Life in Politics column by Coun Stewart Golton, leader of the Liberal Democrat group at Leeds City Council: Gesture politics got in the way of debate
I have written previously on the need for councillors to stop bemoaning the low turnout in local elections and actually make local politics feel more important and relevant to people's lives.
Part of this is to report back on what decisions are actually made in Leeds Civic Hall, and the different choices offered by politicians of different political colours.
Parties need to do this themselves through leaflets and social media, but there’s no better way than having a debate reporting the different political positions through the lens of an unbiased journalist.
Unfortunately, this month gesture politics got in the way of organised debate, and local politics are the poorer for it.
Full Council meetings are planned well ahead to meet eight times a year so that all 99 councillors can approve or challenge the decisions made by the council leadership over the previous six weeks or so. The process is essential for good decision making because every part of the city is represented, and if your policy can’t add up in the council chamber, it won’t deliver on the streets of Leeds.
However, this month the council meeting date just happened to coincide with England’s appearance in a World Cup semi-final.
Hurriedly, the Whips decided the night before to curtail the meeting the following day by an hour and a half to allow councillors time to travel home and watch the match. This meant a whole chunk of the council agenda got dropped, with no opportunity to raise important issues on over 40 decisions taken by the council leadership, nor to debate devolution developments or the Northern Rail debacle. When I objected, and pointed out that we were elected, (and paid!) to represent our citizens in the council chamber, and shouldn’t be voting to go home early to watch telly, I was greeted by the loudest chorus of disapproval I’ve ever had.
If only some of them could have got so agitated over a political issue, council meetings might get a bigger audience. I was denounced as a killjoy and unpatriotic. My point was lost that council employees were not being offered the same opportunity to clock off early, nor would it be considered appropriate to do so if you worked in a factory, on the shop floor or driving a bus.
The fact that politicians were willing to go home leaving the job half done merely demonstrates to our critics that we don’t take the job seriously, and therefore by implication that we shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Perhaps the most depressing thing is that after the all out elections this May there were over 20 new potentially gifted councillors whose first experience of organised debate was to have their maiden speeches cancelled and whipped into mute acceptance.
Perhaps it was thought that we would look more ‘relevant’ joining in the national fervour rather than sitting in a boring meeting. Unfortunately, the sad fact is that most people won’t have even noticed, as the match and the result were far more newsworthy than a council bust up.
Ironically, I will recommend that readers do check out the next meeting on September 12 and get in touch with their councillors to ask them what their role will be on the day, and check out their performance on the webcast on the council website. Knowing that you’re performance is being monitored works wonders and is the best safeguard for knocking off early currently known.