The Plastic Hippo

January 5, 2011

One cheer for democracy

Filed under: Literature,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 12:11 am

“We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.”
E M Forster (1879 – 1970)

If, against the odds, the current leader of Walsall council is in possession of an endearing quality, then it must surely be the ability to amuse by being ridiculous. Like the lucky citizens of London, we are fortunate enough to be represented by an utter buffoon.

Since becoming leader again in May 2009, Mike has delighted us with some crazy slapstick worthy of the Marx Brothers not including their Uncle Karl who we never mention. Within days of assuming power for the third time, a meeting of the full council descended into farce leading to calls for council meetings to be webcast in the name of accountability. Two of the more rational Conservative councillors who understand social media supported the idea. One did not last long in cabinet and the other posted his last blog in July 2009. The idea has been quietly forgotten.

But apart from his oafish behaviour in the council chamber, councillor Bird is at his most hilarious when he makes his forays into traditional local media. His contributions to BBC Radio WM have to be heard to be believed. Defending Walsall council spying on its citizens and employees, claiming that vote rigging is the unique preserve of an ethnic minority and back tracking on a pay rise he wished to award himself were the radio comedy highlights of 2010.

He is even funnier in the printed press. When asked to react to the incompetence of his administration or to defend malicious and disastrous cuts to services that the people he claims to represent depend upon, Bird employs two parrot learned bleats: “It is the fault of the previous government” or “put up or shut up”. A man not lacking guile, the councillor for Pheasey Park Farm has just about managed to stay within the restrictions of the code of conduct for elected representatives and the standards in public life legislation. It will be left to the good people in the land beyond Barr Beacon to decide if he has brought his office or the borough of Walsall into disrepute.

The annual pantomime of setting a budget for Walsall has rolled around again. Mike and his cabinet mechanics have made their decisions and will now spend the coming weeks justifying incompetence in a farcical “scrutiny” process and the insidious paradox of ignoring what they describe as “consultation”. The view from the cabinet room is bleak.

Well, councillor Bird, here are a few suggestions that you and your cabinet may wish to consider.

If things are so bad financially, why not adopt an idea currently being proposed in Ireland? Suspend council with immediate effect and appoint a non-party technical administration to set a budget based on need and not greed to run this town until the local elections in May. Freed from blinkered political compliance and made up of people who actually know what they are talking about and who actually put the borough before themselves, this executive containing representatives from business, health, social care, education and community groups would do a better job than you.

If that is not to your taste, then the budget deficit would be better reduced by re-negotiating the contracts of your many service providers. Private companies like Amey, Tarmac, Serco and many others are making fat profits from our council tax and at the same time providing inadequate service. If these multinational empires refuse to take some of the pain, then dismiss them and bring services back into council control, not to make profit for shareholders, but to provide services to your constituents.

Your Chief Executive and other senior council mandarins are grossly overpaid and should be subject to a cut in salary, benefits and perks. Any argument that high salaries are designed to attract and retain the most able is, in the case of Walsall MBC, laughable. These anonymous, inept apparatchiks are contributing to the financial deficit and their obscene, inflated pay cheques are an insult to the people of Walsall who now have to pay for their failure.

Electoral reform in Walsall might also help to keep care homes, leisure centres and libraries open. Currently there are three councillors per ward claiming expenses allowance for the honour of representing the residents of the borough. Many of those who bother to attend council meetings make no contribution to debate and seldom question policy decisions and are happy to drink the tea, eat the biscuits and deposit the allowance cheque into the bank. Sure, there are some that work hard for their wards and give a voice to the people who live in their communities, but there are others that contribute nothing and slavishly follow the party line. How about having just one councillor per ward, elected annually? This would save on councillor allowances and save on the cost of the three year round of elections and make councillors more accountable.

Should a councillor not attend a council meeting then a percentage of his or her allowance should be deducted depending on how many meetings they missed over the municipal year and those savings be channelled directly to public service budgets. Similarly, cabinet members who do not attend cabinet should see a proportion of their allowance go to the common wealth. Of course, illness and family circumstances may result in absence, but remember that this council recently announced a “crack down” on absenteeism in their own workforce, a workforce they are about to slash through redundancy.

Some of these ideas might seem undemocratic, but it might be appropriate to consider how democracy works in Walsall. The leader, deputy leader and cabinet member for finance represent just one ward. The more affluent east dominates the poorer west in council and cabinet protects the interests of the better off. Not a single councillor has ever achieved a majority of eligible voters in any ward.

E M Forster is probably best remembered for his rather genteel novels set in Edwardian England and colonial India. A Room with a View, Howards End and A Passage to India were successfully filmed and the novels became hugely popular 20 years after his death. But Forster was no purveyor of penny dreadfuls. In 1951 he published a collection of essays entitled Two Cheers for Democracy in which he offered an insights on politics, art, the darkness of the Second World War and the austerity of post-war Britain. He ended his book by saying this:

“So Two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism.”

One needs only to look at the coalition government to realise that variety has gone and one only needs to look at Walsall council to realise that any criticism is met with a bellicose screech of put up or shut up. So it is just about one cheer for democracy and no cheers for the leader of the council.

“The fact is we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much. In public affairs, in the rebuilding of civilization, something less dramatic is needed, namely tolerance.”
E M Forster (1879 – 1970)


  1. This councils idea of a ‘consultation’ is laughable, along with the PCTs idea I might add. It is a tick box exercise at best.
    Consultations are not widely advertised, hidden until the last possible minute and even when they do record the views of the community very rarely include them in any final decision.
    The council officers feel they know best for the community and consultations are carried out in a patronising, pat on the head way. Scrutiny is told consultations are carried out and they seem happy with this and nobody digs any further but in reality they cannot be called consultations by any stretch of the imagination.

    Comment by LJS — January 5, 2011 @ 8:25 am | Reply

  2. […] the way it goes, you build them up and then you knock ‘em down. Today, the usually excellent Plastic Hippo vents his frustration on his local council by arguing that the solution to a bunch of inept […]

    Pingback by The answer to an imperfect democracy is not to reduce the amount of it | Councillor Bob Piper — January 5, 2011 @ 2:13 pm | Reply

  3. Superb writing, full of passion and from the heart. My only problem is you’ve come up with similar ideas to myself regarding councillors and their allowances and the pay and perks of the higher paid employees! No worries though. I shall be sharing this. Thank you.

    Comment by Linda — January 5, 2011 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  4. I love the idea of a ‘technical administration’ but I fear that this, in Walsall, would be stifled by the officers running it.
    These are the bright sparks who have had to list their duties for the pay and grading exercise.
    To a wo/man, they have inflated their staff and budget requirements so as to inflate their own job’s value, status and importance. This, in turn, means they are graded higher and therefore merit more money, not less.
    And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why it is so difficult to get any sensible savings – every single manager ‘needs’ all his/her staff and every penny of his/her budget, not to protect services but to protect his/her status in the pay and grading review.
    Indeed, rumour has it that one of the big boys, charged with streamlining and improving working practices, first move was … to recruit another manager.

    Comment by martin — January 6, 2011 @ 3:54 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: