Today i have received a leaflet from an independent candidate for an upcoming local election for the Moorthorpe Ward of South Kirkby and Moorthorpe Town Council. For people who are not familiar with this area Moorthorpe is a village that neighbours South Elmsall and South Kirkby, both former mining settlements in West Yorkshire, governed at District level by Wakefield Metropolitan District Council. Due to the closure of the local collieries the settlements that form what is known locally as SESKU (South Elmsall, South Kirkby and Upton) have struggled for decades to recover and still to this day there are pockets of deprivation locally that compare with any similar situation in communities across the United Kingdom. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) these settlements pay the highest council taxes in the entire Wakefield area, due to the annual tax bill for being part of Wakefield Metropolitan District Council and also for having individual Parish/Town councils. Support for the national Labour party in the area is very strong, the local Member of Parliament, Jon Trickett, has one of the safest seats in the nation, with it being Labour held since creation in 1918. In recent years however something has happened at a local level that, in my own opinion, reflects badly upon Labour as a national party and also on some of the hard working people in the area who are elected to work on behalf of residents. There is a stink in the air, it is a problem that the national Labour party needs to sort out and in double time. The issue is co-option.
The leaflet which dropped into my letter box today contains a paragraph which, when i first read it, made me do a double take. It seemed all too familiar, it was almost as if i myself had written it. It says;
Recently membership of the Town Council has been seen as ‘extending the Club’ with co-options only coming from Labour Party members. On my recent application for a casual vacancy position i was informed that my application was good but, as i wasn’t a member of the Labour Party i was not selected, they wanted one of their own!
Co-option, for those who are not familiar, is when the local council in question ask someone they know to fill a casual vacancy (a post that needs filling) that exists within the council, rather than it going to a democratic public vote. All casual vacancies must be advertised and the casual vacancy is filled by a co-opted person if no election is called.
This account by candidate Tony Parkinson seemed all too familiar. Only last year i myself was interested in a casual vacancy that existed on neighbouring South Elmsall Town Council, this itself was widely known as i have been vocal on local matters for a long time. Prior to the deadline for this specific casual vacancy i was called into a meeting at the Westfield Centre (home of South Elmsall Town Council) by Councillor Brian Capstick, of South Elmsall Town Council. Odd, i thought, perhaps they want to speak to me about the casual vacancy? I was met at reception by Clare Baxter, Town Clerk, along with Councillor Capstick and Councillor Steve Tulley and then led into a small back office. Councillor Tulley began our meeting by telling me “we don’t like it when people criticise us.” I was taken aback. I was being told off for daring to publicly question the local council on social media. I was being talked down to. During the 45 minute or so meeting i began to feel cornered, i was in a windowless room, on my own, faced by two Councillors asking me questions such as;
Where do you work?
Who is your boss?
Where were you born?
Where do you live?
Who is your father?
None of which have anything to do with the local council nor any Councillor and none of which a member of the public should be being asked in such a meeting. Naturally i wanted out, this did not feel to me like a getting to know you session. I tried my hardest to be open about my political membership of the Yorkshire Party, i agreed wholeheartedly that some of the criticism local councils and Councillors face on social media is unfair and that local Councillors have a right to feel personally aggrieved. But i just wanted out. After a quick tour of the excellent facilities on offer at the centre, with sage nods of the head and smiles from myself, i shook hands with Councillor Capstick and left. I never did contest that casual vacancy. I personally felt that i had been scared off, i felt i had been bullied into choosing to be with them or against them and i couldn’t bear the thought of this being played out publicly, given the local support Labour have as a political party. I felt i was on to a hiding in my own community and despite the protestations of the leadership of my own Yorkshire Party i didn’t feel the time was right for me to take them on at election. The casual vacancy was, naturally, co-opted, no election was held. The common phrase is that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same spot. But here we are, two local residents wanting to represent the people of the communities they live in, from outside the local Labour party, on two neighbouring Labour led local councils, with very similar accounts. Could this be a coincidence?
In 2012 the Hemsworth and South Elmsall Express reported on the formation of a new political party, spearheaded by local Councillors Harold Mills and Wilf Benson, former local Councillor Fred Hilton and former local candidate Martyn Sullivan, to act in opposition to the local Labour party. Councillor Benson said; “Democracy will only work if there is an opposition party but in the South Elmsall, South Kirkby and Upton area all we have is one main party which has been in power for years.” The number of local residents who attended the meeting was reflected on by Councillor Benson when he added; “It was quite overwhelming to see that many people turn up, but just goes to show how many residents are dissatisfied with the way the area is being run.” This relates to the events of 2011 when the Hemsworth and South Elmsall Express reported on the objection into the handling of the position of leader of South Elmsall Town Council by independent Councillor Benson, when the overwhelmingly Labour led South Elmsall Town Council chose Councillor Tulley to be leader of the council and chose Councillor Capstick as deputy leader. Years later the same faces from the same local Labour party still seemingly run local politics with an iron fist. Councillor Tulley is still leader of South Elmsall Town Council, a position unelected by the public.
And this is quite obviously endemic. In 2014 the Yorkshire Post reported the preliminaries of a hearing into allegations of intimidation and bullying by Councillor Tulley against constituents and social workers. According to the Yorkshire Post, when offered the chance to respond Councillor Tulley stated; “I am not playing your stupid game. I have no intention of explaining myself to anyone.” The same piece also added that in an earlier telephone call with a council officer to discuss the matter Councillor Tulley was found to have used “inappropriate and offensive language” that “offends the authority’s own equal opportunities policies”. The Pontefract and Castleford Express added to the coverage of the preliminary investigation that a legal officer at Kirklees Council found that; “there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Councillor Tulley’s behaviour was intimidating and amounted to bullying of the individual social workers concerned.” Later the Wakefield Express reported that the ‘independent investigation’ by Wakefield Metropolitan District Council ruled that Councillor Steve Tulley had been “intimidating, aggressive and bullying” in a meeting with the two constituents and social workers, that left the social workers “very upset”. In response Councillor Tulley stated; “I have never bullied anyone in my life and spend all my professional time defending people who are bullied.” He added that; “An investigation took place and they (the social workers) were found to be telling bare-faced lies. That’s the reason I didn’t take part in the investigation – most of the witnesses against me were proven liars. This council failed my constituents and, more importantly, those children.” Despite this the report stated that Councillor Tulley was uncooperative with the investigation and he was subsequently suspended by the Labour party. This, for me personally, highlights that (regardless of who was right or wrong in this specific case) Councillor Tulley has been acknowledged in making people feel like they have been bullied before, i am not the first person to say so.
And this toxic problem is spread across the entire community, make no bones about it. In 2012 the Hemsworth and South Elmsall Express reported that current South Elmsall Town Council Clerk, Clare Baxter, then longtime Clerk of nearby Badsworth Parish Council, had resigned along with a Councillor from an “unfit” and “dysfunctional” Badsworth council full of “hidden agendas” and “cliques”. Back in 2002 Councillor Laurie Harrison was named in a two year investigation into the sale of a care home in South Kirkby and faced suspension by the local Labour party, as reported by the Wakefield Express. The same publication also reported that Councillor Harrison had been found to have “acted inappropriately” over the sale of the community asset in a police investigation that ultimately led to no charges being brought. In 2011 Councillor Harrison, a Councillor with over four decades of experience, branded a local war hero “one of the clowns of the village” in a very public legal battle that took headlines across the country, including this report from the Sunday Express. Yet Councillor Harrison, despite these (unfounded or not) allegations and faux pas, went on to lead South Kirkby and Moorthorpe Town Council and acted as Deputy Mayor of Wakefield in 2013, as reported by the Yorkshire Evening Post and was reported by the Pontefract and Castleford Express to be in line to become Mayor of Wakefield if had he not lost his seat to Councillor Benson, the very local Councillor that local Labour Party members including Councillor Tulley had personally lambasted for daring to stand up against the Labour stronghold on the community and told he had no support.
And this handing of power from one to another continues.
A quick consultation with the respective websites of South Elmsall Town Council and South Kirkby and Moorthorpe Town Council show that Councillor Joyce Tunstall, and Councillor Jon Treacy currently sit on both councils. This is not an uncommon occurrence and simply has to be seen to be a potential conflict of interests. This brings us back to the issue of co-opting amongst the local Labour party. As i already alluded to, last year i was considering standing to represent my community for a casual vacancy until the meeting took place which effectively made me feel i shouldn’t take on the Labour SESKU clique. The South Elmsall Town Council website again proves a useful resource in that minutes of the council meetings published for the January the 19th 2017 clearly state, in item 16 that a decision to co-opt someone to fill the casual vacancy was deferred “to the next (council) meeting following Labour group meeting.” The decision to co-opt a person into a casual vacancy is not the right or at the will of the Labour party, this is clearly undemocratic. This was again the case in February. In May it was noted that there had been an expression of interest from a local resident in the casual vacancy then inexplicably the minutes for meetings until September of that year are not published, in which time the casual vacancy was filled by a co-opted person, chosen clearly by the local Labour party.
This simply has to stop. Regardless of the legalities of the situation this is unquestionably undemocratic and i am calling on the national Labour party and our local Member of Parliament, Jon Trickett to investigate the way in which the local Labour party are acting at local and district level, which in my own estimation is not in line with the Bell Principles. In my own estimation there is an abuse of the support of local residents and of their support of the Labour brand at play here. A small number of individuals from within the local Labour party are tainting local politics for ‘outsiders’ who wish to get involved in the running of their own communities, from outside the Labour group. Considering the vast amount of money under the control of these people, money taken in taxes from the precepts of our local councils (for example using 2016/17 figures South Kirkby and Moorthorpe Town Council benefitted from an annual precept of £842,000.00, South Elmsall Town Council from £323,000.00 and Upton and North Elmsall Parish Council from £236,339.00) this is not a matter to be dismissed. After all, the public have the right to call for a referendum on the various local councils being abolished and only in 2016 nearby Brierley Town Council was the victim of such powers following fraudulent activity by the Clerk, as reported by the BBC.
How can it be that in 2018 we allow our local matters to be tied up in such nonsense? Local issues are still issues, they should not be the plaything of local groups affiliated to a particular political party. Have local councils now become so undervalued and unloved that such spiteful and questionable goings on continue unchallenged? If so, it has to be asked, is it a case that we need to re-engage at local level and end this madness or do we need to simply do away with local councils?
And one final thought, just for clarification. I began this by noting the case of the independent candidate Mr Parkinson. Let me make clear that whilst i fully condemn the behaviour he has alleged to have been subject to by South Kirkby and Moorthorpe Town Council i have no affiliation with, nor endorse his candidacy at any level.
Good luck to all candidates.