The final column of the year is traditionally a time to look back. However, if you want to do that all you have to do is click here so I’ll spare you the ordeal of my telling you just how often I’ve been right.
In any case, it’s more interesting to look forward to the new year. And I’ll get to that after a quick digression about democracy.
Regular readers will know that a couple of weeks ago this column discussed the shortcomings of the new area forums, and in passing I commented on the absence from active duty of one of our councillors, asking why he had not resigned.
In response to all that, after the usual attempts to discredit the comments I’d made about the Forums, one leading Councillor, Andrew Cook, put forward the idea that a by-election would be too expensive, saying: “Have you thought of the cost of an election to replace one councillor? … it’s not cheap to run an election”.
He followed that up with: “If a member can’t carry out his/her work, the workload is covered by another member usually in the same party. So in reality there is no loss to the community.”
All of which almost left me speechless.
To begin with, the absent councillor in question, the member for Barton, Oliver Fawcett, has continued to draw his councillor allowance of just over £5,000 per year since his apparent departure in early 2017, a period in which he has managed to attend just 10 of the 25 meetings he was supposed to be at.
So about £10,000 of our money has been paid to him. Whether that is more or less than the cost of a by-election, it would certainly have gone a long way to contributing, especially if he continues to draw that basic allowance for the rest of the council year.
In any case, having his workload covered by another elected member is wholly inappropriate. Canterbury already has the seventh highest ratio of voters to councillors of all the district councils in the country, and the highest in Kent.
So to further dilute representation in this way is both unfair to the councillors who have to take up the strain, and the electors who cannot possibly be fairly represented in these circumstances.
Making matters worse, the council has had little or no success in ensuring people are actually registered to vote. For example, in one city ward registration is down 17% from June 2017. Rendering it difficult to register, and not ensuring that there are the resources available to boost registration, are just more methods of voter suppression favoured by people who think democracy is an inconvenience standing between them and their right to rule.
Which brings us to the fundamental problem with all this, which is what it shows about how some, but hopefully not all, Tories regard the idea of democracy. We didn’t arrive at the current system because it was cost effective, after all. We have a democratic system because it is the best (or pace Churchill, the least worst) system for ensuring both equitable decision making about public policy and maintaining civil order by not stifling dissenting views.
The plain fact is that democracy costs money. For a society to be considered democratic it has to face up to that and ensure that funding is available to maintain functioning, fair, inclusive and representative elections. Hiding from the judgement of the voters by citing the cost of by elections is unacceptable and, at heart, undemocratic.
Having got all that off my chest, looking forward to the next year is an interesting prospect, and not just because of the currently unknowable impact of Brexit, if it ever actually happens. We have local elections in May, which if Theresa May’s government continues to implode might well coincide with yet another General Election. Regardless of that, the City Council elections will be hard fought and Labour is looking to make significant gains, even perhaps winning a majority, building on the election of Rosie Duffield and the almost palpable unhappiness of so many residents with the way the council is run. So I’m looking forward to a more engaged Council, more responsive and accountable. Whether the constraints on any incoming group, especially finance, prevent real change in what the Council can achieve is a concern, but at least we ought to hope, and indeed expect, more openness about decisions and much less hiding behind commercial confidentiality.
Finally, a few thanks are needed. Firstly, to the team at the Journal for allowing me this space to sound off each week. Next, to my wife who reads this stuff before you do, so that my worst excesses are contained – or as she would have it, so that I don’t get sued.
I’d also like to thank my loyal readers in the Military Road press team, and at Canterbury Conservative HQ. The latter seem to spend far too much time trying to rubbish what I’ve said by attacking attack me, and hopefully at some point they’ll realise that they would be better advised to address the issues.
It would also be churlish not to thank the city council as a body for providing a seemingly endless supply of muddle headed decisions, management, investments and all round nonsense for me to write about.
Last of all, thanks to everyone who takes the time to read this, and especially to those who’ve commented below the line. Even where we disagree, sharing views and discussing our differences is the healthy essence of democracy, and I’m grateful to you all for doing that.
Until the next column in January, then, I wish all of you a happy holiday season and a prosperous new year.