From the centre
The Chair of the Party Group did not expect a peaceful meeting. Discussions of next years’s Council Tax and Budget had just started and this was the first time some ward councillors could comment on the Leader’s proposals. The Chair expected comments like “Sellout”, “Government stooge” and “Traitor”. These would be from one of the members of Meltham West ward, and he had just arrived in the Council chamber.
Councillor Neil Granger had served the ward for over thirty years. From the days when his employer, Tilson Engineering, provided well paid skilled jobs for many. Until the present day when the factory is only remembered by old men stretching out a pint in ‘The Royal Oak’ on the High Street. Granger is a regular, and fondly recalls jabbing his pudgy finger at ‘The Management’, safe in the knowledge that his branch would down tools on his say so, and have the shareholders quaking in their Jermyn Street shoes. Other regulars made a receptive audience for his routine tales of his political skill at the Council.
“Colleagues, can we make a start please. Settle down now. Thank you. Frank?’
“Thank you Chair. Colleagues, if you have read tonight’s agenda you will see that we are heading for a Council election next May with no option but to make cuts in services. This autumn will be the time to make tough decisions. It looks like some areas may get some extra money for particular schemes, and I need you to make the case for your ward and what needs saving. That way we may be able to convince the government to help those declining areas in our borough, and share the pain of cuts around the better off areas.”
The Leader of the Council sat down. Councillor Granger’s hand shot up.
“Thank you Chair. I am amazed at the gullibility of the Leader of the Council. Doesn’t he realise that these government handouts always come with strings attached? What he is not telling us is that Westminster says it should decide how we spend our money. But they just want to import more latte drinkers into Meltham West ward. This council must defend the voters who have loyally supported us for years. Otherwise, some of us might not survive next May’s election, and be replaced with a Jeremy or Jemima! We must defend services for our pensioners and vulnerable people, and the middle class arty-farty types can jump in their Volvos and go into Hanswick for their contemporary dance festivals!” Granger sat down, satisfied that he had burnished his ‘ordinary working man’ credentials.
The meeting went through page after page of gloom. Park refurbishments cancelled. Pavements being replaced with tarmac, not flagstones. Redundancies.
Granger pulled his overcoat around him and carefully descended the steps to the High Street. Phil Weller, a fellow ward councillor, caught up with him and asked if he needed a lift home or if he was going to ‘The Royal Oak’. “Neil, I need to talk to you about something important”.
In the Toyota, Weller explained he had decided not to stand again in next May’s election. He finds the prospect of making cuts to officers he had known for years too painful. His health, also, has not been what it was. Granger was silent for a moment. “Phil, me old mate, you are dropping me right in it. At a time like this we need a man with experience”. Weller went on to explain that the daughter of old party member, Vanessa Carter, was keen to stand. “She is intelligent, has worked hard for our MP, and she is keen to make a difference” Weller emphasised. “I’m backing her in the selection meeting next week.”
Alex Finlay suddenly sat up in his chair in the rest area, Local Government Chronicle quivering. “Sam!” he calls to his Team Leader. “Did you see this? We could be in line for a development grant for community Third Age projects! Ooh, if I had that kind of money I could really change the Meltham Centre. We could make the Pensioners Club five days a week, refurbish the kitchen, maybe make better use of the old arts space that is just being used for storage.”
Sam Mayfield sauntered over. He noticed that Alex’s jacket frames the back of the easy chair. No-one else’s shoulders would be wide enough to do that. ”As long as those clueless councillors can be bothered to apply for it. I included the details in last week’s Leader’s briefing and Owen said he would bring it up with his group during the Budget proposals before the next Council meeting. We shall see. By the way, talking of pensioners, how is your ‘Silver Surfers’ project going?”
‘It’s going brilliant!’ beamed Alex, ‘Better than expected. I’ve just had an email. An email, mind! From the Chair of the Pensioners Forum saying it’s making a big difference to his members. They are finding out what the council is doing, ordering online, and there’s even a new local chat-room called “Codgers Corner” ‘ All the team chuckled at that.
Mayfield lifted his head, “Ah yes, Budget proposals. Alex, can I have a word? In my office.”
A sharp knock on the door lifted the gaze of two councillors and the Chief Executive. The door jerked open and Neil Granger ambled in.
“Hallo Neil. Thanks for coming in. Is Phil joining us today?”
“ No Frank. Phil is leaving it up to me since he is not standing again.”
“Councillor Granger” the Chief Executive soberly addressed him. “ The Leader and Deputy Leader asked me to take ward councillors through the consequences of the Budget decisions they have made so far, the impact of the boundary changes and how they will affect services at ward level. Please pull up a seat”
Granger took a seat at the large table, covered in maps and bar graphs. He recognised the shape of his ward, and tables showing reductions in staffing across the departments that supply services to the people he represents. He looks at the Deputy Leader “Bridget. You are responsible for the community side of things. What do these changes mean for my pensioners?”
Bridget Patterson exchanged glances with the Leader.”Neil, it means the extension of services we wanted at the Meltham Centre will not go ahead. We may have to sell off some of the site as well.”
Granger’s face froze “You mean the community garden, don’t you! You mean you’re going to take away the little pleasure some of my pensioners have! Well, you are not on!”
The Leader leaned in “Neil. Nothing is finalised yet. But we have had a good offer for the land from HV Holdings. They want to put a new car wash there. We want you to understand what has to happen following the decisions we made last week.”
“Frank. You don’t understand what this could do to my majority in May!”
Patterson straightened up and folded her arms across her chest. “ Neil. If only you had agreed to the regeneration grant, this may be unnecessary”
“Bridget. My position is perfectly clear, but perhaps you were unable to grasp it. I will not dance to the tune of Westminster. No. You find a way to keep the Meltham Centre as it is, or you can expect a delegation of pensioners, and the local press, with me in the lead, telling every one that you don’t care what happens to the Meltham centre. You and your yuppy friends can’t wait until it is sold off for an arts cinema or something” Granger scraped his chair back, straightened his jacket, and strutted out of the office.
“Frank” said Patterson “You did not tell him about the boundary change”
“One headache at a time please Bridget”
“Number 18. The Morgans” Vanessa Carter was reading from a copy of the electoral register. “Our records show they always vote for us”
Granger rang the doorbell. “Good evening Tim, Sharon. Good to see you again.” Granger was in his best jovial form. Tim was obviously irritated that his favourite TV programme had been interrupted by the man he referred to as ‘Councillor Loudmouth’.
“Phil not with you then”
Granger shook his head “Phil has given up being your councillor. His health, you know. Anyway, young Vanessa here has now been selected, and aims to carry on Phil’s work. ”
Vanessa stepped forward and smiled. Hello, Mr Morgan, our voter’s list says there is also a Luke Morgan living here. Is he at home? Granger glared at her as Tim Morgan’s mouth dropped.
“She’s still wet behind the ears, Tim”. Granger turned back to face the door but it was closed in his face. “What did you go and say that for? Luke is in hospital after a bad car accident, he nearly died”
Vanessa felt her eyes prickle with tears “Neil, how was I supposed to know? You did not say anything.”
“Besides,” said Granger “You don’t need to check off every resident. Round here they still vote as the old man says. And that applies to our Asian friends as well. Even more so there.”
The next few calls found no-one at home. Many of the doors had been changed and the terraced houses had new windows, almost identical to the style of the old. The new UPVC doors had ‘sunburst’ oval windows, mimicking the original 1920 designs, but with state-of-the-art video doorbells.
A large purple card was poking out of one of the smooth chrome letter boxes. Granger pulled it out to check if it was opposition literature. Historically, other parties put up ‘paper candidates’, with no expectation of taking a seat off Granger and company.
“It’s one of those pathetic Independents who stand now and again. Single issue sorts. That has to be the ugliest logo I have ever seen. Granger passed the card to Carter. “It’s not a logo. It’s a QR code.” She explained “You scan it with your phone and it opens a website.”
“Scanning. Website” Granger mocked. “Most of the people round here worked as engineers at Tilsons like I did. Or were just housewives. When you are on the tools, or a machinist, you never needed any computer. Just a steady hand and eye. And a pride in your work. People like Tim wouldn’t know a website if he fu..… slept with it.”
Carter put the card in her bag with the intention of checking the website later. Once back at home, Carter found the website from the card. It invited residents to sign up for an email newsletter to hear about the campaign to save services at the Meltham Centre. The Centre had lost its Development Officer, Alex Finlay, in the budget cuts. The text goes on to say that local pensioner activists found out that Councillor Neil Granger refused a grant from the Government that would have saved the garden, two development staff, and allowed refurbishment of the kitchen and former arts space.
Carter slumps back in her chair. Through clenched teeth she says to herself “Granger said nothing about this. If this gets traction, it will seriously damage our campaign. And the end of my election chance.” She notes that the Meltham Centre campaign is putting a candidate up in Meltham West – Alex Finlay.
“Good morning, Housing Area West. Oh, good morning Councillor Granger. Yes, Abina should be … oh here she is now. Oh, okay, you will be over in ten minutes. I will let her know you are on your way. Bye.” The Housing Team Leader Anne Hickson put her phone down. “Abina, sorry to catch you as soon as you walk in the door. Councillor Granger wants a word about a housing issue he picked up canvassing last night.”
Abina put her bag down and switched on her PC. Anne swung round on her chair “That’s a pretty top. Is it new?”
Abina smiled “Not that new, but this morning is so sunny and warm for April I thought I would wear it. I like it because it is so colourful” A female colleague calls across to her “Abina, If I had as much top as you have, I would wear tops like that”. “Meena,” smiles Abina” if I had two children and was as slim as you, I would thank my lucky stars”
The office door opened and Granger entered with that slightly wobbly walk of his. He walked in and stopped, looking over Abina’s shoulder. “Morning Breena, how are you?”
Abina turned and looked up “I’m fine thank you Councillor Granger. How can I help?
Abina turned back to her keyboard and, as she starts typing, the front of her top billows forward. Granger does not move from behind her shoulder, and if anyone were watching closely they would see the tip of his tongue appear. There is a pause. “Councillor Granger?”
“Sorry Breena, I was distracted. 24 Madeley Street has some roof tiles loose and told me last night that they have reported it twice and nothing has happened. Can you get it sorted, and ring me when it is done?”
“Yes Councillor Granger. I will attend to it right away”
Granger puts his notebook and pen back inside his jacket, nods to Anne Hickson, and leaves the office. Meena stands up, her mouth open. “He was looking down your top!” Abina tugs her top down and shrugs, straight-faced. “He makes my skin crawl, but what can you do? He is a councillor”.
“Vanessa, it’s your first time at the count as a candidate. A few things you need to know.” Granger was giving Carter the benefit of his unbroken chain of elections.
“You don’t look at our votes piling up. You watch the piles of the opposition. That way if any of our votes go into the wrong pile, you can ask the counting clerk to pull them out and put them in the right pile. Got it? Okay, off you go.”
Candidates anxiously moved between the tables in the Town Hall chamber, looking for changes in the votes. The unknown factor, they told each other, was the impact of the boundary change. New housing developments on the old Tilson’s site had altered the number of voters. The wards had changed shape, as had the mix of tenants and homeowners. New voters on the register, and no-one could predict how they would vote. Very few of the new voters answered the door during the campaign, and the door entry systems to new flats prevented the face-to-face contact the candidates needed.
Just after one a.m. the first results were announced. No change in the party composition in those wards.
One-Thirty: “Would candidates in the election for Meltham West ward please come to the stage” announced the Chief Executive.
Granger, Carter, and some party workers left the snack area and the two candidates took a step up to the low stage with the Borough’s logo on it. Granger saw Finlay standing at the edge of the stage with a sheaf of papers in his hand. Then he saw the Agent for his party looking straight at him and shaking his head.
“I being the Returning Officer for the Council election declare the number of votes in Meltham West ward as follows” It was a two councillor ward, only five candidates stood.
“ I therefore declare Vanessa Carter and Alex Finlay duly elected as councillors in Meltham West ward.”
Granger froze. He felt the blood drain from his face. Then the anger came, as Finlay waived his sheets of paper to his cheering supporters, mostly pensioners. Granger had to wait. There must be clear evidence of election fraud here and he would make sure everyone knew. The election would have to be re-run.
“… But even better than my delight at being elected is the good news in these letters” said Finlay. He explained to the chamber that after he was made redundant, he was quickly employed by Community Development Fund who placed him at the Meltham Centre and, combined with money Finlay had obtained from the National Lottery, they were to finance all of the development local pensioners had been promised before the cuts.
Granger confronted Finlay as he stepped down from the stage. “Finlay, you cheated. You had no window posters, we out-leafletted you, and I suspect you had a mole inside the Council who was leaking private information from the ruling group meeting. I will demand the election is run again”
Finlay smiled and cocked his head to one side “Your pensioners are now my pensioners, Mister Granger. My campaign told the truth by email about the failure, by you, to support the Meltham Centre. You were the talk of ‘Codgers Corner “
Granger impotently balled his fists. “ I will find your mole and have him sacked”
Finlay shook his head “Don’t waste your time Mister Granger. It was research by our pensioners that clinched it. All they had to do was be in the Royal Oak after a Party Group meeting, and listen.”