Labour Group Leader, Cllr Tim Oliver
Two of the great myths of politics are that all politicians are ‘out for themselves’ and that we are ‘all the same.’ This is applied to members of distinct political groups irrespective of their policies, principles and values.
But, if it were true then all local councillors would live in mansions and we would never disagree with each other. The fact that your local councillor lives in a house very similar to yours, is paid a lot less than the average wage and that they band together in political groups with shared values and objectives which they strive to implement, shows it’s a lazy argument. Otherwise councillors would all sit in six or seven bedroom homes with long drives and all be in the same party or in none at all. It’s an argument very often perpetuated by those who know better but prefer to stand on the sidelines while others get on with the job of trying to make our communities better places to live in, and by that I include community activists, council employees and professionals from a range of varied groups who know doing nothing is not an option.
There are times when politicians don’t help themselves when it comes to these popular myths. Such a moment was happened on Monday night when the Independents, Lib Dems and Conservatives on Walsall council banded together to attack the Labour group. It also illustrated that in local politics the vital can be seen to become mundane, the mundane becomes absurd and the absurd becomes farcical. On Monday night we discussed vital issues such as the impact of the bedroom tax and the perilous state of social care in the borough. These are essential issues and services, how else can you describe polices that decide whetheror not you can continue to live in your home or if the elderly or disabled get the care and support that makes their lives bearable?
One of the most telling comments in these discussions was made by the Conservative cabinet portfolio holder for social care, Barbara MacCracken, when she said: “You can’t keep making cuts of cuts of £7 million a year, year on year, without it impacting on services.” The fact that a Conservative member of the authority accepts that the policies of her own government are hitting the most vulnerable in society is telling. But couple this with the fact that the present budgets for social care are predicted to over run by £5 million this year, and the fact is that social care in Walsall is in crisis. Whatever the Conservative Leader of the Council, Mike Bird, and his Lib Dem partner, Ian Shires, will tell you, the most vulnerable in our communities are now in the firing line of their policies. It is the old and the infirm that are being made to pay for the coalitions’ decisions made both at a national and local level.
In some ways the cuts are being window dressed. The ‘front of the store’ services such as libraries and children centres are being protected to avoid popular, political outrage. Simply put, close the local library, either in leafy Aldridge or in deprived Palfrey, and people can easily see the services are being attacked and they protest. Cut home support to the elderly, and unless you’re a relative or a neighbour, the consequences remain hidden to outsiders. But the expected level of cuts for the financial years 2015-16 and beyond means this can’t continue. Those ‘front of store’ services will be cut; there is no other option without a major change in the policies of our present government. They have been protected so far by the council’s Tory and Lib Dem partners in the hope the political weather changes or that a future Labour run council will take the blame for their government’s policies.
But was this reported? No, the press and social media ran with the ‘noize ‘of the musician Noddy Holder being made a Freeman of the Borough. A motion put by Independent Pete Smith and which hit the all populist high notes: pardon the puns.
Then the absurd became the farcical, and farcical is an apposite term here because the attempt by the Independents, Tories and Lib Dems to embarrass the Labour Group turned into a Brian Rix political farce in which at least one member of the cast hadn’t read the script.
Cllr Pete Smith and his fellow Independents, Chris and Paul Bott, moved a motion demanding the Labour group put forward an alternative budget to that of the present council leadership – a policy no group on the council has done in living memory – including the one Cllr Smith formerly belonged to. The idea here was, as in Mr Rix’s plays, by sheer coincidence a group of individuals with no connection with each other come together to play out the plot. Cllrs. Bird, Shires, Smith and Botts, we were expected to believe, had come to the same decision irrespective of each other. There was no previous collusion or agreement and they had all reached the same conclusion, at the same time, in the same place by a simple twist of fate. This required an enormous willingness to put disbelief aside and wasn’t helped by the Tory councillor, John Rochelle, immediately seconding the motion before Pete Smith had the chance to explain how this amazing set of coincidences had come to pass. This was akin to a bit-part actor rushing on stage and pulling down the trousers of the wrong characters, and for the remainder of the debate we had the spectacle of Mr. Smith, Mr. Bird and Co. with their political pants around their ankles explaining how on this motion they didn’t know each other and there was no deal to vote as political partners.
For the coalition of Lib Dems and Tories, this was the part in the script where the star struck lovers deny they know each other; not helped by the fact that the Botts admitted to supporting their political marriage by abstaining on crucial votes of who runs the council!
When the Labour group moved two amendments both of which contained the requirement to set legal budgets in order to protect services from central government intervention, the Lib Dems and the Tories helped vote them down; showing that their principles were also around their ankles. Lastly we had the farce of Cllr. Smith arguing that though he would never vote for any budget – including a Labour one – that contained cuts, he wasn’t arguing for councillors to vote for the alternative of an illegal budget. This did leave the question hanging; if as a councillor you’re not here to persuade others to support the policies you believe are in the best interests of your constituents, what are you here for and what do you believe?
In Labour’s response to this we made it clear that we will be judged when the time comes by the electorate - and not by our political opponents. We will work to our utmost to protect those vital hidden services, we will take on and mitigate the dirty tasks that the Tories and the Lib Dems are storing up for the future, and we won’t play party politics with the lives of the most vulnerable for short term political gain. You can see our amendments below.
The truth is that the only vote that really matters is the local elections in May. In between now and then we will do the real work of finalising our policies which we will place before the voters, and at the same time try to break down the charade that brings all those who care about politics and our communities into disrepute.
FOR THE RECORD….
Amendments by Walsall Labour :
“This Council notes the motion proposed by Councillors Smith, P.Bott and C.Bott that :
‘As there is no overall control of Walsall Council given the finely balanced political composition of Councillors, namely 28 Labour, 24 Conservatives, 5 Liberals, 2 Independents and 1 Democratic Labour and further given that all 3 main Parties feel that to produce a balanced budget, further cuts to Council services and jobs need to be made, this Council not only calls on the present Conservative/Liberal administration to present its budget proposals for 2014/15 to Council at a meeting in February 2014 but also strongly recommends that in the interests of openness and transparency, the Labour Opposition Group, being the Party with the most seats, also present their alternative budget at the same meeting, in order that it is open and transparent before any vote is taken, as to what would be the difference, if any, between the present administration and the Labour Opposition, with regard to their budget proposals for 2014/15.
This Council further reminds its members and the public that its most senior Council Officers are there to give equal assistance and the fullest cooperation to the Labour Group in order for it to be in a position to present its alternative budget at the same meeting in February 2014.’
This Council further :
- condemns the policies of austerity of the current coalition Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government which have impacted unfairly and disproportionately on local government and in particular on disadvantaged boroughs such as Walsall and the wider Black Country
- notes the catastrophic impact in the current circumstances of failing to set a legal and balanced budget – a course of action that has been and continues to advocated on many occasions by Councillor Smith
- notes that the presentation of full and formal ‘alternative budgets’ is very unusual in both national and local politics
- and in particular that no ‘alternative budget’ has been presented in Walsall in living political memory, including during the periods of Group leadership of Councillors Bird, Powell or Church
- notes that, as confirmed by the ‘Doncaster judgment’, the budget in February in effect sets the Council Tax cash limits for the following financial year and all other relevant revenue budget decisions can be changed under delegations through the Council Cabinet.”
This Council further notes that a future incoming Walsall Labour administration commits that it would :
- campaign against the iniquitous financial settlements imposed by current coalition Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government, and in particular the fact that these policies impact unfairly and disproportionately on disadvantaged boroughs such as Walsall and the wider Black Country
- work within a legal budget framework, acknowledging the difficulties and injustice imposed through the above imposed Government financial polices
- instigate an immediate ‘zero budget’ review of all Walsall Council expenditure
- develop proposals to review and reduce senior and middle management structures and costs so as to best protect frontline services
- strive within budget limits as imposed to prioritise and best protect vulnerable individuals, groups and communities wherever they exist within our borough
- develop more flexible and devolved ways of working which would be more responsive to the needs of our local neighbourhoods
- develop new and imaginative schemes of partnership working which would seek to mitigate the worst impact of Government policies.”