The Northern Herald is always glad to get a mention on others people’s sites, hopefully in a good light, but hey, any publicity can’t be all that bad. The recent post then on http://curly15.wordpress.com/2008/01/07/mr-khans-application-for-townvillage-green-status/ describing the Herald as the “unofficial mouthpiece for the South Tyneside Alliance”, whilst being incorrect, did lend weight to increased coverage on the Gypsies Green issue and the attempts to have certain areas on the seafront classified as common town land.
However, the label of “unofficial” does raise an interesting question. Does the ruling Labour elite in South Tyneside have an opposition, and if so, who provides it?
Applying national parameters to the regional Borough Council, let’s assume the opposition stands as such:
Liberal Democrat Party
According to the Councils own website, the political split of the Borough is as follows:
Labour – 64.81% (35)
Conservative – 5.56% (3)
Liberals – 5.56% (3)
Others – 24.07% (13)
What then, is their attitude to attending full council meetings? Here’s how the attendance statistics extrapolate for the last election year up to December 2007:
FULL BOROUGH COUNCIL
Conservative Party – 81%
Liberal Democrat Party – 85%
Others – 75%
With a marginally higher attendance rate, the Liberal Democrats attend more full council meetings than their counterparts.
However, when we look at Community Area Forums, we see another picture. CAF’s allow Councillor’s to meet, address and talk about matters that affect the voters in their wards. I personally view them as an essential part of the local representational process.
Here are the attendance rates up to December 2007:
COMBINED CAF ATTENDANCE RATES
Conservative Party – 55%
Liberal Democrat Party – 74%
Others – 76%
With the Conservative’s attending a little over half of their CAF meetings, it is the “others” who lead the table at “grass root” level.
Clearly, this is not a universal "statistical" approach as a number of sub committee’s exist, but my sarcastic post of 1st November 2007 http://thenorthernherald.blogspot.com/2007/11/could-try-harder.html shows that the above figures are generally reflected when attendance rates for other bodies are considered.
Looking at actual full council meetings, how vocal are the parties? October’s meeting hit the headlines for lasting only 7 minutes, without one voice of dissent. Novembers was longer, due entirely to questions from the public gallery and Alliance councillors. December’s extended the time line further, bolstered by a record number of submissions from the public and a particularly good roster from the Alliance. The Conservative’s asked one question. On balance therefore, over a three meeting period (the last three to actually take place) the public assumed the mantle of the opposition, with the Alliance councillors offering good support.
So what does it all mean to the notion of “opposition”? Whilst not totally inclusive, a picture does emerge. Where it really matters i.e. at grass root level, the Alliance has a tendency to take the lead. In the Council Chamber at full Borough level, it is the public, supported by the Alliance, who have grasped the mantle of opposition.
However, we cannot ignore a “third element”, that of the media and the web. The Shields Gazette, a politically non aligned paper, provides an admirable and balanced political perspective; it reports the good and it covers the bad, but in equal measure. No party can realistically complain that the paper does not give them full coverage. It is on the web however, that the real divides appear and the real debate takes place. Unfettered by the restrictions of the provincial press, we can expose the policy, attack the participants and highlight the hypocrisy without fear of offending political partisanship, a party leader or advocates of political balance. What you get may only be opinion, but it is the essential element of both politics and its philosophies. Within South Tyneside the political “blog” world is a small but quite active community. If you are reading this post you will know the stance this site takes. If you arrived here from a link to Curly’s site (http://curly15.wordpress.com) you will probably be aware of how he views things. However, we also have Rossinisbird (http://rossinisbird.blogspot.com/) and Tyne Dock Green (http://tynedockgreen.blogspot.com/), sites which in the main promote the polices of the Green Party. There is also the less well known Dolphin Hotel (http://thethirtyfiles.blogspot.com/). Whilst not overtly political, the hotel owner has a tendency to be able to spot the Emperor who has no clothes on! What we have then with the web and its local participants, is the only “free” area which supports, encourages and promotes both debate and opposition within the Borough.
Together with the public and Alliance councillors, it forms the only barrier to Labour hegemony. As it stands, it is the only area of effective opposition.
I have missed out a political party who have a local site and are regionally active, that of the BNP. I have tried to incorporate a profile of them in the above scenario but it didn’t “sit” well. For a start, they have no councillors; they are also odious. However, their presence and mere existence is essential to the argument. Whilst Labour Councillors run the Borough as a private club and the Conservative, Liberal and Alliance councillors chase the issues in their own ways, the BNP will always thrive. They feed on discontent, apathy and perceived lack of an opposition. Only by providing a united front with an effective alternative remit will their cancerous presence be removed from the Borough. The whole scenario reminds me of an old story that Tony Benn always tells. A young boy falls down a well. Rescuers gather with varying lengths of rope, but nobody has one long enough to reach the bottom. After many failed attempts, the rescuers gather round, dejected and down hearted at their failure. As they all sat quietly and forlornly, a sharp and clear voice emerges from the well “TIE YOUR ROPES TOGETHER!”
Simple really. Only a combined political effort will break the restraints that have dominated modern South Tyneside politics and local government. Only then will we have a level playing field, and only then will the debate on policy and approach really take place.