I spent an interesting couple of hours this afternoon in the public gallery at County Hall in Wakefield, watching the monthly (ish) full meeting of the Wakefield Council (MDC) – democracy in action, as they say. Composition – 53 Labour, 7 Conservative, 2 Ukip, 1 Independent – so not much doubt on the outcome of any votes, regardless of the quality of debate. An impressive room, late-Victorian municipal grandeur, semi-circle of seats but not much consensus. Some very traditional procedural formalities (prayers, the ceremonial mace, a minute’s silence), and a clear sense of deference to “The Leader” (Peter Box, since 1998), who spoke always with authority and some dry humour. Rugby League (Featherstone, Trinity and Castleford) was mentioned with pride. Food banks, homelessness, and suicide (one in 8 of all deaths – 83% male) were spoken of with less pride, and eventually some passion appeared from Councillors Tully and Rowley, in response to the combative (if repetitive) Conservative leader Nadeem Ahmed (the only non-white councillor, out of 63). Mr Ahmed is up for re-election in May 2018 in the Wakefield South ward.
Once various reports had been nodded through (including a 175-page City Centre Urban Design Framework Planning Document – nothing to discuss there), there was a debate on a motion about Homelessness, which filled half an hour, but offered nothing but anodyne good intentions.
So, what was that all about? Is that all there is? This monthly meeting may be just an opportunity for rubber-stamping and inconsequential political point-scoring, but what does it say about local democracy? I assume the real work of the Council and the Councillors goes on elsewhere, in other even less glamorous meeting rooms, and in “The Cabinet”. But what does a Metropolitan District Council like Wakefield actually control these days? In the old days, the local council was responsible for housing and education and transport and youth work, as well as the environment and social work – so many of these activities have been privatised and de-regulated and outsourced, and the Council’s funds have been remorselessly cut. I wonder what the 63 councillors feel they can achieve, what the limitations are that they operate under, and how prepared they are to acknowledge those limits.
I’ve just started reading a book – “Who Stole The Town Hall? (The end of local government as we know it)” by Peter Latham – perhaps then I shall have more context. In the meantime, as the government inevitably crumbles and collapses, we can hope for a Corbynite Labour future, and mobilising the energies and potentials of the many, and not just the few! (That’s a peroration, I think – this week’s new word.)