Pleadings and questions as poll farce continues

A long time ago, The Leveller® suggested a way forward for the future of local government in Somerset. We suggested a referendum. We first suggested this in an article on the 7 January 2020 (and repeated it in articles on 7 July and 4 September). Can’t be done, not practical, not in a pandemic; were the sorts of responses we got.

When we suggested a referendum, we meant a proper one. With both sides of the argument involved. With a debate beforehand and a single date on which voting would take place. We suggested that with enough advance warning, it could happen on the the same day as the PCC elections. The Secretary of State could have enabled that to happen.

The poll that the districts councils have put in place is not what we were calling for. This poll, as we have reported before, was supposed to run from 18 May to 4 June. Except that ballot papers were posted second class on 18 May. Some residents we have heard from did not receive their papers until this morning. So they will have 2 weeks to read the material and make up their minds, others will have 3 weeks. This error has largely avoided comment. yet it is still an unfairness. It was avoidable and it was not avoided.

What has certainly drawn lots of comment is a different error. The One Somerset leaflet sent to residents having a link to a spoof website, caused all hell to break loose. Our MPs are all writing to the headmaster (sorry Secretary of State) saying please sir – he done it not me. On 21st May, Messrs Heappey, Pow, Warburton and Fysh wrote their piece. They state “it is questionable whether government money should have been spent on this exercise.” They also have few words of support for the process run by the Districts. “The literature refers readers to a highly offensive spoof website to gain information about the One Somerset (unitary) proposal. It is deeply misleading and has corrupted this process. The leaflet clearly states that the text for this literature was drafted by an independent law firm. The inclusion of this spoof website demonstrates that this is highly misleading, biased, and shows the process has been corrupted.”

Meanwhile MP for Bridgwater & West Somerset has a different view. In his letter to the headmaster (sorry, press release) today he writes “The government could have organised its own referendum. Instead, they used a cheapskate online survey in a vain attempt to gather public opinion. There were no checks, no security whatsoever. Anyone, anywhere in the world could take part.” We agree, with the first sentence at least. But back in January 2020 nobody was prepared to publicly back our suggestion. At any point in 2020 the districts, county and MPs could have backed the idea of a referendum. With a groundswell of support it could have happened. The fact is, nobody was interested.

And what about that leaflet with the spoof website link? It is certainly true that an independent law firm has been used. That begs all sorts of questions which, the answer to which we will no doubt not be allowed to know. Commercial in confidence will almost certainly be used to spare councillors blushes. But The Leveller® calls for full disclosure:

  • How much did the four district councils agree to pay the law firm who drafted the leaflets?
  • As the process was, we are told fully independent, then only the law firm can be responsible for the error. So will the district councils still be paying for the services of the law firm?
  • Will they now seek compensation for damage to reputation from that law firm?
  • And if not, then why not?

Mr Liddell Grainger is aggrieved at the idea of a simple mistake derailing the poll (it is still not a referendum). He told us “The ballot papers were posted, the referendum is running. I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming number of people voting so far did not waste time following an inaccurate link to see a silly spoof. It was a glitch that should not have happened, I agree. But it could have been quickly rectified by Somerset County Council who were sent advance documentation in the spirit of fairness. In the spirit of stupid stubbornness, however, they didn’t bother to correct it.” This is now challenged by SCC as you can see in our latest piece:

https://leveller.live/2021/05/25/messier-and-messier-somerset-poll-latest/

Yet even that does not address the ineptitude with which ballot papers were posted out late and second class. Everything about this process has been botched. And guess who will be picking up the tab?

Yes you will of course.

3 comments

  • A bigger issue that also needs to be addressed is the legal accountability of councils running these “advisory polls” at the expense of the council tax payer.

    The Electoral Commission state: “Local referendums are outside the remit of the Electoral Commission.”

    They merely suggest voters “contact the electoral services department and the Monitoring Officer” at their District Council.

    Hopefully many of us will do just that and call for the poll to be cancelled or voided due to both the late delivery of the ballot papers and the misleading information they have sent to voters about one of the options they can vote for.

    But this will be a case of our miscreant district councils marking their own homework.

    The electoral services departments and the monitoring officers are all employees of their respective district councils, ergo their loyalty will be to the very same district councillors whose decisions have allowed this “poll farce” to happen (those who in political control of the district councils).

    My guess is that councillors and officers alike are likely to respond to our legitimate complaints with the same confirmation bias that Liddell Granger has already shown us.

    Fortunately the 4 other Somerset MPs have shown confidence in their electors to research and evaluate the choices put to them on a ballot paper; Their words suggest that they do care that the ballot has been badly and unfairly conducted.

    I hope therefore that these MPs will ask the Government to legislate so that councils can be held accountable for badly or improperly run “advisory ballots” such as this; be that by the Electoral Commission or another organisation with some clout.

  • Graham Livings

    Your link March 22 “Somerset Future: What the Accountants say” attracted one response; this ‘octogenarian’ born & bred as they say within the ‘historic county, coterminous with the ancient’ diocese of Bath & Wells.

    The last LG Government Reform 1974 ‘Balkanised’ the former Somerset County. The first elections to the new county council were held on 23 January 1889. Hitherto Rural/Urban Authorities with retained Parish Councils.(Minor Authorities) It’s my ‘conviction’ the former SCC was well established, resourced & to the fore post both WW1/WW2 and in my experience ‘exemplars’ in primary/secondary education; many a ‘primary’ school today beneficiaries.

    My recollection is that ‘elected’ membership was ‘apolitical’ although recognised some individuals, delineated today as party ‘apparatchiks’! Predominantly until the 1974 LG Reforms an emergent ‘community’ motivated individual; it could never have been perceived the ‘advent’ of political ‘nomenclature’ into parish/town councils.

    I support the ’embryo’ proposal by SCC Councillor David Fothergill. At the outset the expected ‘challenge’ will come from the ‘Districts’ with the attendant ‘waste’ of precious rate-payers ‘treasurer’ pace Covid – 19 Pandemic. We’re witness to the ‘demise’ of Somerset’s century’s ‘local’ Newpapers & the emergence of The Leveller 1SSN 2632-3389. (Somerset’s largest circulation newspaper) forensic in its local authority reporting. (15 August 2020: Issue 119 ‘Consequences’.

    I share the view notwithstanding the ‘pubic’ consultation HMG will enact legislation during this parliamentary term at which the 9 Somerset Constituency MPs will have ‘declared’ and was interested in the preliminary ‘thoughts’ of James Heappey MP, encapsulated in Wells Voice: September, publication, which in ‘principle’ endorses Councillor Fothergill’s proposal, contrary to a subsequent assertion he hadn’t made up his mind, true to form, pace Brexit.

    No surprise the ‘latent’ intervention of the Liberal Democrats and their diminishing ‘fiefdoms’ a ‘half-cocked’ referendum reflected in the recent local elections to ’emergent’ Green ‘candidatures’. Paddy would be crying in ‘his’ beer the demise of his sometime West Country ‘bastion’ with today’s successors.

    • I think the “Stronger Somerset” information included is misleading, as it fails to state that this proposal will result in the creation of five new organisations, not two. This is made clear in the “Stronger Somerset” business case (which rather unprofessionally seems to dedicate almost as much content to mud slinging as it does to laying out its proposals – what little there), so why hide it? My only guess is that they have realised that people will equate this to a rearrangement of the deckchairs on the Titanic and vote accordingly, hence the omission.

      I also think the inclusion of “Your Future Your Choice” on the envelope is potentially very misleading, when the Secretary of State has made it clear that he will ignore the result having told all parties that this poll should not take place. The County Council appear to have listened – and by all accounts have done as instructed and distanced themselves, so both senior officers and councillors at the districts should be considering their positions for their misuse of public money.

      Mr Liddell Grainger can make as many (as far as I can tell) baseless accusations as he likes in his destain for the county council, but the simple fact is that the districts could and should have checked their literature, and his blaming of the county council for not getting involved in something he already knows they were told not to is just bizarre even by his standards – even if it was sent as he claims we don’t know who it went to or how long they were given to check it. For all we know it could have been sent with a 24 hour deadline to someone who was off with a ‘if we don’t here from you we will assume it’s ok’ covering message. I’m not suggesting this is the case (I have no knowledge), but I’ve seen that sort of tactic used in the past to try to say that the other party was given chance to check something that the sender knows they won’t like, and unsurprisingly often results in things going rather wrong for them.

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