More positive electioneering, please

If you don’t like working to tight deadlines you shouldn’t be in newspapers, and usually we manage very well.
Unfortunately my last editorial, commenting on a “debate” at Cheshire East Council, was written with the deadline looming and was perhaps not as clear as it could have been.

I was attempting to complain about a piece of electioneering, carried out at the taxpayers’ expense, in which opposition councillors tried to portray leader Michael Jones as a bully, inept and — in the case of a local councillor — with a dodgy business record.

As a reader wrote in the letters pages, the attempted no-confidence vote was no more than a comical theatrical presentation in what was the last full council meeting before the elections — but we are surely entitled to better from our local politicians?

Our councillors are not at Westminster debating points of national importance, though Prime Minister’s questions illustrates everything that is wrong with politicians, entertaining as it is, but are normal (ish) people elected to deal with local issues?
In the editorial of two weeks ago, I tried to point out that some of Coun Jones’s fiercest critics were either being hypocritical or should at least be slightly more balanced in their comments.

Sandbach’s Coun Sam Corcoran was one I picked on, because he himself had been accused — and cleared — of bullying. He vehemently denied the charge and was cleared of any suggestion of bullying (a point the last editorial did not articulate clearly enough) but his response actually helped prove the point I was trying to make.

Coun Corcoran was really upset and very annoyed that the column gave the impression he had acted like a bully — just to repeat, he had not and was cleared of all bullying charges – but it only added weight to the point I was trying to make: to accuse someone of bullying is hurtful and damaging. It’s not something to which local politicians should resort, at least not in an attempt to score cheap political points and gain headlines.

Obviously, it wasn’t Coun Corcoran who accused Coun Jones of bullying, it was his Labour colleague Coun Steve Hogben who said there was a “culture of fear” at the council and that people were frightened of whistle-blowing. (Which is a neat circular argument that doesn’t need proof: “There’s bullying but no evidence because people are afraid, because of the bullying”).

We hear many things about Cheshire East Council, but operating in a culture of fear is not one: the fact seems to be that planning aside, Cheshire East is not too bad and it has certainly improved under Coun Jones.
It’s true Coun Jones engages his mouth before his brain at times, and you have to be prepared to interrupt him otherwise you never get a word in, but that’s not bullying.

It seems to me that Coun Hogben was simply making an unfair claim to get headlines and score a point — yet his colleague Coun Corcoran was deeply upset by a similar suggestion on our part. Justifiably so.

Coun Corcoran himself attacked the leader over his business record — or would have, had he been allowed to speak.
For years, opponents of Coun Jones have been circulating documents from Companies House, showing Coun Jones’s earlier career as a recruitment consultant and property owner. We saw the documents some time ago and could see nothing wrong, and certainly nothing to do a story about. “Man ran company” is hardly a splash.

One area of concern is that Coun Jones had a company that was registered as property development and guess what — property developers are pillaging the county thanks to Cheshire East’s failure to develop a local plan.
But linking the two is meaningless without proof: the Chronicle is a publisher, as are Razzle, Viz and The Sun. That doesn’t mean you could look at one publication and conclude those three and the Chron are the same.

We did ask Coun Jones about his “property development” and he said it was a couple of houses, as his pension plan.
Obviously Coun Corcoran doesn’t say Coun Jones is in cahoots with the developers developing the green fields in Cheshire East. He can’t. He just points out the paperwork and leaves it to his audience to “work it out”.

There is actually a website devoted to all this, and it reports a letter from Coun Jones saying: “Your profile is factually incorrect and I am happy to inform you that I am most compliant with HMRC. I have paid extensive taxes and always been fully compliant. It is sad that you need to invent and try to bully me.”

***

Obviously I might be naïve in my hopes that we could have a more mature debate in the local elections.
Admittedly, in the same no-confidence debate, Labour group leader Coun David Newton trod a more solid path and said the local plan promised to residents had not been delivered. But Coun Jones has the get-out that he wasn’t in charge when early mistakes were made — that was his predecessor Coun Wesley Fitzgerald.

(Coun Newton did claim credit for the recent “Tweetgate” scandal — in which council officers tweeted on behalf of Coun Jones — saying it only came to light after questions were raised by “diligent opposition councillors”. In fact it was a Freedom of Information request by Radio Stoke. We note that at least one party is already claiming victory in the battle over parking charges at Congleton War Memorial, when in fact it was a public campaign supported by the whole community).

If councillors want to be personally abusive to Coun Jones and his colleagues, we’d have thought there were other areas that were more constructive. Cheshire East Council is now in charge of public health, for example, which means encouraging us all to be healthier: Coun Jones is a big lad and so are some of his colleagues. Surely they should be leading by example?

Sadly, politicians often go for the easy option. If I was Labour’s Dr Darren Price trying to chip votes from Conservative MP Fiona Bruce I’d be going for some of her right wing views.

Her politics are influenced by her religious beliefs (and good for her for sticking to them) and there must be left-leaning Tories who disagree with her stance over abortion and same sex marriage.

But no: he’s recently roped her into the “MPs with second jobs” row, because she draws money from the company she started from scratch — at a time when she could only find one bank manager who’d lend her money — and built up from nothing to be a successful legal practice.

Far from attracting disaffected Tories, I’d suspect that even some Labour voters would have sympathy with Mrs Bruce, a woman who’s made her way in a man’s world.

Obviously campaigning is not easy. Most people are, sadly, going to vote for their party they’ve always voted for and it doesn’t matter who the party puts up.

One reason my editorials have become more outspoken is that we — you — only have the chance to change Cheshire East Council every four years. I don’t think some councillors have made a good job of it and it would be a shame if people just voted for the party colour and returned the same people to make the same mistakes.

At a national level, it’s unlikely that anyone will oust Fiona Bruce, but it would be more interesting if politicians debated the issues and not the personalities (though having a go at unhealthy politicians leading the way on public health is arguably an issue).

Judging from our letters page, the local issues that annoy people the most are:

• Dog dirt: Something needs to be done to stop dirty dog owners fouling paths;

• Travellers: people are very threatened by their arrival and unhappy at the time it takes to shift them;

• Parking: paying for parking, parking outside schools, Blue badges being abused, all important issues for people.

• Potholes: admittedly Cheshire East Council has worked hard on this, but people still complain repeatedly about holes in the road;

• Transparency: at all levels of local government.

The election campaign is gathering speed. Is it too much to hope that candidates address areas that really are of concern to local people, and not just resort to showboating?

***

NOTE: SINCE THE COMMENT BELOW APPEARED, THE ENERGY COMPANY HAS BOOKED SOME ADVERTS

Readers might also like to know that we’ve possibly paid the price for being so outspoken (don’t forget the council also reported us to the Press Complaints Commission last year).
Cheshire East is currently promoting its FairerPower scheme, offering cheap power to voters, handily coming just before the election.
The council has seen fit to pay for large advertising campaigns in the Macclesfield Express and the Crewe Chronicle — both owned by a national company — and not the Congleton Chronicle, locally owned and employing local people.
Let’s hope none of the Cheshire East councillors seeking re-election claim to support local business!

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