Why ‘patronage’ is such a destructive force in local politics

Bribery. Corruption. Brown envelopes.

Scandals covered up.  Blame passed to others.  Lessons learned.

Move along now, there’s nothing more to see here…

…and so, the great local government bandwagon rolls on, untouched by the electorate and (mostly) out of the sight of the various inspection regimes which, usually, are set up in response to ‘once in a generation’ crisis that, well, seem to be coming along rather more frequently.

Now, much has changed since the scandals of Poulson, T. Dan Smith or Shirley Porter.  Much.

But not all.

As well as the exchange of cash, a common factor of these scandals was also the use (and abuse) of patronage within some political groups in local government.

For those who hark back to this golden era of local government (long before the days of FoI or the decline of deference towards the Honourable Members) they must take some comfort that patronage – the giving of (publically-financed) rewards, or withdrawal of same rewards, by Group Leaders is, in many places alive and well.

Rarely, any longer, does this involve the granting of juicy taxpayer-funded contracts to your best mate’s sister’s neighbour in return for a nice shiny new BMW on the driveway.

The requirement for councillors to declare ‘interests‘ and the publication of such interests has deterred it, as did ‘Compulsory Competitive Tendering’ (renamed ‘Best Value’ by Blair but essentially the same) and, most important, the publication of contracts by councils on the Interweb.

Challenge, question and query away…here and here and feel free to submit questions here (including any of the 1,388 FoI requests to Wirral – the highest of ANY council ANYWHERE in the UK).

Instead, patronage is now confined (almost exclusively) to within some political groups.

Here’s how…

Joe Bloggs decides to join a political party because he quite fancies being a councillor.

Joe Bloggs is interviewed and approved to stand for his (and it is still ‘his’) new Party.

Joe Bloggs is elected.

Joe Bloggs is asked to indicate which committees or ‘outside bodies’ to his Group Leader (not the ‘winged’ kind but rather the ‘Leader’ of that Party’s councillors in the Town Hall) that he would like to serve on.

So far, so good.  Pretty much.

Group Leader then looks at all the requests for various committees and ‘outside’ bodies.

Group Leader, ever conscious that he *could* face a challenge to his position as Leader, is careful not to upset too many of his group and to keep the ‘jolly good chaps’ on board.

Often the ‘jolly good chaps’ are in the ‘safe seats’ who, by definition, are likely to be around for a while and not lose their seats as the political pendulum swings from left to right and right to left on board

One of the most popular ways of keeping people ‘on board’ is through the shadowy ‘outside bodies’ that exist in many parts of the country.

However, I’m pleased to say that in some cases, here in Wirral, the best person has, without doubt been appointed.

These ‘outside bodies’ usually carry an extra ‘allowance’ for people appointed to them, so Joe Bloggs is, in effect rewarded for his loyalty, clubability, whatever you want to call it, with taxpayers money.

The Leader gives his ‘electorate’ the positions they have asked for, usually without reference to the rest of the group and certainly not subjecting any of these positions to democracy, ie an election within his group to let the most effective or more popular councillors to gain these positions.

After all, if such positions are elected, how can the Group Leader ‘encourage’ councillors to vote for him or not to vote for someone better to be Group Leader?

At the same time, this is the time any councillor who has upset or challenged the Leader can be ‘taught a lesson’ by being appointed to the modern day equivalent of the ‘Sewage Disposal Sub Committee’…

If you’re lucky, there may be accurate and uncensored minutes of group meetings at which views are recorded and meaningful votes of substance are taken.  If you’re not, you either play ball or naff off.

In other words, get what you are given and be grateful. Or else.

What surprises me is why we ever wonder why more people with talent and ability (and ‘talent’ and ‘ability’ comes in many forms) don’t end up as councillors.

Perhaps it’s because few people of talent and ability would put up with such a destructive, self-serving and ego-led system – the people who run a business, run a community group or care for others who could, collectively, run a Council that reflects the needs of the wider electorate, even, shock horror, those that didn’t vote for your Party.

Throughout my five a bit years as a Conservative Councillor in Leasowe & Moreton East, I met countless people (usually women!) who would make absolutely brilliant councillors – champions of their community, unwilling to take the Party bullsh*t and not afraid of questioning those in ‘power’.

Not one wants to be a councillor.

Next: Lyndale School 

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for an enlightening article. I think, perhaps, an alternative title could be “Why Politics is such a destructive force in Local Government”

    Like

  2. I attended yesterday a public meeting of the Mersey Port Health Committee (one of the outside bodies that Wirral Council councillors are appointed to).

    This outside body has twenty-one councillors on it (six from Wirral) who are the board which scrutinises a grand total of a dozen staff (should be thirteen but the meeting was told there was a vacancy). Basically the staff have an environmental health role to do with checking ships cargo etc, some responsibilities to do with Wirral’s cockle beds etc.

    Has anybody (outside local government circles and those involved with shipping) ever heard of this body that even the Chair refers to as “Cinderella”? Probably the people that know about its existence are very few. However here’s a picture of the meeting itself (floating above the River Mersey on the Liverpool Cruise Liner Terminal).

    There are a myriad of outside bodies like this. Maybe when the new regulations about filming finally come in, I’ll see if I can film their meetings to bring a bit of openness and transparency!

    And no, I’ve no idea whether councillors are paid extra for this outside body although as it’s an approved duty I’m sure they can claim travel expenses.

    Like

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