Hart of the Matter
In a week when local politics seems to have been turned up a notch or two in the debate over town council finances, it was a curious coincidence that we should have close analysis on TV of the two opposing extremes which drive politicians.
Tuesday night’s edition of BBC1's Imagine series was all about Machiavelli, who declared it is better for a leader to be feared than loved, and then last night the death of Nelson Mandela, who epitomised the opposite, monopolised our screens.
The two extremes share very few principles, but one of them would be that only weak leaders show fear. Machiavelli would have counselled avoiding that at all costs and Mandela never did it.
The politics which has surrounded us this week is all about fear, which shows, perhaps, the quality of our representatives. First we had the Tories in Bury, desperate to find ways of filling the shortfall in their budgets caused by the Government’s swingeing cuts in the cause of ‘austerity’.
They lighted on the council tax support grant by which the Government had sought to mitigate the effects of changes in the way council tax benefit was calculated on local authority finances, particularly for the smaller ones where large unexpected changes are difficult to cope with.
The borough, which is the tax-raising authority so gets the grant initially, had last year dutifully passed it on to town and parish councillors. Suddenly they saw it as a useful little extra bit of help in maintaining their council tax freeze without making other more noticeable cuts which might be unpopular.
In this way the cuts fall on other authorities forcing them to make the unpopular decisions, which is ideal for Tories who, since their disaster in May in the county council elections, feel under threat from UKIP at local government level all round. It’s Machiavelli’s theory in action of making your deputy do all the nasty jobs.
But Haverhill Town Council is a bit of a fly in this ointment because whereas most parish councils in villages are small and non-political, the town council is big enough to have become politicised.
Ever since 2011 when Labour managed to grab control of the town council through a sharp political coup, there has been the potential for political friction with both borough and county which are Tory-controlled. Whether you like it or not Labour have struggled on, with the support, in a Mandela-like spirit of co-operation and lack of rancour, of the Tories on the town council, to try to fill the holes caused by the borough and county retrenching.
In fact, before 2011, when the Tories were in control, they agreed to raise council tax to cover the borough pulling out its funding for the arts centre. Councillors in Haverhill have not wanted to see the community events and institutions which are the town’s unique selling point in the area cut back, because they know it will be unpopular and they fear that.
But, to be fair to them, they also don’t want to see it because they are united in believing it is the right policy and doing a good job on behalf of their people.
The fact that Haverhill has continued to be able to fund these things is no doubt a great irritant to Tories who run the other authorities and see no reason why Haverhill should be able to have these things any more than anyone else.
The town’s MP Matthew Hancock, who many see as a possible future leader, raised the stakes by entering this difficult debate this week. It goes without saying that, as a close colleague of the chancellor George Osborne, he doesn’t want to see council tax raised in a town in his own constituency.
One doesn’t know the ins and outs of what was said at Saturday’s meeting of Tories, but we gain the impression that the Haverhill Tory town councillors had their minds changed for them on a political imperative.
It may even be that Mr Hancock himself regrets intervening so directly and publicly without adding, as he did later, the mitigating fact that he would like to see the Tories at St Edmundsbury reverse the cutting of Haverhill’s share of the council tax support grant and continue to pass it on like good little boys and girls.
If that were to happen, there would be no need for any discussion about raising more cash for the town council. But experience tells us that, although they are in the same party, Tories at St Edmundsbury become very stubborn and tend to dig their independent heels in when Haverhill’s MP has a go at them – ask Richard Spring.
But the motive behind this intervention is not difficult to identify. It is fear again, which has led Tories to look for a divisive issue which will gain them some popularity – and there is no doubt that raising council tax always has the potential to be unpopular, so opposing it could be beneficial.
Their fear is, of course, of UKIP, and the move was clearly intended to wrong-foot the new kids on the block. How would UKIP react? It is in their nature, politically, as many of them are disillusioned Tories, to keep taxes down at all costs. But they don’t want to see Haverhill’s community standing become impoverished because they are populist politicians and they fear a backlash.
They were quick to nail their colours to the mast as supporting what is, at the moment, only a very hypothetical tax rise anyway. Other avenues are being explored so it may not come to that, and if it does it’s just £5 a year each year for four years, so there is an argument to be made that, as a last resort, it would be A Good Thing – and our Tory councillors know that.
Nevertheless, Machiavelli says it is important for a leader to learn how not to do good. That seems to be a lesson the late Nelson Mandela never came to grips with.
|David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.