Southend Tories turn last council meeting into unedifying farce

southend civic centre
Last night I stayed up to watch the full council meeting of Southend Borough Council.

I did so primarily for the vote on changes to the electoral arrangements for the Council — reducing the number of councillors by a third, and switching to all up elections — which thankfully failed.

Bizarrely, that was not the most drawn out of farcical part of last night. It was followed almost immediately for an opportunity for Conservative councillors to grandstand, take up time with manufactured moral outrage, and ultimately call for a vote of no confidence in the leader, Cllr Woodley (IND – Thorpe), which failed ultimately by the mayor’s casting vote.

What a deeply unedifying way to conclude the final council meeting before the elections.

The issue in question surrounded some 57,000 letters that went out to Southend residents from the Southend Energy Company, which were signed by the leader of the Council. Now, as regular readers will recall, this is a partnership between the council and OVO energy to offer cheaper, greener energy to residents. And despite Tory griping, it has worked.

There’s no problem per se with this. However, the letters in question were sent out within purdah, the pre-election period in which Council officers should make sure that no material goes out from the Council promoting councillors. So clearly this was a breach, and clearly mistakes were made. The Chief Executive of the Council, the inestimable Rob Tinlin, produced a report to this extent, and said that internal processes would be examined and improved.

That should have been the end of it.

Except the Conservative group wanted to grandstand. Tory after Tory stood up to blame Cllr Woodley personally for this mistake, and whilst I agree that he could have shown a bit less conceit and I am not exactly the staunchest Woodley supporter, I think they overreached dramatically here. The idea that this letter signed by an Independent Party Group councillor who is not up for re-election is an electoral boost to not only Independent candidates but Labour and Lib Dem candidates as well is a farce.

I particularly enjoyed the suggestion by Cllr Phillips (CON – West Leigh), that as a result the Council should pay for Tory leaflets to be delivered to every household. Indicative, perhaps, of the parlous state of the Conservative campaign that is struggling to find enough people to deliver their own literature (All Labour leaflets are hand-delivered by volunteers -Ed), but certainly of the sheer brass neck of these people.

And to call for the leader of the Council to resign mere weeks before an election which will decide control of the Council is, in this blogger’s view, a pointless waste of everyone’s time.

The problem here seems to be that the Southend Energy Company is a genuinely positive step that the Joint Administration has taken to help those in Southend struggling with their energy bills. It has been opposed at every step by the Conservatives, and now that their election campaign is stuck in the dirt they are desperately trying to find excuses in the increasingly likely event that they fail to retake control of the Council.

This is a party who has, for the past two years, struggled with the idea that they are no longer in control. They have repeatedly described a non-Tory administration as “non-democratic”, and the town’s Tory MPs have disgracefully refused to work with any local politician who is not a Tory. They are having to face up to the reality that they do not have a God-given right to rule, and that that is a privilege they have to earn. The failure to confront that reality thusfar is, I have to say, deeply unedifying.

The breach of purdah is unfortunate, and to call out the Conservative hypocrisy is not to downplay its seriousness. Mr Tinlin showed humility and there is no one I would trust more to ensure that this incident is properly investigated and mitigated against. The hysterical response to it, however, demeaned the council itself, and when they come to cast their votes I hope that the residents of Southend will note that the local Conservative Party are more interested in playing petty political games than in ensuring the best deal for the town.

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