The Plastic Hippo

May 11, 2011

A vast expanse of grassland beginning with P

Filed under: Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 3:10 pm

Recently, in a lunchtime Walsall town centre pub, the hippo was asked by a fellow drinker for help with a crossword courtesy of The Sun. “15 across, a vast expanse of grassland, five letters beginning with P”.

Although the answer was plain, the hippo uncharacteristically shunned the opportunity to appear as a smart arse, feigned ignorance and went back to internally seething at the Guardian editorial. Undeterred, the puzzler sought further advice from another barely functioning alcoholic. After a moment of careful consideration, the shambling derelict delivered his judgement: “plateau”, he said.

“Spell it.”


The big, fat Greek grey beard would have smiled at this and although his political master-work, The Republic, is a bit thin on jokes, Plato was well liked on the stand-up circuit in Athens around 380 BC. Who can forget his hilarious Allegory of the Cave routine and the side-splitting Theory of Forms? However, the big man was not too keen on democracy, seeing it as the refuge of the idle and the drunk and the province of the demagogue. He might never have done a 20 minute spot at Chuckery Working Mens Club on a Saturday night, but he was bang on the money regarding democracy. Instead, he favoured the notion of the philosopher king; either a king that had learnt to be a philosopher or a philosopher being made king. He may have been a lovely little thinker, but he wasn’t short of ambition.

Sadly, philosopher kings are few and far between in Walsall or, indeed Westminster, and even rarer are philosophical king-makers. It would seem that Walsall Conservatives have decided to keep the loud Mike Bird as their leader and Walsall Labour have decided to keep the almost silent Tim Oliver. With a hung council and no overall control, it falls to Ian Shires, leader of five Liberal Democrat councillors having just lost some home ground in Willenhall North, to call the tune.

It is with delicious irony that the first past the post electoral system sees a party with a reduced vote and fewer councillors wielding more power that could have been dreamed of under AV or even PR. On a day when his glorious leader talks of “muscular liberalism” in government, councillor Shires will meet with his local party to decide the future of Walsall. The old joke about a Liberal opposition being able to hold meetings in the back of a taxi would be wholly inappropriate.

Unlike Nick Clegg, Ian Shires is at least attempting to display a modicum of candour and honesty. One of the very few local politicians that attempts to engage the electorate via the internet, his blog prior to the elections last week tended to be full of regurgitated fluff generated from central office and concentrated on bashing Labour. With the coalition in the commons attracting ridicule and derision in equal measure, councillor Shires now talks of the “dilemma” facing Walsall Liberal Democrats and asks for public opinion. One man, one vote, our future.

Bemoaning the autocratic nature of the leader and cabinet system of local government and justifiably asking for some clue as to Labour policy, our Willenhall Odysseus must decide whether to avoid the sea monsters Scylla or Charybdis, the rock or the hard place or the devil and the deep, blue sea. Witnessing Clegg`s moral capitulation when offered a sniff of power, could the councillor for Willenhall support a cabinet that rushed to dump Willenhall Leisure Centre and Sneyd school with such malicious haste? If he survives this Hobson`s Choice, it is worth remembering that the Liberal Democrat leader has to face his constituents in 12 months time.

With the departure of Democratic Labour’s only remaining councillor, the ghost of Labour’s troubled history in Walsall can finally be laid to rest and can no longer be evoked as an excuse for inaction. Pete Smith may have been a conscientious ward representative but he carried with him the baggage of division and acrimony that still haunts the council house. At times, he seemed like a one man opposition. It is time for the Labour group to do some joined up thinking and offer an alternative to the contemptuous slash and burn approach of Mike Bird and his cabinet chums.

So what price will councillor Shires demand for propping up a minority administration? A seat in cabinet, certainly and possibly the deputy leadership. But he should beware of the curse of Clegg. He has already suggested a review of the Tory budget for Walsall which, in harmony with national coalition butchery, targets the weakest in society. He may also wish to consider the exorbitant costs of outsourced PFI contracts to the likes of Tarmac, Amey, Serco and others. Securing profit for distant shareholders is no excuse for woeful local services that the previous executive was incapable of delivering.

Councillor Shires has also hinted at a “rainbow” coalition of all three parties. Yeah, right, but with no overall control proving that AV was a miserable little compromise for the Liberal Democrats, how long will it be before someone digs up the corpse of the elected mayor proposal, so carefully buried by the previous bunch of pea-brains.

As the savagery of national and local government cuts begin to bite, the last thing Walsall needs is a coalition of the purely self-interested or a non-philosopher king and by the onset of winter, we will be lucky if we escape serious civil unrest. If you wish to see into the future, consider the reaction of Maria Miller, now being described as the Minister Against Disabled People, to a protest by fellow human beings being targeted by her government. To compare people with profound disadvantage to alcoholics and drug addicts is utterly, utterly shameful.

So which way will Ian jump? We will find out in the fullness of time and he will find out if he made the right decision next May. Back at the crossword, the bar room philosopher seemed to have the puzzle cracked.

“So if 15 across is Plato, 12 down ends with D…A. Dutch cheese, five letters. Easy, Cheda.

22 across, Greek philosopher, five letters, ending in O. That’ll be Harpo, Harpo Marx.”



  1. One slight error, Shires now says he doesn’t want any cabinet seats as part of any coalition deal. Unlike when he last propped up the Tories when he demanded and got two seats in the cabinet. It’s smart move in one sense, he can demand concessions from whomever takes control while maitaining a distance from the cuts that will be forced through. That will come in useful for next may’s elections when he is defending his own seat.
    Shire’s call for a budget reviews is pointless. The budget has been passed and signed off. A review will have no impact. As for his other ideas about openness in decision making and the cabinet, well yes it certainly needs to be more accountable but is it possible to change the constitution in time to make any real in this municipal year?
    One of the promblems of the present system is the fact that it is so easy to hide and obstruct real accountabuilty. for instance many of the details about this year’s budget won’t become clear until the council reconvenes and the plans are sent to scrutiny. That has suited the Tories but is it possible to change the constitution in time to make any real in this municipal year?

    if Shires blog is a case of him setting out his market stall, then he seems to have very little to offer save his votes I suspect that ian’s real hope is the other two parties will rush to him offering him concessions for his votes. Well he might just find that the two suitors prefer to remain single.

    Comment by themushroom — May 11, 2011 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  2. Maybe he’s keeping his powder dry for the next lot of elections?
    If we stick with a minority tory council they’ll certainly have had enough rope to hang themselves in a year’s time.
    Silent Ian and Invisible Tim will be able to stand up and say ‘I told you so’ and get some proper control – Mad Mike’s bound to have cocked up monumentally by then; it has the added advantage that they can both sit on the fence/stay below the radar for another twelve months.
    I actually think they’re all seriously lacking ideas on how to sort the place out so it’s easier (and more fun) to let Mad Mike have his head and simply try to mitigate his worst excesses.
    The other two can sit on the sidelines and dish out the odd ‘told you so’
    till something happens.
    I think an elected mayor is the way to go.
    Vote for me, anyone?

    Comment by martin — May 13, 2011 @ 10:42 pm | Reply

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