Some reflections on politics and democracy

My experience of last Thursday’s meeting of Dorset Council was more positive than the one four weeks before, but not to massively so. The main area of contention was a Conservative motion that condemned the actions of the two women protesters who disrupted the previous one. The meeting was accompanied by a demonstration taking place outside the council chamber, an occurrence that seemed to further inflame many Conservative councillors – causing one to describe the protesters as “a rabble” and say “I’m disgusted at some of the people we represent.” An amendment to this motion, one which softened the language to “regret” but which was additionally critical of how the Council leadership handled the previous disruption, was proposed by the Lib Dems. I was prepared to support this amendment, even though I wasn’t sure that I did regret the disruption. What had made me angry was being denied an opportunity to speak at the previous meeting by the Chair’s decision to go straight to a vote when the meeting reconvened.

The outcome of the voting was predictable, with the Conservative’s voting en bloc: The amendment was defeated and the main motion was passed. What I found so hard to swallow, apart from the obviously inappropriate condemnation of a peaceful protest, was the seemingly inability of many Conservative councillors to understand the purpose of such protests. Many of these councillors made a point of saying that none of the people they represent had contacted them to raise concerns related to the climate emergency, thereby implying that it wasn’t an issue for them – which is exactly the point! For the many residents of Dorset (and many Conservative councillors) it is not an issue – at least not an urgent, in-your-face issue. The point of the demonstrations was to make it an issue; to try and inject some urgency into the climate emergency.

The main issue for me, however, was not addressed. As I said at the meeting, in reference to the previous reconvened meeting which, on the Chair’s direction, went straight to a vote: “I utterly fail to understand how a motion can be voted on without those who oppose it being given an opportunity to speak. This was a flagrant erosion of democracy.” The closest we got to an answer was the Chair saying she did it in the best interests of the councillors, presumably to get the meeting over with, and allow councillors to go home, as soon as possible. But if she didn’t think that there was time for a proper debate she should have deferred the debate to a later meeting, not deny councillors the right to speak against the motion. In many respects I am becoming increasing concerned about the gradual erosion of democracy on Dorset Council.

The following day I had an entirely different political experience. I have recently joined Bridport’s University of the Third Age (u3a), and Friday morning saw a meeting of their Political Discussion group. This meeting, actually about the results of the recent local elections, sparked a number of thoughts. How, for example, do you get people interested in local politics? Many people, possibly the majority, whilst very quick to complain about a whole range of things that directly inconvenience them, have very little idea about what local councils and local councillors do. In fact many would probably tar all politicians (both local and national) with the same ‘only in it for their own benefit’ brush. This is probably why the turnout for local elections is usually so low. Which is a shame. So how do you get people to become actively involved in democracy? To want to understand the issues?

Part of the problem, I think, may be the blatant bias of many national newspapers. Whilst I’m sure that many people to the right of the political spectrum would claim that The Guardian, for example, has a definite left wing bias, they at least carry headlines that appear to be objective statements. Papers like the Express and Daily Mail, however, usually carry headlines that openly support the Conservatives and condemn Labour politicians. My concern here is that many of their readers, particularly those with only a limited interest in politics, will simply accept the messages being sent. And even if they venture beyond the headlines they will probably read the article uncritically. They will not ask questions of it. They will not try and find alternative accounts. They will not ask what hasn’t been reported.
I know that I’m being unrealistic, but don’t you think that our democracy would become so much healthier if people were better able to think critically?

Critical thinking used to be taught in some schools, but nearly always only as a ‘fill-in’ GCSE or A-level course. I think that we would be helping our future generations no end if we started teaching them critical thinking as a integral and core part of their general education. We should be teaching our future voting public to not accept at face value what they are told and hear. We should be teaching them to ask questions, of their own thoughts as much as those of others. We should be teaching them to try and understand an issue from multiple perspectives. We should be teaching them a healthy scepticism. And it wouldn’t only have a positive effect on those who vote for politicians of course – it would also help provide far more effective politicians. Perhaps such politicians would even be better able to understand the motives of protesters who disrupt their meetings.

Some reflections on the local council elections

Didn’t we do well? In April 2019, the Green Party had 175 councillors across England and Wales. Following Thursday’s local elections this has grown to 542 on 164 local authorities. These elections produced some phenomenal results for Greens across England and Wales. We made a net gain of 75, taking seats from both Labour and the Conservatives, and becoming the official opposition on several councils. My heartiest congratulations to all those successful candidates and the hard working local parties that got them there!

Looking through various news websites this morning (the Saturday following Thursday’s local council elections) one thing that strikes me is the wide range of interpretations of the results on the national newspaper front pages. These range from The Financial Times’ headline “Johnson faces renewed threat as Tories hit hard in local elections” to that of “Bullish Boris back on track as ‘red wall’ keeps faith” in the Daily Express. What are we supposed to make of this? I suppose my biggest fear (other than, or course, the Tories somehow getting their act together and managing to retain power at the next General Election) stems from a generally unthinking electorate who only ever go to one source of news and generally accept whatever they are fed. How can we raise the general level of political scepticism across the country? Note – I do not mean cynicism. I mean trying to avoid confirmation bias. I mean asking critical questions and not reading only the news that supports what you already believe.

One headline that did strike me as being of particular relevance to my situation as a councillor on Dorset Council was that of The Times: “Tories punished in south”. Dorset, of course, did not have any local elections this time round – Dorset Council elections will be in May 2024. But the Tories on the council are already rattled, as evidenced by their aggressive attitude at our last full Council meeting. Their agitation seems to have stemmed from last month’s by-election in the Lyme and Charmouth ward which they lost to us (The Green Party). The results from numerous local elections across the south of England now seem to confirm what we experienced on the doorstep whilst out canvassing for our candidate locally – that voters are so fed up with the Tory Government that they cannot support them locally. In Dorset the Conservatives only have an overall majority of four. This means that it would only take two further by-election losses for them to lose overall control. Will these results rattle them even further?

One other thing that really struck me about this week’s results was the number of new young Green councillors elected. Now I don’t want this to come as a shock, but the average age of councillors on Dorset Council isn’t particularly young. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that it is not easy being a councillor on a principle council if you have a full-time job. Many committee meetings are during the day, and the allowance paid to councillors is no where near that of even a modest wage. Whilst Dorset has a few councillors that manage to maintain some form of employment, I don’t think that they find it easy. This means that in practice most councillors are either retired or can afford to work on a very part-time basis. Despite these obstacles, it would be so refreshing to have some young people with a different take on life involved in local decision making.

But it’s not just difficult to find young people to stand as councillors, in my experience it is difficult to find candidates full stop! In regards to the Green Party situation in Dorset, this is a real shame. My feeling is that there are many wards that would be eager to elect a Green councillor if only one would stand. But to do this well we need candidates who are not only prepared to stand for election, but who are prepared to get themselves known in their potential wards in advance of any election. This means that for the 2024 elections we need to start finding potential candidates now! So how about it folks? Anyone out there fancy putting themselves forward? I’m not claiming that it’s easy being a councillor in a minor party, in fact at times it can be damn frustrating at times, but as one councillor from a different party said to me a short while ago – “you Greens punch far above your weight”! We do. And could be even more effective if there were more of us.

If you fancy discuss discussing what it’s like being a councillor, please contact me. In fact if there are any other issues playing on your mind about local issues, get in touch. You can either message me via this website, or email me direct – my contact details can be found on either the Dorset Council or Bridport Town Council websites under ‘councillors’. Alternatively you can drop in to see me at me regular weekly surgery. I’m to be found every Wednesday morning in the front of Soulshine, South Street, Bridport between 09.30 and 10.30. Come and have a chat and a coffee. Soulshine’s coffee is very good!