It has been, now, over a week since the fun and games of Southend Borough Council’s budget meeting, and a lot of the focus — my own included — has been on Nigel Holdcroft’s accusations of horse-trading against, err, his own administration, and Ron Woodley’s histrionics at his inclusion in the ambit of such horse-trading.
So I’m afraid that I’ve neglected to look at the actual votes cast on the borough’s budget for 2014/15. That is something I shall attempt, in part, to remedy now. It is, I note, difficult because at time of press the council had released no minutes for the meeting.
But from my own observations, and the observations of other bloggers covering Southend local politics, one thing has become apparent: in at least two wards, Independent Party Group councillors cancelled each other out.
I’m not particularly keen to revisit are they/aren’t they a party argument. I feel I’ve already made my thoughts clear on that matter — but suffice it to say, there is an inherent contradiction between the words “independent” and “group”.
Now the Independent Party Group has nine councillors, out of a total of 51. That makes them the joint second largest party grouping on the council (NB: if any of my readers fancy a flutter, I would not place any amount of money on that remaining true post-May, in respect of the Independents or the Lib Dems). This includes two in Shoeburyness, two in Thorpe, two in St Luke’s, one in Westborough (Dr Vel being some confusing hybrid of independent-independent and stealth-Tory), one in Prittlewell, and one in Belfairs.
Still with me?
Now according to the blog of Conservative Cllr Mark Flewitt (I am not 100% sure on this, but he seems broadly right to me on the votes, even if the rest is a blend of tribalism and nonsense) the Tory administration’s budget for the coming financial year enjoyed the support of no less than five of the Independent Party Group. That is more than half of their number, and included Cllr Anne Chalk (Shoeburyness), Cllr Ron Woodley (Thorpe), Cllr Paul van Looy (St Luke’s), Cllr Michael Stafford (Thorpe) and Cllr Stephen Aylen (Belfairs?).
Leaving aside the odd contradiction of Cllr Woodley being accused of selling his budget vote to the Tories, voting with the Tories anyway, and then storming out over the accusation shortly after — you might think that is evidence of guilt, I couldn’t possibly comment — something else about that list grabs my interest.
Out of five councillors, there are four wards on that list. In both Shoeburyness and St Luke’s the Independent Party Group have two councillors, and yet only one from each voted for the budget. Presuming that the other councillor voted against, that means that the Independent Party Group in both of those wards effectively abstained.
Now, you might say that’s not a problem. You might say that independence on the part of councillors is a good thing. You might say that it even features in their admittedly oxymoronic name. You would be right.
Except, this Party Group has designs on power after the May elections. They — rightly — see the vultures circling over the tired Tory administration, and fancy themselves as the heirs to the throne. Never mind that it is as part of a completely fantastical coalition with UKIP (number of councillors: nil), they want the crown for themselves.
And yet, on the one most important thing which comes before the council, arguably the sole reason that the council exists, they can muster not even a semblance of unity. Even councillors within the same ward. Now, there is indeed an Independent civil war brewing (how in the name of God do you have internal factionalism if you aren’t a party?!). Anne Chalk reportedly can’t stand Martin Terry’s leadership, and a cynical man might argue that their alliance is based purely on mutual opportunism.
But come May they want to form an administration. They may even hold the balance of power. Given this show of chaos, I can’t help but worry for the sort of leadership it would mean for Southend. It is hardly a new idea, after all, that building your house on shifting and unstable ground is a fundamentally bad idea.