Forehead! versus the Democratic Process

Occasionally, Forehead! brushes up against the local big-wigs of representative democracy. Faced with an immovable District Council that’s openly disdainful towards a large swathe of its electorate, we’re left wearily appealing to a higher political power for help.

To recap: not only does the prospect of a 60,000 sq ft Tescos loom grimly on the horizon, but the Council now wants to sell one of our few remaining scraps of public green space to accommodate it. It’s a field with a play area in it, conveniently situated at the centre of town next to the waste ground where the swimming pool used to be. Tescos want the pool site, and the green.

And it’s from this situation that we turned to our MP for back up. The gentleman in question is a bluff shire Tory, a former army officer and a member of the socially conservative Cornerstone Group. He likes to present himself as an irrepressible backbench maverick often found engaged in blazing rows with David Cameron. In actual fact, he’s among the staunchest of Party loyalists. Among the townsfolk, he’s seen as a bit of a joke.

I wasn’t alone in thinking that the expedition was bound to be a waste of time. Asking an ineffectual time-server to join us in a lengthy, exhausting and probably doomed struggle against the most powerful supermarket in the country was never going to get us anywhere, for the simple reason that he never would. But the group voted to meet with him. The chance that he might throw his weight behind us, no matter how unlikely, was certainly worth the mild inconvenience of having to sit and watch him procrastinate his way through a half-hour meeting.

A typically eccentric Forehead! contingent rode out to meet him: a left-wing Labour councillor, a Czech science teacher, me, idiot wayward Cambridge student, Angela the swimming pool campaigner, Bob the disgruntled, relentless, council-annoying farmer and a radio DJ called Steve arrived at the town Conservative Association, almost directly opposite the site of the proposed Tesco development, on a sunny September afternoon.

We were effusively greeted at the door by the man himself and led inside. The meeting room is big and almost empty, conveys a village hall sort of vibe, and, modestly, has a picture of him beaming cheesily hung between portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and HM The Queen. He was ‘delighted to see us’, exhaustively, almost painfully, courteous, as he began his gentle master-class in procrastination, avoidance and charming vacuity.

The more articulate members present, primarily DJ Steve and the Labour councillor, delivered our list of concerns: that a town-centre Tescos would kill off what remained of our high street, suck the life out of the town’s few independent businesses, further jam our already-clogged and sluggish road network with lorries and supermarket shoppers, and replace a rare piece of public land with a colossal superstore to add to the eight we have already. Bob chipped in with the fact that 40% of the proposed store would be given over to selling white goods – a disastrous prospect for a small number of long-serving independent businesses that sell washing machines, fridges and the like in the town.

The MP agreed with just about everything we said, essentially admitting that Tescos would be disastrous for the town-centre, and for the town’s economic prospects more generally. He claimed to have met with District Council leaders and officers in advance of meeting us: apparently, the Council’s solicitor saw the Tesco development as inevitable – at the very most, all campaigners could do was slow it down. He condemned the Council for its shoddy consultation and general lack of accountability. Local people, he said, clearly had no idea of the size of the proposed store, and the impact it would have on the town if it went ahead.

Unfortunately, and extremely predictably, this vigorous agreement stopped just short of him committing to anything. He wouldn’t be quoted, have his photo taken with us, or have his name attached to the cause in any way. When pressed for an explanation, his casual justification expressed the reason constituencies as socially, economically and culturally divided as ours don’t work: he couldn’t oppose the Tescos, despite believing it would be disastrous for the town, because his out-of-town constituents enthusiastically supported the deal – completely detached from the fate of the town, they just saw the development as producing somewhere different, potentially cheaper, to get their groceries. On this issue, as on many others, the interests of the constituency’s rural voters directly opposed those of the urban ones.

The Labour councillor challenged him on this: surely, an MP isn’t just a delegate, robotically adhering to the will of the majority of his or her constituents – presumably far more people would be satisfied with the state of politics if this was the case. MPs are supposed to make their own minds up on these sorts of issues, with voters choosing them not just because of the Party they belong to, but also because they trust their judgement – or, at least, think their judgement is the least worst of those on offer.

It was a brave argument, but hobbled by the fact that these days virtually no-one votes on the basis of the individual candidate – more often than not, elections are used as referendums on the conduct of the sitting government, or as chance for electors to vote blindly along Party lines as they always have done.

The MP dismissed the councillor’s reasoning, launching into withering criticisms of the exceptionally active Lib Dem representing a neighbouring constituency – by rallying behind popular campaigns against electricity pylons and other causes she believes in, he suggested, the lady in question was an irresponsible and over-emotional rabble-rouser. He, by contrast, was the model of level-headed impartiality.

In actuality, the unavoidable fact is that the town consistently votes against him, and those happy-shopping out-of-towners are the exact people who see him returned with an 8,000 vote majority come election day. He knows which side his bread is buttered, and thus the town goes without effective representation.

We left empty-handed. The MP’s biggest commitment was that he would ‘be our MP’, which in his view seems to boil down to occasionally conveying our views to the District Council in the manner of a lethargic carrier pigeon.

As we left, the Czech science teacher, who also happens to be the Labour councillor’s partner, started arguing with him over the finer points of representative democracy – she thought the MP’s position was fair enough, that he couldn’t go against the will of his constituents. The councillor countered that if he really thought that Tescos would be so damaging to the town, it was his duty to oppose it. Bob, Tory-sympathiser, started bickering with some of the others, saying we’d pushed the MP too far, and weren’t acknowledging the fact he was in a difficult position. DJ Steve and I, ever-jaded, wearily accepted that by meeting him we’d just been going through the motions, and then loped off to seek solace in a Greggs sausage roll.