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Tuesday 10 June 2014

Comment on Local Democracy

A commentator asks me about whether I would have voted against the whip on the constitutional changes on 4 June.  My understanding is that there wasn't really any whip.  The Labour Group simply did not discuss it.  Extraordinary as that seems, my understanding is that there was a discussion around changes to Labour Group Standing Orders where Muhammed Butt apparently sought to make himself Council Leader for life.  These were put to one side, so the old orders remain in force.  If anything, I would think that decision implies that the mood of the Group was not for radical change.

Neither Cllr Butt nor anyone else chose to mention the drastic changes to the Council Constitution which he at least must have known about.

Why therefore did the entire Labour Group simply nod them through?  I asked a councillor this, and was told that no one in the Labour Group had chosen to read the changes and therefore they did not really know what they were voting on.  If true, that statement is a fairly damning comment on the thoroughness with which councillors prepare for meetings.  When the Tories pointed out the content of the rule changes, the inevitable partisan instincts kicked in and the Labour councillors all voted for them.

Had I been there I would have argued for deferral on the grounds that most of the councillors didn't understand what they were being asked to vote for because parts (eg describing scrutiny arrangements) are just obscure, and parts have sersious implicationms which new councillors simply won't understand until they are given some sort of grounding in Council governance.

Cllr Butt has effectively tricked his colleagues.  I hope they return to the issue at a later date, when they have had time to think about it.

The importance of all this is that the old system which was developed by a much more transparent and rigorous process in 2000 was carefully designed to enshrine collective decision making.   The changes which I think must have been been agreed between Cllr Butt, his associates and one or two Council officers in the run up to the election concentrate decision making on him and whoever instructs him. 

I find this concerning for three reasons. 

One is the increased scope for corruption.  The wider barriers to this have been systematically dismantled by the current government.  Concentrating powers in the hands of one man obviously increases the scope for patronage, lack of accountability and wasting money.

The second is poor quality decision making.  The previous system ensured that arguments and reasoning were laid out in public and subject to challenge.  This allowed for much better quality decision making and refinement of decisions.  The new more secretive approach will lead to worse decisions at a time when Brent Council needs to cope with the biggest challenges in its history.

Finally, decisions will now be much more challengable.  The Judicial Review into libraries vindicated the Council's deciion making in no uncertain terms.  The claimants' lawyers tried to prove that the Council's decision making was irrational, ill informed and so on.  The judge rejected their points in every respect, not least because there was a solid paper trail demonstrating the reasoning and information behind the decision.  I doubt whether such rigour will be present in the new system. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I respect you for writing this blog which has strong words for Councillor Butt with accusations of him 'tricking' Brent Labour Councillors by recognising that they would 'simply nod through' the documents highlighting the changes to the council constitution.

Scott Bartle
If they did not know what they were voting on then yes indeed, you are accurate in saying that it is damming as to the throughness of the councillors. In part this may be due to jockeying of position (e.g. Tom Miller aiming for a future seat in Westminster) or a reflection of how the party humiliated Neil Nerva in the media by calling him 'ludicrous' for even 'daring' to challenge the status quo. Which says to us all a lot about Brent Labours real perspective on Democracy (idealising Tower Hamlets?).

What makes me wonder is if you have been reflecting on your time in office James?
Is there anything you would have done differently baring in mind how valiant you were in defending the indefensible Brent Library Policy? As your loyalty to Brent Labour was clear for us all to see as you even (tenuously) dragged Mark Twain into the equation. It must therefore have hurt being de-selected as that shows a lack of loyalty for the real effort you put in defending their policy. Would it be fair to say that you were also tricked by the shenanigans within the party? Either way, this is precisely the sort of thing that should make new labour councillors really sit and take stock. They need to think about who it is they wish to represent - Butt & the Whip OR the electorate that put them into that position in the first place. If they chose the former they will, like you find out that they are replaceable - All yes-men are, yet if they chose the latter and stand up for what they believe in and stick to their core principles (if they have any) then they may find their time in council extended as they will be able to weather any political storm.

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