It does take a certain amount of cheek to put yourself forward for election with the intention of making things happen, making changes. While I was plain in my manifesto that I believed the Town Council needs to modernise itself, who wants to be disliked or regarded as a trouble-maker?
We are social beings, and our psychological need is to fit in, be accepted, be part of the club. The default setting of our fragile psyches is to conform. And yet, as local supporters keep reminding me: we put you there to make a difference. My lot is to kick against the traces it seems, an often uncomfortable position. But that’s life and politics (even the small town variety) for you. You need a thick skin.
If you try to achieve any progressive change however modest, there will always be a backlash among those whose vested interests are affected. Tony Benn said, ‘first they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.’ I haven’t reached the final phase yet; right now, I’m stuck somewhere between madness and danger.
Ominously, I am advised to watch my step, go carefully… To stand any chance of doing anything useful I’d best work quietly behind the scenes, make friends with the right people, push for change from within. It’s a question of ‘playing the game’ if I’m to get anywhere. Here’s a warning shot sent to me by a fellow councillor:
‘You will know how important it is to take the local decision makers and people with influence and skills with you and not inadvertently tread on too many toes.’ He shall remain nameless.
My response was politely to suggest that those comfortable toes might just benefit from the gentlest of squeezes now and again. I didn’t get a reply.
The set-pieces of Town Council business are the monthly Full Councils in the august surroundings of the Market House. Though beautiful, the building is, in so many ways, emblematic of what needs changing in our Town Council: untouchable, aloof, out of reach, tradition-bound, gravity-defying in its adherence to procedure and precedent. Ascending those stairs to meetings, you are entering hallowed space, where normal rules of human discourse are suspended.
When the public get their fifteen minutes at the start of meetings to make representations, they feel the chill of eighteen stony faces turned upon them. A few sturdy souls occasionally do exercise their ancient democratic right to speak up - but are they welcomed? Hardly: there are rarely comments, questions, or acknowledgement, much less appreciation from the assembled great and good. I speak from experience. Public participation over, it’s back to the codes and games of normal council business.
Everything is designed to obtain psychological compliance. Very little is stated out in the open. There are ways of doing things. People to get ‘on side’ – particularly if you have hopes of holding office. Rules of political etiquette that must be adhered to. Traditions and habits to be upheld. Toes to avoid stepping on. The trouble is, in true Kafkaesque fashion, nobody tells you what and who these are. Little is transparent, is as it appears. Nobody, as I was warned chillingly upon my election, can be trusted.
This toxic atmosphere that stems from a lack of transparency, creates a dysfunctional organisation in which decision-making is at times based less on good judgment and evidence, more on the upholding of factional interests. Outsiders are regarded with suspicion, sometimes hostility. ‘Traditions’ are clung to jealously – not because they are valuable but more I wonder, as instruments of control.
Those few powerful individuals, the ones who like to call the shots, and to which the less confident members often defer, remain shadowy presences, often fork-tongued in their praise, but sometimes rearing up in outrage when they are offended. Their rule is characterised by a mixture of benign patronage and arrogance. Curt emails are wont to land in your inbox chiding you for offenses against protocol. You find yourself subject to cutting put-downs in meetings, being ruled ‘out of order’, or on the receiving end of a passive-aggressive ‘Mayor’s Question’ at the end of a meeting, having no right of reply. But these, if you keep your head down, are relatively rare: more usual are the subtle instruments of social control, the cold shoulder, or the withdrawal of patronage to whip you back into line, or the whispering campaigns got up to disparage or traduce. Remember how it was at school?
These are not just my reflections, but echo the experiences of other town councillors, from the past and currently serving. There will no doubt be howls of outrage - but I offer these words in the hope of pricking a few consciences and moving things along constructively.
Such power games and Machiavellian intrigue should have no part in the business of Ledbury Town Council. Political plotting might make fine drama in TV series like House of Cards but it hardly has a place in a market town of ten thousand people. All that behind the scenes manoeuvring is getting in the way of progress.
So is life that bad on the Town Council? Well yes and no. The few slippery personalities with their evasions and deceptions are unpleasant. But it’s not all bad: there are lots of honourable, committed, and good-hearted people too. The knowledge that you are part of a small revolution to create an accountable, effective and responsive democratic body at the heart of our community is an inspiration.
Come 2015 when there is finally a full town council election, I look forward to an influx of new blood, more women, younger people, individuals who are open and optimistic. I look forward to a time when the stale air and wasted energy of palace scheming and hurtful gossip is replaced by friendly debate in which diverse opinions are valued, and not as now, regarded as a threat.
More thoughts to follow… My next blog will focus on the very good reasons why people should get involved, and consider putting themselves up for election in 2015. There is light at the end of the tunnel.