ON the one hand, councillors say the full council meeting is just a bit of ‘punch and judy’ knockabout. On the other, they say it is a great forum for the backbenchers to have their say.
Last night, those arguments seemed pretty indulgent after perhaps the most uninspiring meeting of recent years. There was a lasting feeling that this session, the only time when all members gather in the council chamber together, is not fit for purpose in its current form. Labour’s deputy whip Phil Jones admitted later that all of the real decisions are taken elsewhere, in private meetings.
For three hours, the council indulged in a hypnotic blame game. Your government is forcing us to cut everything. Well, your government got booted out for mucking up the economy. The debate was rooted in history lessons, rather than new ideas to help people like the poor souls in their tenth decade outside the Town Hall last week, campaigning for centres for the elderly, lifelines, to be saved. You could play bingo by this meeting: ‘Tough decisions’, ‘hard choices’, ‘need for imagination’, ‘no choice but to’, and for the full house: ‘your friends in government’.
Nobody said: ‘This is a terrible time. Let’s work together. Why don’t we do this…’
High salary council officials are paid to sit there and listen to the sparring. They must wonder if three hours of their high salary time could be put to better use. The councillors could then take their punch and judy show elsewhere. The pub, where they could argue it out on their own time. Alternatively, the private debates that Phil refers to could more often (not always, but more often) be public. More people would then feel they had a more realistic chance of affecting council policy. Some new ideas to keep the services loved by people who have no clue about what goes on behind the council chamber’s doors might even tumble into the open.
The Fairness Commission in neighbouring Islington might be a good model to review.