The events at last week’s meeting of Full Council were fairly hum-drum, considering the backdrop and the huge changes to the Council’s composition over the past few weeks, and I therefore anticipate this blog will be more ‘gossipy’ than usual. So, if political gossip and intrigue does not interest you then read no further.
First, there was the curious case of Cllr Daniel Munyambu (Ind, Vange) – one of Basildon Council’s more ‘colourful’ characters. Until recently a Labour councillor for Vange, he is currently a wanted man in his native Kenya after being arrested there on fraud charges back in 2012 whilst already a sitting councillor. He jumped bail (after his family used, as far as I can gather, pretty much everything they owned to put up surety for him) and fled across Africa before returning to the UK just in time to avoid a bye-election in Vange. He was suspended by the Labour Party nationally while the fraud charges remain unanswered but, for reasons I have never understood, was allowed to remain in the Labour Group on Basildon Council by then leader, Cllr Nigel Smith (L, Lee Chapel N).
Of course, a lot can happen in two years and I gather that Councillor Munyambu – who is up for re-election in 2015 – has failed to be re-selected as the Labour candidate. As a consequence, he resigned from Labour and applied to join the Independent Labour Group, founded by former Labour councillor Lynda Gordon in 2012 after she was ousted as leader by Councillor Smith in a mini-coup following the Local Elections. Miss Gordon’s then deputy, Cllr Phil Rackley (IL, St Martin’s) has been Leader of the Independent Labour Group, which now consists of him and his wife, Pat, since Miss Gordon resigned from the Council in May.
It has to be said that, despite being an unreconstructed Trotskyite communist, Phil Rackley has played a pretty straight bat with us. So, when Munyambu contacted our Group Whip, Cllr Kevin Blake (C, Burstead), to advise he had joined the Tory Party centrally and wished to join the Conservative Group, Councillor Blake contacted the Rackleys to advise them of the duplicity. Munyambu was subsequently expelled by the Independent Labour Group – just thirteen days after he’d joined it. So, as of this last Full Council, he is sitting as an ‘Independent’ councillor. Readers will not be surprised to hear we have since heard rumours he approached UKIP as well. I am waiting to hear if he spoke to Cllr Geoff Williams (LD, Nethermayne), the Council’s lone Liberal Democrat, about becoming a Liberal councillor. [Munyambu snuck off home half way through the meeting, as is his custom, so I don’t think voters of Vange will miss him when he’s gone.]
Speaking of UKIP, their erstwhile leader on Basildon Council, Cllr Kerry Smith (Ind, Nethermayne), has been much in the press recently. The other Councillor Smith (or ‘Councillor Smiff’, as I call him, to differentiate him from his Labour namesake) was, until recently, a UKIP County Councillor for the Westley Heights division, Borough Councillor for Nethermayne ward and Leader of the UKIP Group on Basildon Council, member of the Essex Fire Authority and Chairman of Basildon’s Audit & Risk Committee. All this began in 2013, with his successful election in Westley Heights, so it has been quite a meteoric rise for him. He was also selected as UKIP’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the South Basildon & East Thurrock constituency (currently held by the Tories’ Stephen Metcalfe), where some commentators reckon UKIP stood a pretty good chance.
‘Smiff’s’ fall from grace actually began some weeks ago, I discovered. He was quietly dropped from the Fire Authority by UKIP’s leader on Essex CC, Cllr Jamie Huntman (U, Thundersley). The loss of the Brightlingsea bye-election (which I’m sure readers will recall was precipitated by the resignation of Roger Lord, after he was ousted as UKIP PPC in Clacton to accommodate Douglas Carswell) meant that the party proportionality of the Authority had to change. In effect, UKIP lost a seat on the Fire Authority and Smith was it. This would foreshadow later events.
Back in October, news got out that Smith had been abruptly deselected by UKIP as their PPC for South Basildon & East Thurrock (also known within political circles as ‘SBET’, pronounced ‘ess-bet’). No explanation was given but Smith himself was quoted in the press as saying he thought it was to make way for a “big fish”. There followed weeks of speculation as to who this ‘big fish’ might be – with the focus being on another Tory defection following on the heels of Carswell and Mark Reckless. However, it turned out not to be a current MP but a disgraced former one, Neil Hamilton, who lost his seat as MP for Tatton in 1997 following the ‘Cash for Questions’ scandal. Yet, bizarrely, on the day of the hustings, Hamilton pulled out and publicly backed Smith stating “he should never have been deselected in the first place”. Smith was duly reselected, unanimously. Hamilton’s decision may have been influenced by an internal furore that has apparently broken out between him and their finance committee over some expenses claims he made in his capacity as Deputy Chairman.
SBET is quickly becoming a cursed land for UKIP. Another potential candidate, Natasha Bolter, quit the party after questions were raised about the veracity of her CV and she accused UKIP’s General-Secretary, Roger Bird, of sexual harassment. It’s worth pointing out at this juncture, just for the record, that another name purportedly on the SBET shortlist was Anne Marie Waters (another dubious character – more on her another time), who has already been selected in Basildon & Billericay. So that just goes to show her commitment to our constituency. This, of course, comes as no surprise to me. In 2010, she was trying to get selected as a Labour PPC in Brighton Pavilion.
Anyway, Smith’s reselection in SBET did not last long. A few days afterwards, a recording of him making a variety of unsavoury remarks of a racist, sexist and homophobic nature (including unfortunate words like “chinky” and “pooftah”) during a telephone conversation, were leaked to the press. There has been much speculation about who released this recording and why – it was about two years old – but that is probably beside the point. It looked for a while like he might gamely try to hang on, and he was ‘defended’ (after a fashion) by UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn, who tried to claim, implausibly, that Smith was on prescription medication for an injury and “not speaking or thinking rationally” and that he was “suboptimal” (extraordinary term!) as a candidate and, rather patronisingly, “a young man, learning politics”. As I said on LBC radio when speaking to Duncan Barkes, with friends like Mr O’Flynn, one hardly needs critics or enemies! UKIP ‘backed’ Smith for about 24 hours before forcing him to stand down as PPC for the second time. The identity of UKIP’s eventual PPC for SBET remains, at the time of writing, unknown.
Meanwhile, the knives were being sharpened in Basildon. When we attended our Tory Group meeting on the Monday, we were surprised to see a lot of ‘Kippers milling about. Our Leader, Cllr Phil Turner (C, Billericay W) phone rang during the meeting. “It’s Kerry”; he was ringing to let the Leader know that he’d just been removed as UKIP Group Leader following a vote of no confidence. He has been replaced by his ambitious deputy, Cllr Linda Allport-Hodge (U, Langdon Hills). His boss (and rival) at ECC, Councillor Huntman, also put the boot in and described his position within the UKIP County Group as “untenable”. He resigned from the party shortly thereafter and has since formed a separate group at Basildon – which he is calling ‘Independence’ – with his mother, Cllr Imelda Clancy (Ind, Pitsea NW). He will sit on ECC as an independent county councillor.
All this high political drama has, of course, been tremendous fun for the rest of us, coming as it does at the expense of our political rivals and – in Smith’s case – one who cost us seven seats last May. But, for a young and relatively new politician such as me, it has also been a somewhat sobering reminder of the fickleness of politics. Kerry Smith has been riding on a high since I stood against him in Nethermayne back in 2012 and he humiliated me by pushing me into fourth place. Not only did he win the Westley Heights seat in the county elections in 2013 (unseating my dear friend and mentor, John Schofield), he went on to lead his party to a stunning victory last May, taking his party from just one seat to twelve overnight and becoming leader of the main Opposition group on the Council, relegating Labour to the third party of Basildon politics. Now, he’s been sacked from the Fire Authority, sits as a lone independent on ECC and leads a group at Basildon that consists of just him and his mum. It’s a salutary lesson.
Anyway, on to the meeting! We all arrived in festive spirits, as you would expect. The Tory Group have a tradition of wearing silly Christmas ties at the December meeting of Full Council, and take this tradition very seriously. I was sternly admonished by our Whip, Kevin Blake, for not wearing one last year (as a new councillor, I was unaware of it) and, although I did try and go out and purchase one this year, I was unable to do so. Fortunately, I was able to mollify Councillor Blake with a large “I Love Christmas” badge on my lapel. The look of horror that came over the face of my soberly-dressed colleague, Cllr Tony Hedley (C, Billericay West), is something I shall treasure. Councillor Hedley, it seems, is not a fan of the tie tradition.
The seating arrangement for this meeting must have presented officers with obvious difficulties. Smith had specifically requested he not be placed anywhere near the Labour Group, so, bizarrely, he was placed right next to the UKIP Group. The look of pure fury on Councillor Allport-Hodge’s face when she entered the chamber and realised that her former boss would be sitting right next to her, I have to admit, is one that I shall treasure. Immediately behind Cllrs Smith and Clancy was our old friend Munyambu (I daresay Smith will be hearing from him shortly!). The Independent Labour Group, who usually occupy that position, had been moved – oddly – immediately next to the Labour Group, with Councillor Williams (our solo Lib Dem) placed behind them. This probably delivers a more accurate left/right balance to the chamber. In any case, I’m not sure how happy the Rackleys were sitting next to the ‘Kippers. At the last meeting of Full Council, Cllr Pat Rackley (IL, St Martin’s) walked out of the chamber calling Allport-Hodge a “racist”.
Enough of the schadenfreude; the meeting kicked off with the customary preliminaries, including on this occasion a minute’s silence in memory of two former Labour councillors who passed away last month – former Lee Chapel North councillor Ron Austin and former Fryerns councillor Alf Dove MBE, both of whom were former chairmen of the then Basildon District Council and both died aged 95. We then moved on to Public Question Time and Members’ Question Time, during which members of the public and backbench councillors can ask questions of Cabinet Members and Committee chairmen. This was a bumper session in an already overloaded agenda. We had nine questions submitted from members of the public and seven from councillors (mostly Labour but two tabled by Kerry Smith).
This proved to be hugely problematic because we already had a fairly large agenda – thirteen distinct items of business before reaching the motions, of which there were six, including my own motion on the Outwood Farm solar array. Both Public and Members’ QT is subject to a ‘guillotine’ of half an hour. This can be lifted if members vote to do so and, naturally, Labour voted to suspend the guillotine. This will always be a popular move with the public gallery for obvious reasons. I voted against lifting the guillotine, however, and I would like to take a second to explain why. There is a reason we have a guillotine. Obviously, people elect us to represent them and to listen to their views. But anyone can pick up the phone or drop me a line – or any councillor – and get a hearing. It doesn’t have to be during Full Council. The electorate also elect us to do a job of work and we cannot effectively do that if we cannot get through the necessary business at Full Council meetings. We got a lot of stick from Labour and a considerable amount of booing from the public gallery, and I get that, but given the chance I would vote the same way again. Six out of the nine public questions were answered within the half-hour. Likewise, half the member questions were dealt with in the allotted time. Even with the guillotine in place, it is important to note that we still ended up junking half the agenda – including my motion – because we ran out of time. It is also worth noting that two of the six ‘public’ questions dealt with in that session – specifically the ones asked by Mr Pat Grogan – were essentially political ‘plants’ by the Labour Party. Mr Grogan is a well-known Labour activist and another reason why I am generally suspicious of lifting the guillotine on these occasions is because of the Labour Party’s proclivity for abusing PQT by planting their activists in the public gallery to ask loaded and highly politicised questions.
One of the reasons MQT only dealt with three questions was because of a question asked by Cllr Andrew Gordon (L, Nethermayne), which was naked politicking, asking the Cabinet Member for Housing & Community Safety (Councillor Hedley) “What assurances [he can] give to the residents of Lee Chapel South that their concerns regarding an increased level of crime in the Lee Chapel South area are being taken seriously?” This question was clearly soliciting the stock response ‘The Council is doing all in its power, etc’, to enable Councillor Gordon to launch into a political stump speech about, presumably, the street lighting, amongst other things. This is a very silly tactic to pursue with Tony Hedley, who is an old warhorse who takes an exceedingly dull view of these sorts of tactics and infamous for his filibustering abilities. He proceeded to filibuster the session out of time in a way that was, perhaps, not exactly in the spirit of the occasion but nevertheless epic in scope. Although clearly aimed at infuriating Gordon and his comrades, if anyone had bothered to listen to his reply they would have heard that it outlined (in tremendous detail!) the various ways in which the Council engages with and heeds residents’ concerns and, most importantly of all, underlined that there is, in fact, no increase in crime in Lee Chapel South. Alas, instead, Labour wasted time trying to use Points of Order to shut Hedley up and concoct offence at an off-the-cuff remark he made about Gordon being “verbally incontinent” (largely as a result of the latter’s heckling). It was, I admit, probably pretty unedifying from the public’s point of view but, nevertheless, I suspect it’s the last time anyone from the Labour Group will be stupid enough to try and work in a party political broadcast at Full Council off the back of a question to Councillor Hedley!
After the break, and already running low on time, we dealt as swiftly as possible with a number of relatively minor technical changes to Council Tax, the Localised Council Tax Support Scheme and revised financial regulations. The two major items of business on the Council’s agenda was the Strategic Asset Acquisition Framework and the creation of a wholly-owned company as part of the Council’s upcoming council house building plan. The former was a framework to enable the Council to acquire assets and act in a more commercial manner. It was aimed at making the Council more nimble and able to respond to opportunities and threats. Unfortunately, both UKIP and Labour ganged up together to vote this sensible measure down. More distressing, however, was the intimation by Allport-Hodge that she and the UKIP Group would also oppose the wholly-owned company. Even the Labour Group could see that the creation of a WOC was a fantastic opportunity for our residents, to enable to Council to build the first new generation of social housing in the Borough in decades. Indeed, the current Labour leader, Cllr Byron Taylor (L, Vange), made one of the most impassioned speeches I think I have ever heard from him. Shamefully, UKIP voted against but with the support of the other parties, including Independence, the measure was passed. But it neatly underscored that, for all the bluff, UKIP are too inexperienced and risk-averse to make an effective party of administration in our Borough.
After that, unfortunately, we reached the 11:30pm guillotine and the rest of the agenda got kicked into a cocked hat. The remaining items were voted on without debate and those tabling motions had to decide whether to put them to a vote without debate or withdraw them. I decided to withdraw my motion and will submit it at the next meeting of Full Council in the New Year.
Hopefully I will be able to come back after the next meeting with an account of the debate we had on my motion. In the meantime, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and all the best for a happy and prosperous 2015.