Without political differences there wouldn’t be much point in doing politics. Debating those differences is a key part of what all politicians do of whatever colour - we do it to explain why our ideas are different and deserve more consideration than the others.
That’s all understandable and as it should be. But a balance is needed. Because elected politicians, including councillors in Brighton & Hove, also have a duty to their constituents. We have to run the city council to the best of our abilities in the best interests of the residents. We naturally won’t always agree on what the right thing to do actually is, but by agreeing to participate in the rules and processes of local democracy, we understand how the final decisions will be made.
We argue; we make our case but if the democratic process comes out with another result we must accept it and move on.
Unfortunately in Brighton & Hove we are straying into territory where not only is the debate over political differences overshadowing too much of the decision-making and actions of the council, some players seem to be seeking to undermine the democratic processes we have to collectively depend on to make decisions.
For example the council is currently engaged in the very important task of recruiting a new Chief Executive. Unfortunately, someone sought to leak some of the candidates’ names, including those of some candidates who didn’t make it through the shortlisting process. If I were a candidate for any job, let alone such a senior and high profile one, I would expect my application to remain confidential. And the panel also deserves confidentiality as it frankly debates the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. This leak was a very serious breach of sensitive information, with serious consequences, and an investigation is underway.
Leaking sensitive information such as this seeks to undermine the process agreed by the whole council in its constitution and the laws regulating local government. The recruitment depends on a cross-party panel which has councillors in proportion to our overall political group sizes. It is this proportionality to how voters chose to elect parties that maintains the democratic mandate. While the decision on the shortlisted candidates wasn’t unanimous, it was agreed properly as with any council decision by committee or panel.
A council statement was then prepared for media enquiries, which said:
“The recommended shortlist of candidates was agreed by the interview panel. Following the interviews the recommended candidate for the post of chief executive will be subject to Full Council agreement on 25 October.”
Unfortunately Cllr Gill Mitchell (Leader of the Labour & Co-operative Group) was quoted in The Argus saying: “The statement from the council press office is not only misleading, it’s untrue. There was no unanimity in the selection of shortlisted candidates.”
As a result of this the council statement became the matter of some controversy on Twitter. In the hurried discussion on Twitter I mistakenly implied that I hadn’t approved the statement but realised soon after this was incorrect and that I had in fact done so. As soon as I became aware of my mistake I corrected myself on Twitter, openly, for all to see. Bearing in mind that I sign off many statements every day, it’s actually an easy enough mistake to make, and as soon as I realised the error, I corrected it.
Let’s be clear that the council statement was correct, it doesn’t suggest unanimity, just that the shortlist was agreed in line with the standard process for the council’s panels and committees. To say that a committee or panel “agreed” something is perfectly normal practice, and I’m not aware of an opposition leader ever questioning this type of wording before, it’s just the usual democratic process. We need to accept these processes and focus on the best interests of the city.
Let’s not be distracted from the fact that someone sought to undermine a clear, fair and proper process to recruit a key role for the city. I welcome the local Conservative party also condemning the leak, but am deeply disappointed that the local Labour party won’t join us in the condemnation.
The city needs and deserves a constructive, workable political culture. We have to accept political differences exist but also agree to be bound by the democratic processes of our council. I call on residents to help politicians change the political culture in the city – challenge us when we slip backwards and demand productive cross-party relations from all parties.
This week we will be interviewing shortlisted candidates for council chief executive. My hope and aim is to find cross-party consensus on a candidate to bring to full council for approval. To do that successfully all parties are going to have to work together, trust the process and put the interests of our great city first and foremost.