Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Whipping Boys

As council meetings go, Tuesday's turned out unexpectedly uncontroversial.  There were even a few fleeting glimpses of sweetness and light, that the usual suspects, goading the opposition at every opportunity, couldn't entirely dispel.

For most of us, the big issue was, again, the threatened sale of green spaces.  When it came to the vote, Members would be faced with a tricky balancing act, weighing up issues of localisation, social justice, quality of life, revenue, home-building, maybe even soil, wildlife and water conservation.  Oh, and electoral advantage!

In the public forum, we strutted our stuff as best we could in the very limited time available.  I'd wondered, not for the first time, if there was any point in this ritual, and this time I seized my moment with the mike to ask them to declare (for once) whether the vote was being 'whipped'.  After all, if that order's already gone out, what's the point of debate?  What's the point of the public forum?

In the event, it turned out that a deal had been struck before the meeting, and it finished with a unanimous vote.  Whipping would have been irrelevant anyway - just like the statement I introduced on behalf of Friends of Stockwood Open Spaces.  The deal was already sealed.

OK, my whipping question wasn't 100% innocent.  I knew that the two Greens on the council ('Leader' Tess Green and 'Whip' Gus Hoyt) had formed independent and different views as to how to vote on the choices in the original motion.  Fair enough. They'd both looked at the complex issues in great depth, the voters and the party had entrusted them to use their common sense, so why try to override that with some kind of whipping system that forces either of them to go against their consciences? 

The three bigger parties don't seem to operate like that.  I don't doubt that most of their members joined up because they found something in the party line that chimed with their own world views.  But on an issue of parkland sales, which had been endorsed years before by all three, (only the Greens questioned it then) it's hard to see why any of them should have changed their views...  what is so different now from the situation then? 

The only thing I can think of has nothing to do with principle, it's simply electoral opportunism. Those party groups, as always, seem to define themselves primarily in electoral terms, and don't hesitate to silence any possible dissent within their ranks by telling their councillors how to vote.  They even see such enforced obedience as a virtue. 

How long before I'll witness in the Bristol council chamber what I once saw happen in my (then) local town hall?  The debate was staged, the party positions were pre-defined, and the whips were out.  The Leader of the majority Labour Party returned to the chamber after answering a call of nature, just in time to hear the mayor call for the vote.  He put his hand up.  Falteringly, his fellow members followed his example.  So, to the Leader's surprise, did the opposition benches.  By that time it was too late to rectify his mistake.  Council policy had been dramatically and unexpectedly changed. 

After that he listened much more carefully to what vote was being called. 
They still routinely use the whip, though.  They're still proud of their party discipline, too.

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