Early last month, there was a massive change in the political make-up of Bedford Borough Council, as a journalist this was incredibly exciting, especially as Bedford bucked the national trend.
How did I feel as a Bedfordian, well, that’s not for discussion here – my personal and professional life can be kept separate.
However, what I was interested in more so, was how the political parties would move forward. Naturally, the Tories were jubilant and spoke of “getting the job done”, even if it would be hard considering the now almost balanced make-up of the council.
New Mayor Tom Wotton spoke candidly about having to work closely and make deals with his political colleagues, who politically, “wouldn’t put him out if he was on fire,” his words, not mine.
The other two most prominent political groups, Labour and Lib Dems, naturally, issued statements about how they’d be scrutinising the new administration to the best of their abilities.
You could sense the frustration as they spoke of “thorough and fair scrutiny” of the political management and performance of the Council,” and a “united approach to chairs of non-executive committees that aren’t appointed by the Mayor”.
This is where I started to get excited. Were we going to really have constructive criticism, councillors genuinely working hard to make sure they all deliver what is best for the people they serve?
How naive I was.
In the last month, give or take a few days, the ‘scrutiny’ from the opposition party, Labour, which hold more seats on the council (14) than any other party, has been non-existent.
That’s ok, I suppose, it’s only been a month and perhaps they’re biding their time. They’ve after all been invited to write a monthly column for us and maybe they’ll be using that as a chance to put forward their thoughts.
The Lib Dems, however, have displayed a disappointing level of pettiness that comes across as sour grapes and, to be brutally honest, is not doing them any favours.
Their criticisms have been built upon a simple typo and an out-of-date document which was out of date for quite some time under their own leadership.
Of course, I appreciate that they’re currently licking their wounds, they’re now the third-largest party having lost two seats overall and the mayorship all in one night.
They naturally have some damage control to do and they do want to remain relevant, but, is calling out typos and criticising something they probably should have done themselves the level of scrutiny the people of Bedford Borough deserve?
The turnout for this year’s local elections was just 35%. In 2019 it was 37%, in 2011 it was about 48%.
Nationally, Government research highlights issues with political disengagement, showing that turnout for elections, in particular general elections, has struggled to increase since its dramatic fall in 2001 to 51%.
While turnouts have increased slightly in recent years, the 2019 general election turnout across the UK was 67%, (66% in Bedford), it’s still far from the peak of turnout in the 1950s (84%).
There are multiple reasons cited in the Government’s paper, Political disengagement in the UK: Who is disengaged? for the reasons why people don’t vote.
Everything from lack of gender equality, underrepresentation of ethnic groups and the age of those standing, are given as reasons why many are not interested in taking part in democracy.
While these issues do need to be addressed, petty squabbles and over-the-top scrutiny are also not helping.
After publishing one of the stories above, gratefully received from the area’s excellent Local Democracy Reporter, who is ‘scrutinising the scrutiny’, one of our readers commented…
“Oh please, please, please, for the good of the people of Bedford stop acting like children (the children I know act better to be honest) and get on with representing the people who voted for you, not trying to pull apart other members of the Council who happen to wear a different colour tie.”
Is it any wonder there are comments like this when the level of debate from our elected leaders is the sort of thing you’d expect from someone at home arguing about who said they’d put the bins out or why the washing up wasn’t done?
Pointing out typos or things that probably should have been done by yourself does not make for good criticisms. Is this really the best you’ve got? Is this really the calibre of opposition we have in Bedford now?
These criticisms are clutching at straws, they’re weak at best and not going to encourage people to engage in democracy.
If you really want local people to engage and get out and vote, you need to show you really understand what it is they want, and what they want are councillors who are highlighting the real issues and a council opposition that not only scrutinises but influences for the greater good of all Bedfordians.
As a journalist, editor, and Bedfordian, I implore you – please grow up, you must do better than this.