Monday, 10 July 2017

Democracy dies in darkness.

It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time, setting up an independent panel to scrutinize allowances paid to members of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Like many bold initiatives before it this one has hit the rocks of unforeseen problems. The announcement of who would sit on the panel was due to be made last Thursday and has now been delayed.

Elections monitoring officer Fiona Ledden told the Sentinel thus was due to ‘technical’ issues. Code, it would seem, for concerns having been expressed by Labour group leader Mohammed Pervez about the appointment of Alan Barrett to sit on the members remuneration panel.

Mr Barrett was a leading light in the March on Stoke campaign against the building of a new civic centre. In 2014, he launched a petition calling for a 30% cut in councillor’s allowances.

In the headline to an article published on Friday the Sentinel called the holding back of an announcement about the panel a ‘mystery’. You probably don't need Sherlock on speed dial to work out what's going on.

If you do and you happen to think politics is more than just a distraction, then you will have ample cause for concern.

What has happened is that the political establishment, represented here by our own dear council, has dipped a toe into the water of transparency, only to pull back at the last moment.

There is something distinctly farcical about the claim made by the Labour leader that Alan Barratt was too ‘political’ a figure to sit on the panel.

Having met him on several occasions I would agree that he is a man of strong opinions, not all of them relating to politics. He is also someone with a strong sense of public service and a demonstrable commitment to working to improve his community.

Those are, you might reasonably think, the sort of qualities you'd look for in a councillor. They certainly more than qualify him to scrutinize how councillors are paid.

I find it hard to believe that someone who has been around the block as many times as Mr Pervez fails to realize how important effective scrutiny is to the political process. Particularly when the people doing it ask awkward questions; which is exactly what I'd expect Alan Barratt to do.

Why does all this matter? It's hardly something hipster types munching on artisan sandwiches in the Cultural Quarter are talking about between bites, never mind those who inhabit the corridors of power.

It matters because it reveals a wider malaise in the state of politics. We are rapidly reaching a state where two rival camps warily eye each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.

On one side, we have an establishment cocooned within the Westminster bubble that increasingly fears and distrusts a public it feels are unpredictable. In the other corner stand we the public growing ever more sceptical and restive by the day.

Democracy is a fragile flower, it dies in darkness, particularly if its roots are doused in dishonesty. If we want it to thrive then we have to let in the light of transparency.

The bad old days when payments for special responsibilities were handed out like prizes at a school sports day with everyone sure of getting something, whether they deserved it or not, are long over. Today's councillors serving larger wards for the most part deliver value for money.

As the old saying goes if members of the council have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear.

By acting like they do and quibbling over an entirely suitable appointment, they are helping to fuel a distrust that will make their already difficult job even harder.

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