Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Mick Henry Longevity Clause

A change to local government executives throughout England is currently underway. Councils are required to have one of two models: the first is the leader model in which the Leader is elected by councillors and remains in place until such time as his/her constituents vote him/her out. The second is the elected mayor model.

There is an additional way to get rid of the Leader. The loss of a no confidence vote in full council removes the leader. Or does it? Well, in some councils it doesn't because the hurdle for a no confidence majority is set so high that it becomes virtually impossible to remove him/her. Gateshead has opted for a two thirds majority before a leader can be removed. Some other councils have a similar requirement. One or two even higher. Our argument is that it should be a simple majority. After all, if the majority of the council has no confidence in the leader, there should be a moral obligation on that person to resign. With the majority of the council against a leader, that person should go. Governments operate in the same way. What's good for government centrally is good for government locally, at least in this instance.

We debated the amendment to the council constitution today. Labour, led by Mick Henry, argued against our alternative of a simple majority and in favour of a two thirds majority.

I spoke in this debate, dubbing the Labour amendment to the constitution as "the Mick Henry longevity constitutional clause". The argument I put forward was 2 fold. Firstly, a change in the balance of power on the council, eg as a result of an election, may not necessarily lead to a change in the political leadership under Labour's plan. A leader of the council who had just lost an election could stay on as leader as long as his or her party held over a third of the seats.

Mick Henry argued that the new majority group could simply change the constitution so that a confidence vote of only a simple majority would be needed to remove the leader. He made no mention of course of the long time needed to carry out such a change. Interestingly he did not say words to the effect of, "you have my assurance that if Labour lost control in Gateshead, we would abide by the democratically expressed wishes of the people and I would resign." No, the only scenario he was prepared to debate was Labour clinging to power and the Lib Dems having to amend the constitution (which requires only a majority vote) to get rid of the Leader.

Cllr Henry actually refused to contemplate Labour ever losing control of Gateshead, arrogantly describing such a day as being "when pigs fly." Given the low standing of politicians amongst the public, I wonder if the public will treat such arrogance with the contempt it deserves. We will of course be telling the people of Gateshead just what Cllr Henry thinks of their right to decide through elections who they choose to represent them. Perhaps he would like to tell the people why anything other than Labour control of the Council is in his mind at least never to be contemplated.

Now we come to the second point I raised. A leader in a majority group could end up losing the confidence of their own group but could stay on in power if he or she can cobble together a deal with the opposition, as long as together they have a third of the seats on the council, the minimum strength needed to block a no confidence vote. Then came an even more remarkable line of argument from Cllr Henry in response: having such a high hurdle to remove the leader was needed to "protect the Labour group." What happened in the Labour group was "the most important thing".

So, the hurdle is high to protect the Labour group! He said he did not want a situation in which a rebellion and breakaway in the ruling group would lead to a no confidence vote to oust the leader. In such a scenario the rebels team up with the opposition and under the unintended consequences which I do not believe Labour have thought through, the Leader could stay in control even though the group he/she has just left continues to command a majority on the council.

The debate did, as you would expect, go Labour's way. After all they do have a simple majority on the council. But the debate also threw some interesting light on the thinking and worries within the Labour party. They are concerned to cover their own backs in case of an internal rebellion. And they are determined to cling to power come what may in Gateshead.

Whatever the thinking in the Labour party, one thing is clear: they are stuck with Cllr Henry, at least until the day pigs take to the air! Labour councillor backbenchers can rest assured however that we are doing our best to bring forward that day!
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