Croydon, where a constituency Labour meeting last summer banned the use of the word “Blairite”, this week saw the words and phrases “Tory government”, “Barwell”, “Conservative”, “Labour”, “Reed” and “May” all proscribed from use by councillors at a full council meeting at the Town Hall.
Election purdah, the period in which council activities have to be strictly neutral to avoid any accusations of partisanship, does not begin until May 5. But Jo Negrini, the council chief executive, was adamant that she had received legal advice that meant that there was to be no political debate in the council chamber.
George Orwell would have been so proud of Negrini’s bizarre interpretation of the rules, which left the leaders of both the Labour and Tory groups on the council looking more confused than usual, and saw councillors tongue-tied as they tried to ask questions of cabinet members without mentioning… well, the unmentionable.
No one tested the point, but it is possible that the words “Thatcher”, “Mayhem” and “Corbyn” might have been allowed under Negrini’s version of Newspeak. Not that anyone in the majority Labour group would have dreamed of using such language in a public meeting.
It means that, effectively, Negrini has shut down the business of the council as far as the borough’s elected representatives are concerned for the next six weeks. The scheduled next cabinet meeting has already been cancelled.
“What’s the point?” one disgruntled Labour cabinet member shrugged.
In true Orwellian fashion, all mention of the scheduled cabinet meeting date has been wiped from the council website, as if it had never existed at all.
Another experienced council official said that the move at the full council meeting, which was held on April 24, a full two weeks before purdah is supposed to begin, demonstrated, “the power and arrogance of officials over councillors”.
Negrini threatened the elected councillors present that if the banned words were used, “in a worst case scenario, election results could be invalidated”. The councillors, including council leader Tony Newman, seemed genuinely astonished at such a ruling.
On Negrini’s orders, council officials had scurried around the council chamber ahead of Monday night’s meeting, placing a last-minute briefing document on councillors’ desks telling them what they could and could not say during a time of “heightened sensitivity” running up to an election.
It rendered the council meeting more pointless than usual, with councillors reduced to discussing the merits, or otherwise, of deputy leader Stuart Collins’s tie. Leopard skin print, in case you’re interested, worn for a bet which will see a three-figure donation made to the Cats Protection League charity.
In the real world outside Negrini’s bubble in Fisher’s Folly, councils conduct the business of running their borough and avoid any political references, or references to council figures associated with a particular political party, during the purdah period. It ensures that publicly funded council press releases, posters and other publicity maintain a semblence of neutrality.
In truth, council activities ought to be conducted in that manner all the time, not just before an election. But politicians from the Croydon duopoly have repeatedly abused council resources to promote their political parties, with the willing participation of senior council officials.
But Negrini claimed that its was the Local Government Association’s advice which had created this pre-purdah shutdown, which she was now applying above and beyond the restrictions contained in the 1986 Local Government Act.
“In addition a Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity published in 2011 makes clear that particular care should be taken in periods of heightened sensitivity, such as in the run up to an election,” Jacqueline Harris-Baker, the new Borough Solicitor, wrote in a note circulated on Monday afternoon to all councillors. “The Act defines publicity as ‘any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public’.”
Negrini and Harris-Baker maintained that even the council meeting itself was “publicity” and therefore in their view it came under the definition.
Negrini was unable to answer whether tweets and other social media postings sent from the chamber using the council’s resources – that is, the Town Hall wi-fi – would be covered by the restriction.
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