Not the finest day for democracy!

My how my political mood can change! Just two weeks ago I was celebrating our Green Party success at the recent Dorset Council by-election in the Lyme and Charmouth ward. This was not just a victory for our excellent candidate, Belinda Bawden, and our green policies, but a rejection of the negative Conservative campaign. The local Conservatives threw a lot into their campaign, and had both our MP, Chris Loder, and the Conservative leader of Dorset Council out campaigning. They even made an indirect reference to me (the only Green councillor in West Dorset) as someone who prioritises the abolition of the monarchy over dealing with the harm caused by the misuse of drugs – based simply on the national Green Party policy on drugs and my open desire to replace an inherited monarch with a directly elected head of state. I have never made any comment on the relative priority of these two issues.

One of the consequences of this victory is that our Green Group of councillors on Dorset Council is now up to five, and the overall Conservative majority down to four. This majority would have been down to two had it not been for a recent Liberal Democrat defection to the Conservatives. The first test of this reduced Conservative majority came the following Thursday evening at a full meeting of Dorset Council, and the debate of two rival motions about fossil fuels and the energy crisis. The first motion, proposed by the leader of our Green Group, Clare Sutton, called upon the Council to lobby Westminster to change planning guidelines to allow local authorities to refuse planning applications for energy generation “on the grounds of climate impact alone”. The second motion, proposed by the leader of the Conservative Group, called for permission to utilise any form “of energy generation sourced from within the UK”, and thus ease the path for fracking and local oil exploration. After a discussion with other group members I decided to save my comments for the second debate. Well, that was the plan.

The first debate, though fairly bad natured at times, proceeded without incident and went to the vote – which was won by the Conservatives with a comfortable majority. The debate then moved to the second motion. First the leader of the Conservative group proposed the motion, then a fellow Conservative spoke as seconder – and in doing so spoke in favour of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. It was at this point that two supporters of Extinction Rebellion entered the council chamber and glued themselves to a table at the front. The Chair immediately suspended the meeting and ordered an evacuation of the chamber. Whilst I have always been a supporter of the aims of XR I don’t understand how stopping the debate furthered their ends. Yes, the act attracted publicity, but not as much as I had hoped the now interrupted debate would have attracted.

However, things went from bad to worse. After a period of time those councillors that had not gone home were led into a committee room and told that we would finish the meeting there. Except that there was to be no debate. The Chairman of the Council announce that we would go straight to the vote and that she would take no speakers. Many, including me, were furious at being denied the right to speak, and at least one councillor walked out in disgust. Again the vote was won by the Conservatives.

My political mood, in the space of a week, had swung from a celebratory high to a disillusioned low. This was not the finest day for democracy. Although I’m still angry at this event, I’m also angry at myself for not being familiar enough with the Council’s Constitution and it’s ‘Rules of Procedure’. These rules, which I’ve now read, state that “If a motion that the question be now asked is seconded and the Chairman thinks the item has been sufficiently discussed” the debate can proceed straight to a vote. Now, as I remember events, the Chairman simply announced that we were going straight to a vote and that she would take no further speakers. I do not recall a motion to do this being either proposed or seconded. And if it was, it must surely have gone to a vote itself. Moreover, I absolutely fail to see how anyone could consider the item ‘sufficiently discussed’ when the only speakers had been its proposer and seconder. No one had been allowed to speak against the motion. How can this possibly be considered democratic?

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