When Keith Barrow stood down as as a councillor, and therefore Leader of Shropshire Council, as I’ve said in an earlier post (see #24), I was amazed to have council staff phoning to thank me for starting the process that led to that outcome, but even more surprising was to have members of the man’s own political party thanking me. Now that was confusing, because if they were so glad to see him go – and had wanted him gone so badly – why, throughout the two and a half years I had been at Shirehall, had I witnessed unconditional, unanimous, support for anything he did whenever he called for it?
Was it all down to the power of patronage I’ve mentioned elsewhere? Was it not wanting to find themselves at the bottom of the greasy pole that is life at Shirehall out of favour with The Leader? Well, whilst either of those factors may play a part, it’s actually a combination of the two.
Let’s have a look at those ‘factors’. I’ll explain them in terms of how I experienced them because my initial tentative entry into local politics was, believe it or not, as an official Prospective Conservative Candidate.
Selling your soul.
This one is actually quite simple once you’ve had it explained. It has to do with what anyone wanting to stand for election as an official Conservative candidate has to do in order to get constituency backing – sign their life away.
There is considerable irony in my standing for the Conservatives, in fact there is considerable surprise in it for anyone who knew me not that many years ago.
I’ve never been overtly “political”, and there was certainly nothing in my childhood that made me a natural candidate for the right wing of politics, if anything my childhood was the classic first step to socialism, having been born in what was the second of Worcester’s slums to be demolished.
Finding myself, some 67 years later, identifying with the principles (the expressed ones, anyway) of the Conservative Party seemed a natural progression in the journey quite a few people of a certain age have found themselves on, the one that finds expression in the old saying: “If you’re not a socialist at 20 there’s something wrong with you. If you’re still a socialist at 40 there’s something seriously wrong with you”.
I have, at various times, been a member of both the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair put paid to the Labour Party for me and the LibDem’s savage destruction of Charles Kennedy (who I liked), followed by the shameful ageist campaign against Menzies Campbell (who I admired), soured me against them and mainstream politics for all time. So why get involved again and in such a big way?
There is a back-story to my standing for the Conservatives, which goes some way to explaining why, when I was asked at the selection interview why I wanted to be a Conservative candidate in the local election my answer was “I don’t”. I was only half joking.
I had been asked by Philip Dunne MP to find a suitable local candidate and failed because no one wanted the job, so that left me, standing as a personal favour to Philip Dunne, who I liked and respected since he had helped in the campaign to replace the ridiculous ‘Builder’s Waiver Permits’ (a prescriptive sheet of A4 that took a council clerk 40 minutes to issue) with the current flexible system of scratch cards, making Shropshire tradesmen’s lives a hell of a lot easier. Political I was not.
At the time (back end of 2012) I was actively involved in the campaign against the various local wind turbine applications around Bridgnorth (and nationally), I wasn’t happy with central government (coalition at the time) blocking legitimate objections by upholding developer appeals against refusal of planning permission by simply changing the rules, and I was certainly not happy with one Conservative minister in particular – Eric Pickles – who steadfastly upheld the principle at the heart of new planning legislation that allowed turbine scheme developers to simply self-declare their scheme to be “sustainable” to get an application approved. On the wider front, the same was happening with housing developments.
It was happening because Pickles had introduced the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), 54 pages of planning legislation that replaced 1,400 pages of planning law that had, until then, given specific, authoritative guidance to planning authorities and developers over many years, in the process developing what was, in effect, definitive case law that could be referred to in the event of any planning dispute, in other words you had something to point to.
But from the outset, quite a few of us identified the NPPF as a recipe for disaster because at its heart was what came to be known as “the presumption”, the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. It sent the message to local authority planning departments that allowing any development to take place should be the default position; overnight, what used to be the end point became the starting point. The NPPF was couched in such general terms that it was impossible to pin down. It became known as “The Developer’s Charter”.
I hated Eric Pickles and I was putting a brave face on joining a Conservative Party he was a member of, the Party I was about to commit to, so having seen, in the weeks preceding my committing to stand, the number of local turbine applications grow from two to four, and then waking one morning to find that an application for a fifth turbine on one of the most prominent sites around Bridgnorth had hit the local headlines I was in a bit of a paddy.
I was getting mightily pissed off and having doubts – big ones.
No one at the Ludlow constituency office could see the problem and they were such a nice bunch that I was beginning to think it was all me. Then I was handed two bits of paper. One was a mock-up of what would have been my election leaflet, fair enough, but the other was the piece of paper alluded to at the start of this post. I did a double-take at that one.
That second piece of paper was the killer for me. In exchange for constituency support, I was expected to sign to agree to support the Tory ruling group at Shirehall and if the sitting MP was a member of ‘my’ party, to work to keep him or her there. On failing to comply with either condition, the money spent on getting me elected was to be repaid to the local Constituency Party office. That was the condition of being adopted as the official candidate.
Now that is one hell of an incentive to toe the party line. The other incentive was the carrot implicitly dangled in front of every prospective candidate: the rich pickings available as a member of a closed group dedicated to the mutual advancement and enrichment of its members – as long as they toe the line.
I’ll explain it the way it happened to me, triggered by my eventually standing down as the Prospective Conservative Candidate.
Selling your body.
The carrot was dangled in front of me when I emailed Philip Dunne to tell him that although I might support what the Conservative Party stood for, I couldn’t support the way they went about it because there was a lot I could see us falling out over, not least of which was the NPPF and its effect on encouraging the wind industry to locate wind farms in ever more inappropriate locations. I think I might also have mentioned the bedroom tax.
Now here’s the nub of it, the follow up to that email was a phone call from Philip in which he said that if I wanted to get things done for my local community, being on the “inside” at Shirehall was the only way to get them done. I was silent for several seconds because I couldn’t believe what he’d just said. I was naive enough to be a bit shocked.
But I confirmed my decision to stand as an Independent and we wished each other well and went on with what each of us was doing that Sunday morning. I don’t know what he was doing, but I was building a summer house.
And then, just minutes later, the mobile rang again, this time it was Keith Barrow, then Leader of Shropshire Council. He said that Philip Dunne had just phoned to ask him to have a word with me to allay any “fears” (his word) I might have regarding the position of the Tories at Shirehall.
On the question of wind turbines, Barrow said I wouldn’t find a single member of the ruling group in favour of them and, secondly, everyone in the group hated the NPPF as much as I did.
I asked him to explain about having to sign my life away and support the ruling group regardless – or else. Which is when he came on with the voice of reasonableness he was the master of: “Dave, there is no Party Whip at Shirehall, each Member is free to act according to their conscience”.
Really? Then why the signature on that piece of paper? “Well, of course, if you really want to get things done for your local community, being on the inside at Shirehall is the only way to get them done”.
Ooooh dear, there it was again. I remember looking down at the phone in disbelief at what I’d just heard. I thanked him for his concern, assured him that I would, assuming I got elected, support the ruling group as long as they were doing what I agreed with – indeed, why wouldn’t I? – and filed that lot away for a rainy day like this, because in my book that’s not an incentive to support it’s an incentive to corruption, and there’s enough of that around, thank you very much.
One the many things I’ve learned in an eventful three and a bit years at Shirehall is how easy the system makes it for those at the top to hang on to power; once you have it, watching each other’s backs is what keeps you there.
Patronage plays an incredibly important part in the formation of the power groupings, it’s power magnified by the social cohesion created by political party constituencies exercising their power and influence. It isn’t just about financial and back-office support, it’s the moral support they offer through the social functions that draw like-minded people together, confirming bias, the groups thus created forming the bonds that bind; break the bond and you threaten the cohesion of the group. Dare to do that and you’re dead – politically and socially. To a member of any mainstream party that’s the end of the civilised world.