There was an article on the Worthing Journal Facebook page (http://on.fb.me/MnLrl1) last week that I wanted to write about, but couldn’t at the time because of lack of time. I can’t figure out how to do a direct link now, but it was on June 20th, so it’s quite easily findable, if you want to read the article and the ensuing comments.
There were two things I wanted to express my thoughts on: the use of social media by councillors, and the cynical attitude to councillors, who according to many of the commenters are ‘in it for themselves’, ‘for self-gain’, and so on.
To take the second point first.
I’ve been involved in local politics in Worthing since 1993, and have seen an awful lot of councillors and political activists from across the political spectrum; some I’ve liked and some not, some I’ve agreed with and some not. But regardless of where they fit within those categories, my overriding impression has been of people who are working for their community through a sense of duty, responsibility and service; these are individuals who have a pride in their town, or a passion to create a town to be proud of. On one side of the council chamber, I’ve sat through countless group meetings, campaign meetings, committee meetings and council meetings, reading thousands of pages a year of reports, with those councillors, and no doubt it has been the same throughout for those elected on the other side of the chamber. Taken all in all, for anyone who is in it for themselves, they have to put up with a lot of tedium and bureaucracy to get their reward, if there is any reward to be had.
Doing a quick trawl through my political anorak’s archive of data, I find that in my time on the council, I’ve served alongside 112 other councillors – not a small number for 13 years of elected service. Looking through that list, there are maybe a dozen with whom I overlapped only marginally at the start or end of my time, and about whom I don’t really know enough to form a judgement, leaving, as near as may be, a round hundred of whom I can speak with some confidence; although this will, of course, be a subjective judgement rather than an objective analysis.
Laying aside the rather trivial issue of people who become councillors because they want to have ‘Councillor’ in front of their name – there are some, but not as many as you’d think, and it’s such an ephemeral reward that it hard bears inspection – I can only come up with four individuals who seemed to have ulterior motives for seeking election.
One wanted to be Mayor, and wanted it really badly. He achieved what he wanted, and went shortly afterwards, and that’s all there is to that.
Two councillors have seemed to me to have political ambitions beyond the Town Hall; interestingly, neither achieved what they seemed to want so much, but in the process of working towards that mirage, they both served the council and the town very well, in their different ways.
And finally, one councillor seemed to me to be truly in it for their own ends, to see the council as an opportunity for gain. Did any gain ever materialise? If I’d ever seen any evidence, I’d have shouted about it long ago. And whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
I think if any company could survey its employees and find that 96% turned up to work out of a sense of duty, and only 4% were there for themselves, that would count as a particularly pleasing result. It is perhaps, only because councillors actively seek election, and come to us asking for our support, and vote, to get elected, that we seek some ulterior motive for what they do. Most people wouldn’t want to do it – but instead of therefore suspecting it, it might be better to celebrate it.
Now, the first point.
The Worthing Journal article is really critical of the use of social media by an unnamed councillor during a council meeting. There is of course a certain irony in a representative of the Old Media using the New Media to criticise someone for, well, using New Media, but that’s of no real concern.
The Old Media – by which I mean primarily newspapers, but also radio (in a local context) and TV – evinces much less interest in politics than it once did. Continuous coverage of the day to day work of running a council or a country has largely vanished, replaced by a short attention span-based fascination with policy announcements rather than implementation, fiasco and failure rather than strategy and success, histrionics and spin rather than history and statistics. Most West Sussex County Council meetings are attended by a single journalist, and at Worthing Borough Council only the full council meetings regularly get attendance from the fourth estate, while committee meetings continue despite being ignored (this is, of course, an ironic state of affairs in an era when the full council meetings are empty charades, scripted and controlled, and committee meetings are when actual political debate and discussion do occasionally take place).
Alongside this abdication of their role by the fourth estate, or possibly because of it, a majority of the community take a cynical and distanced view of politics, and are generally disengaged from the process. It becomes ever harder to reach people with a direct message about what a policy or decision might mean for them, or to tell them about what an individual councillor might stand for, argue for, or be capable of.
Some time ago, I raised a question in council about an issue that had been brought to me by a constituent. The cabinet member concerned attempted to answer me, while simultaneously attempting not to answer it to any significant degree. It became apparent to me, and quite a few other councillors, I think, that not only had the cabinet member not really understood the decision he had made, he hadn’t really understood that he had made a decision about it, and had only the most tenuous grasp of the responsibilities within his portfolio. It was quite an outstanding display of incompetence, and if the same performance had taken place before the cameras and microphones of PMQs, or been reported in detail in the local press as in past decades, or even detailed in the meeting minutes (don’t expect to find details of what anyone says in council minutes, dear reader!) the public might have held a different view about electing said councillor. But none of that took place, and the councillor could sit down knowing he’d survive another day.
New media brings the immediacy of conversation and commentary to every council meeting. The ability to quote speeches directly and instantly, to record the arguments of one’s own side and the opposition, to hold people to account in the glare of publicity, is invaluable – as Louis Brandeis said, ‘Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.’ And who better to provide that sunlight and disinfectant thatn the councillors themselves? Of course, there will be partiality, and part-reporting, and propaganda; but once the sides are laid before the public, they will quickly be able to see who is spinning what, and decide accordingly. And the message will be unmediated – presented not by an intermediary journalist who may have their own axeto grind or wheel to spin, but directly from the elected to the elector.
New media also takes the politician out of their political shell. Over the past few weeks I’ve had great conversations with one Tory about education policy and another about wind farms; with constituents about street cleansing, street lights and car parking; and with the Deputy Youth Mayor about book recommendations. It’s also given a number of Labour and LibDem members the opportunity to castigate me for my change of political colours, which they might otherwise have been unable to do, or at least felt uncomfortable doing!”
I feel that as many councillors as possible should be using new media to promote their messages and beliefs, to give the public the best possible opportunity – if they so wish – to learn about their elected representatives. Of the thirty-seven borough councillors in Worthing, twenty-one are on Twitter (the most direct and immedate form of social media). Some are fairly (or completely inactive), but others tweet very frequently and deserve to be heard as widely as possible; and there are a fair few who have a big enough following not to need my recommendation! In total they have over eight and half thousand followers – even allowing for duplications and mutual following, that’s already a significant presence.
In the interests of completeness, and with no regard to party alignment, here in alphabetical order are the twenty-one councillors on Twitter. Unlike the Worthing Journal, I will be happy to celebrate when that number is in the thirties, when every comment made at a council meeting is immediately tweeted by many of those, and it reaches a following numbered in the tens of thousands, many of whom will consider their votes based at least in part on what is said.
Councillor – Twitter name – Followers
- Noel Atkins – @noelatkins – 11
- Roy Barraclough – @roybarraclough – 45
- Keith Bickers – @keithbickers – 4
- David Chapman – @davidchapman3 – 39
- Michael Cloake – @michaelcloake – 4109
- Trevor England – @trevorengland7 – 28
- Paul High – @highpaulo – 17
- Dan Humphreys – @dan_humphreys – 283
- Mary Lermitte – @mlermitte – 96
- Alan Rice – @alanrice83 – 240 (Opposition leader)
- Clive Roberts – @cbr5656 84
- Bob Smytherman – @bsmytherman 1775
- Keith Sunderland – @kdrsunderland 69
- Victoria Taylor – @1victoriataylor 212
- Hazel Thorpe – @hazel_thorpe – 59
- Bryan Turner – @canadax – 101
- Vicky Vaughan – @vickyvaughan – 877
- Vino Vinojan – @vinoj1 – 55
- Nicky Waight – @nicolawaight – 36
- Steve Waight – @steve_waight – 199
- Paul Yallop – @paulyallop – 202 (Council leader)