Decline and fall

This evening’s Council meeting has clarified a lot of issues.

The most important was that at last I got a clear and unequivocal answer on the libraries. I asked the Cabinet Member, Jonathan Cook, if he could give a cast-iron guarantee that the out-of-town centre libraries would remain open until the end of the Council’s term in 2018.  His answer was no.  After all that stuff about ‘no plans’, ‘no threat’ and so on we now have the truth – the Council might close Southfields library and/or the others under some conditions.

To a political insider though there were other matters of equal interest. The Conservative whipping and the paranoia it represents is fraying seriously round the edges.  We had a debate on a paper I had brought to Committee proposing that we go and have a look at what other councils do with ‘Ward budgets’, small sums that can be used for local projects.  The Cabinet Member, Councillor Senior, had invested a lot of his political capital and credibility on trying to persuade the Committee to reject the proposal.  He failed and the Committee supported the proposal by 6 votes to 5.

It is really strange, to my mind, that the Cabinet even opposed it in the first place. But tonight they put forward an amendment that in effect prevented the Committee even talking to anyone else about whether giving a small budget for each councillor to use in the ward might in some circumstances be a good idea.

The arguments in favour were very powerful, admittedly. One was that Councillors are too greedy and would not use such a scheme properly.  (Where else would you get someone arguing ‘we shouldn’t do this because you can’t be trusted’ and get the response ‘oh yes, good point, I am selfish and unreliable so I had better oppose this’?)  Another was that people are too stupid to be allowed to make decisions for themselves even over tiny sums, so we have to make sure that we take all council spending decisions for them.  One of them had managed to find an example of such a scheme not working well in Great Yarmouth.  (Frankly I suspect one could find examples of any local authority activity you cared to name not going well in Great Yarmouth – is that an argument for abolishing local democracy?)  Councillors hold a ‘Let’s Talk’ meeting in their Ward every two years for between 30 and 100 of their residents so there is certainly no need for further public engagement.  The use of up to £200 and some officer time is far too much at a time when budgets were under pressure – the leadership had even taken legal advice to show the decision could be overturned.  (I have asked the Chief Executive how much was spent on getting this legal advice as in my experience legal advice can cost even more than paying for a few bus passes for councillors from Westminster or Kensington & Chelsea to come to the Town Hall and enlighten us as to their experience.)  It was claimed that, uniquely to Wandsworth, Council Wards don’t always follow community lines (in all the other London Boroughs which do have Ward budgets presumably everyone knows which Ward they are in, unlike here.)  And the most persuasive point of all – that in Wandsworth we don’t waste time discussing things or looking at best practice elsewhere, we just get on and do it.

A pretty powerful case, you’ll agree. In the event Martin Johnson, who had supported the paper at Committee, left the Chamber rather than vote against (I wonder if he had the same ultimatum that I did that he’d be thrown out of the group for such insubordination).  Only one Conservative Councillor voted to support the democratic decision of the Committee, though the Labour Group did.

There was a choice here. The leadership could have said fair enough, the defeat was a bit embarrassing but there’s obviously an appetite for this, let’s let them try it out before we come to a view.  Or they could decide that they couldn’t allow the slightest open thinking anywhere so would use their majority to behave as democratic dictators, crushing any minority (or in the Committee case majority) view with which it did not agree.  I stress this wasn’t a big budgetary issue, it was whether we should ask a few questions and get a bit of information.

Irving Janis identified eight characteristics of groupthink, itself a sign of an organisation usually in terminal decline;

Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.

Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.

Rationalising warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.

Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.

Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.

Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.

Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”

Mindguards – self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

Roman generals used to pay slaves to whisper in their ear “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!” as they attended their triumph after a great victory. By the time of the decline the Emperors were declaring themselves Gods.  Scrutiny could be the body which whispers ‘look behind you – remember you are mortal’ to the politburo.  But tonight implies that Wandsworth will spend the next three years being led not by Pompey but by Caligula.