Local authorities wanting to control the narrative

In an ideal world our local councils, officers and councillors alike, would see themselves as the servants of all the residents in the areas they cover. An integral part of that ethos would be a culture of transparency, accountability and a willingness to own up to and learn from mistakes. Well, we can all dream can’t we? As most of you are doubtless aware, the truth is a long way from this ideal. Here are just a couple of examples that illustrate how local councils operate on the basis of wanting to control the narrative. One concerns Thurrock Council’s media strategy that stymies local journalists wanting to ask them difficult questions, the other the refusal of Basildon Council to deal with independent resident groups.

In a recent blog post on Your Thurrock, the leader of the Thurrock Independents, Cllr. Luke Spillman, has taken Thurrock Council to task over the chilling impact of their media strategy: Blogpost: Thurrock Independents leader calls for council to “rethink press strategy”. Thurrock Council released this ‘media strategy’ document in the summer of 2017 – it pretty much demands a right of reply to any media coverage it thinks will be damaging to its reputation.

Reading between the lines, it’s as though the council just want the local media outlets to reproduce, word for word, the anodyne contents of their press releases. Given the parlous state of local journalism and the chronic under-staffing that characterises it, that’s pretty much what many local media outlets are reduced to doing anyway. What the council’s media strategy does is to reinforce that trend by discouraging the few journalists left who do ask difficult questions from doing so for fear of being all but ‘blacklisted’. In other words, the council want to control the narrative.

While we welcome the pressure the Thurrock Independents have brought upon the council to agree to editors from the local media being able to speak at the upcoming Corporate Overview & Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday 4th September, with the best will in the world, this may be akin to trying to put a small sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

A community group we’ve been working alongside in Basildon for the last ten months has been told by Basildon Council that if they want to liaise with their officers and councillors, they need to form a properly constituted resident’s association. They have been advised to speak to the Community Involvement Team at the council for advice on how to do this. We’ve spoken to our partners at Basildon & Southend Housing Action to ask them what they think of the Community Involvement Team and to be honest, for the sake of decency we don’t think we could reproduce their response!

Getting away from this particular situation in Basildon, when councils want informally run but nimble community groups to constitute themselves as formal residents associations, it’s about co-opting and ultimately neutering them. Forming a residents association that’s acceptable to a council means adhering to codes of conduct that make it considerably harder for them to act as an independent pressure and direct action group. It also sends out a signal to the community they’re representing that they’re effectively getting into bed with the council. The end result of this is a residents association that’s so constrained by codes of conduct they effectively do the bidding of the council. As a consequence of this, the residents they’re supposed to represent become cynical, disillusioned and start to drop out of the association.

As stated at the start of this piece, ideally as a point of principle, councils, councillors and council officers are supposed to be the servants of the people. It shouldn’t be for them to start dictating terms and conditions to residents as to how they communicate and interact with the council. Residents pay their council tax and rightly expect that the council does the job they’re paid to do. In our view, it’s down to residents to decide how to communicate and interact with the council as they see fit. In an ideal world, this would happen – however, we do not live in an ideal world.

Councils, councillors and council officers do not want to deal with pressure group and direct action tactics from nimble, pushy resident groups. To do so means surrendering control and all too often, councils will do whatever they can to hang onto the power to control us. This is where the flaws of the system of local governance reveal themselves. A system of local governance that has been getting stripped of its powers for decades and has now been co-opted to deliver the government’s austerity agenda is not going to tolerate uppity residents holding them to account. This is why councils think they have the right to dictate the terms of engagement to residents in a bid to control them.

The system of local governance we have is broken. Turnouts of forty percent and often considerably less, are a clear signal that most people can see local government for the sham that it is. Thurrock Council attempting to influence what journalists can write about them merely reinforces the cynicism a lot of people have about their local councils. As for the way Basildon Council wants to deal with their residents, why would any self respecting community group want to accept the terms and conditions of engagement from a council that’s part of this dysfunctional system? Resistance to being sucked into this farce is far from futile and any community group resisting this will get one hundred percent backing from us.

Suffice to say, things cannot go on like this. If we are ever going to have a more just, open and accountable way of running our affairs at a local level, fundamental political, economic and social change will be the only way to achieve this. The question is, how can we persuade people to overcome the inertia brought on by understandable cynicism and motivate them to start thinking about what can be done to change things?

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Thurrock UKIP have gone – what comes next?

All 17 UKIP councillors in Thurrock have quit the party and have established a new political grouping called the Thurrock Independents – see here for the full story in the Thurrock & South Essex Independent: BREAKING: Local UKIP councillors quit party and form new Thurrock Independents group. Given the comments from some of these councillors, most notably Cllr. Luke Spillman (Aveley & Uplands) about the direction that UKIP had been taking for the last few years, this news hasn’t exactly come as a surprise for us.

Predictably, Labour and Tory councillors have swiftly poured scorn on this new political venture: Opposition parties react to new Thurrock Independent Party. With the balance of power on Thurrock Council meaning that in recent years, neither Labour or the Tories have had an unassailable majority, slagging off councillors and a political grouping that either party may need to call upon after the local elections in May to form an administration may not be the wisest move. However, this sniping is typical of the playground attitude that quite often can be a feature of proceedings at Thurrock Council.

It has to be assumed that the councillors making up the Thurrock Independents have been doing a fair bit of soul searching before reaching their decision to quit an obviously failing UKIP. We would like to think that some of that soul searching may have been about the role of a local councillor. Now, obviously we never had a brief for UKIP councillors in any way, shape or form (and never will have a brief for any reactionary independents) but as they now claim to be independents working for the benefit of the residents, we’d like to offer them our thoughts on the role of local councillors: A few thoughts on local councillors…

We’ve been having a look at the comments about the Thurrock Independents on social media and it would be fair to say that the reactions are mixed ranging from supportive to outright derision. Given that a fair few people voted for these councillors because they were standing in the name of UKIP, the point has been made that they should all consider quitting and put themselves up for re-election either in by-elections or at the next local elections in May. Obviously, some of the former UKIP councillors have served their terms and are up for re-election anyway but there’s a body of opinion (mainly UKIP supporters in denial who can’t accept that it’s over for their party) that thinks the lot of them should face the electorate to see if they’re still wanted.

It does appear that Tim Aker who as a councillor is one of the Thurrock Independents intends to carry on as a UKIP MEP: Thurrock MEP defends defection to the Independents. This would indeed be an unusual, possibly unique situation with one individual fulfilling two political roles with two political groupings. Aker has justified this by claiming that UKIP still has a job to do in Brussels as the Brexit negotiations move along. How Aker’s split political loyalties will go down with his fellow UKIP MEPs will be interesting to see.

It was only a few years back that Thurrock was touted as the area where UKIP would get an MP and be the catalyst for national success. Thurrock was graced with visits from former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage and resources were showered on Thurrock to make it a stronghold for the party. Now UKIP no longer exist in Thurrock – from heroes to zeros in just a few years. It is a sign of how volatile politics is becoming when a party can rise very swiftly and then more or less collapse just as swiftly. Alan Sked who founded the Anti-Federalist League in 1991 which changed it’s name to UKIP in 1993 thinks they’re long past their use by date and should disband now to save the Eurosceptic cause any further embarrassment: I founded Ukip. It’s a national joke now and should disappear.

So what now? Many commentators have said that UKIP have fulfilled their stated aim of securing a vote for Brexit and there’s no reason for it to exist. However, over the years, UKIP has adopted a more openly anti-immigrant stance. Across southern Essex, this aspect of UKIP proved attractive enough for many former BNP voters looking for a political home after the rapid decline of that party to vote for them at local council and general elections. With UKIP’s demise in Thurrock which we strongly suspect will be getting repeated across the country, there’s currently a political vacuum for those of an anti-immigrant disposition.

Despite numerous protestations from UKIP about their party not being racist and not having anything to do with political elements further to the right, there has always been an element in their ranks who have flirted with the far right. In 2016, we found that a UKIP local election candidate in the Pitsea North West ward in Basildon, one Michelle Regan, had attended a protest supporting truckers in the company of the British Movement. When we pointed this out to the then leader of the UKIP councillors on Basildon Council, Linda Allport-Hodge, she vigorously defended Regan, managing to ignore the British Movement supporters and the sunwheel flag they were holding she was standing right next to!

Vigilance is needed because there are reactionary elements waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum that is being created by the ongoing implosion of UKIP. You only have to look across to continental Europe to see how slickly presented identitarian parties are hoovering up the votes and moving into positions where if they aren’t close to gaining power, they potentially hold the balance of power. Which means we have to develop a radical politics that working class people can engage with and unite around as a matter of urgency. We only have a short period of grace to do this before the malign reactionary elements regroup and come crawling out of the woodwork to exploit people’s concerns about immigration for their own nefarious ends.