My blog today is published as a column in the Argus Newspaper: One of the classic writers of columns in this newspaper is Adam Trimingham who wrote a great piece last Wednesday on the theme of what our local democracy should or perhaps could look like. Like Adam I can remember back to the years before the late 1990’s when Brighton and Hove were separate towns and the two Boroughs were part of East Sussex County Council. Although at that time the Councils were very different in their political makeup, for what had seemed to have been forever, the Conservative Party had dominated Brighton and Hove by claiming to represent us all in the House of Commons. As Adam explained prior to the merger the same party also ran Hove Borough without any real challenge which was deeply problematic at that time. A similar dominance exists today in places such as West Sussex County Council and Wealden District Council. According to the history books there had been a short period from 1964 to 1970 when Denis Hobden represented Brighton Kemptown for the Labour Party but that breakthrough ended when Andrew Bowden replaced Denis and brought back party consistency until the amazing break through in 1997 when all three seats were won by Labour in one election. Since that point in our history, the political alignment of the three MPs has been a great deal more dynamic and our city has been represented by a range of different men and women with various abilities and skills. It is just as true in the case of the Councillors that some very highly skilled people have been part of our cities Council and yet the impact of a lack of overall majority for one party has seemed to prevent a great deal of progress from being made. Arguably the period after the towns merged and gained city status led to a sense of arrogance within the Labour Council at that time that is perhaps one of the reasons why we have now experienced 16 years of hung city councils. The next four years is about to be determined in two weeks’ time!
I don’t agree with Adam that we could manage without elected representatives, although having worked alongside officers of Councils, of Government and of agencies such as the Police, Fire and Rescue, NHS and Ambulance Service over the last 20 years I certainly understand why he made that point. What is vital is that we try to elect people who understand that setting the strategic approach for our public services is their role and that they should then sit back while the employees of the services fulfil these strategic and operational roles. Of course that depends on these people having the confidence that their employees will listen to them and treat their directions as credible. Having been a Trustee of a range of effective Charities over many years, and worked for businesses with strong governance arrangements I have met a wide range of people who would be brilliant fulfilling the role of Councillors or MPs in that sense. They totally understand that their role is not to determine what happens or doesn’t happen on a daily basis. Their purpose instead is to set out the bigger picture issues to then enable the staff to work within those parameters, and only make strategic changes as circumstances demand a change.
The other view which Adam raised in his column that I disagree with is that removing political parties from elections would be a problem. He referred to Independents as being quirky and of course there are many people who claim to be Independents within the world of politics who are indeed very quirky and one of the reasons is that they got elected through a party system and then either get thrown out of the party due to their appalling behaviour or chose to reject the party because they want to go their own way on matters of policy. Each step of the way there would be strong claims of principle from one side or another, but the end result is often one that could be described as quirkiness. However the same is certainly true of many people who remain as members of a political party and display their quirkiness. Of course some people who are true Independent representatives are quirky but others are absolutely first rate. The classic case is Martin Bell who I had the privilege to meet several years ago at an event which was organised by independent politicians. He was in a room of people, a few no doubt were a bit quirky, but many of whom were not. Indeed some of the most quirky politicians who are independent or party members tend not to meet with one another due to their behaviour!