans for local government housing which would almost inevitably have the effect, over a period of about ten years, of gradual but sustained increases in council house rents which would eventually double them.

And you could absolutely guarantee that every Labour councillor I knew would go completely mental the instant you pointed out that their government was doubling council house rents. This was their "bonkers button."

The policy did not have this effect in authorities which, like Copeland, transferred their housing stock to or created a housing association (e.g. Copeland Homes/The Home group), and of course, the game  the Blair government was playing was to get councils to do exactly that.

Needless to say, the greatest resistance came from councillors of their own party, and if St Albans where I was a councillor at the time is anything to go by, those Labour councillors were absolutely furious - anger which they attempted to displace onto Conservative councillors or candidates who dared to point out what the Labour government was up to. One normally intelligent and polite Labour councillor got himself rebuked by the mayor for shouting a swear word across the council chamber at me for the crime of pointing out - accurately - what the Labour government was doing.

Of course, I'm not going to write here which "bonkers button" sends some of the members of my own party into orbit because it would be too easy for opponents to embarrass me by quoting any such admission out of context and misrepresenting it as an attack on my colleagues. But if anyone were to suggest that as soon as the European Union is mentioned, some people in more than one party - and on both sides of the issue - suffer a distinct loss of rationality, my response would have to be

"You might very well think that, I couldn't possibly comment."

In Whitehaven there is a specific local issue which concerns a lot of local residents, but anyone who voices that concern seems to set off extreme and disproportionate reactions. Whitehaven's local "Bonkers button" is ...


I originally wrote on this blog about the concerns which were being raised with me on the doorstep about mess created by aggressive herring gulls during the 2007 local elections. This was picked up by the Whitehaven News who published an amusing cartoon of me having obviously been on the receiving end of a seagull attack, and discussed the issue, ending with their conclusion that there was "no need for a gull cull."

I had not been advocating a cull of seagulls, and to be fair the Whitehaven News article did not actually suggest that I had, but unfortunately some people took it took it that way, producing a furious response in the letters column. After the election Copeland Labour party even put a letter in the paper, signed by one of their defeated candidates, wilfully misinterpreting a comment I had made about "non-lethal population reduction" of Labour councillors which anyone in their right mind should have realised meant voting them out of office, and accusing me of talking about the assassination of Labour politicians!

Well, it hasn't ended there. Over the last few weeks one of my successors as councillor for Bransty ward, Graham Roberts, has been getting some of the same feedback I used to get and wanted one of the councils on which he serves to address the issue.

Speaking as an individual member of the new Whitehaven Town council, Graham said that he wanted the council to look at various options to mitigate the problems some residents of Whitehaven have experienced with herring gulls, including investigating the possibility of using drones. Press reports of his comments have referred to the action which a council in France took, using drones to spray seagull eggs to stop them hatching - he also suggested investigating the possibility of using drones to monitor the birds.

Anyone who has been reading this blog will already know that Copeland council subsequently said that British law does not permit drones to be used to spray seagull eggs as was done in France, and will also know that Cumbria police themselves have bought two camera drones to operate within Civil Aviation Authority guidance for intelligence gathering and monitoring purposes (against criminals rather than seagulls, I presume) so using drones in that way would appear to be quite legal.

Now the irony is that Copeland council has actually started doing something about the seagulls which I think is a good start, by issuing advice to people not to feed them. So the discussions which have taken place in the national and local press have actually moved us forward, though the more - shall we say controversial - measures which were suggested are not currently in the pipeline. But in the meantime we have had all sorts of "interesting" reactions. Not so much a storm in a teacup as a hurricane in a herring-gull nest.

If someone suggests a council should investigate a possible course of action, it does not follow that they are saying you should still go ahead and implement it should that investigation reveal the policy concerned to be illegal. So I was shocked and horrified to read on the front cover of last week's paper the suggestion that Graham Roberts had, quote, "publicly advocated the illegal use of drones."

Gordon Bennett, what a ludicrous and inflammatory way to describe the sequence of events!

It gets better. (Irony warning!)

The newly-created Whitehaven Town council was concerned at the possible results of such publicity and has put in place a set of rules described in the local paper as a ban on councillors talking to the press for their own protection.

This is apparently an interim set of rules while the exact policy is determined.

Oh dear, I hope people are able to calm down, think through what they are doing and saying, and mitigate the curse of the "bonkers button" ...

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