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If you want to speak at a council meeting, get elected

Peter Cuthbertson reports on last night Westminster Council budget meeting

Yesterday evening's discussion of Westminster City Council's Budget had some great debate. It was somewhat spoiled by the chanting and ranting demonstrators in the public gallery, encouraged by members of the council's tiny Labour Group. The noise from the gallery certainly contributed nothing new. Everything they heckled was drearily predictable - much of it seemed to be irritation at the banking bailout. I felt like explaining to them that the Council of course has no say on the banks and that of Westminster's two MPs it was the Conservatives' Mark Field, not Labour's Karen Buck, who opposed bailing out the banks.

Certainly the noise did not put off the councillors who spoke. Colin Barrow noted a fourth year of Westminster's very low council tax being frozen. He then offered powerful examples of cuts being made to essential services by Labour councils - cuts that Westminster is managing to avoid, with 80% of all reductions being made in back office costs. I am starting to think Labour councils aren't being all that clever in slashing front line services and then blaming the government. Voters just may notice the more substandard-than-ever service they are getting from Labour councils and vote accordingly.

The council's security team showed saintly patience in dealing with the demonstrations. Let's be clear: shouting down elected politicians in a council chamber is an affront to democracy. This noise not only prevented others in the public gallery from hearing the discussion, but at times prevented councillors from hearing one another.

But even if the demonstrators hadn't been disruptive, there is also the very idea of an unelected mob holding court. One reason we elect our representatives to speak in council chambers is to avoid the ugliness of people getting their way through mob rule. If such protestors disagree with the policies of their councils, they have as much right as anyone else to stand for election. But until and unless they are elected, they have no right to speak in a meeting of elected representatives. That they did speak so much yesterday was an affront not only to the Conservative Group but to the Labour councillors too, who earned their right to speak at the ballot box (three of them by polling better than me last year) - and ultimately to the silent majority of voters who don't have a mob to speak for them.


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