Daniel Stafford is the Deputy Chairman of Oxford East Conservatives and is Fundraising Manager for a national faith-based charity. He has stood as a Conservative candidate in past local elections in Oxford.
Whatever your experience of local government, a key feature is in the name: ‘local’. Decisions should be taken by locally based councillors, and residents should be able to lobby their local authorities. While this provision does exist, in the form of presenting petitions, asking questions of the council, or speaking in favour of – or opposing – council measures, just how open is this form of lobbying?
I experienced this first hand just before Christmas, when I presented a petition to Oxfordshire County Council on the divisive issue of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. The experience was certainly an illuminating one. Prior to the presentation of the petitions, five different residents lined up to support a motion proposed by a Green Councillor that would make the menu at County Council meetings ‘entirely’ plant-based, and increase provision for vegans in school canteens.
You could not have asked for a better group of advocates for the motion. In quick succession we had the manager of a not-for-profit organisation talking about the good work they do providing local and environmentally friendly produce for schools; two students lined up, one to talk about the need to end the fear young people have for the planet, the other to talk about her painful experience of not having her plant-based diet supported as a young vegan; and finally two residents, one who reported from her consultation on Facebook groups, and another giving a speech worthy of a Councillor on the rational reasons to support the motion.
None of the above is at all wrong; whatever my disagreements with the speakers, it is a privilege our nation gives anyone the right to lobby. In the context of local based decision-making however, it felt distinctly uncomfortable. As one of the students spoke passionately about her fear that the planet would not survive until she reached the age of 50, and talked of primary school children living in fear, I wondered where the contrarian viewpoint was? Surely it is a pertinent question whether we are irresponsible to cause children to be fearful for the future in the first place, and who it is that is making them fearful?
Most sinister of all was the resident reporting on Facebook group comments, who spoke of “the need for children to be educated, so that they can educate parents [on climate change].” Freedom of speech I may defend with my whole fibre, but freedom of speech must be accompanied by freedom to reply, rebut, and contest. The idea of children educating adults is such an abhorrent reversal of learned experience that the moment demanded a response – but there was none.
These five residents so neatly complemented one another that it is simply not credible that it happened without co-ordination. No-one would contest the right of environmental groups (or parents’ groups, or neighbourhood committees, or spelling reform advocates) to lobby. It seems however that debate risks being unbalanced if entry costs are lower for a motivated partisan minority.
To present my petition, my employers permitted a half an hour absence during the working day. Those with fixed shifts like teachers and health-workers, or who have less flexible employers, or cannot arrange child-care, have significantly higher costs in order to lobby. If our current meeting arrangements mean that a greater weighting is given to those who are time rich, or hold strongly partisan viewpoints, local government is failing to be representative of the vast preponderance of local electors.
I have no perfect solution to this problem, but discussion must be had about access to local democracy. After presenting my petition, my local neighbourhood Facebook group had residents lamenting to the effect of “what’s the point, they won’t listen anyway.” Whether we should hold meetings at more accessible times or provide better scope for balanced debate, there is no shortage of proposals that could help. There is one step however that is clear for all Conservatives; whether you are involved in the party or simply a supporter, we need ordinary Conservatives to step up and speak at council meetings, because we can be certain that our opponents are not sitting idle.