Stench of decay and defection haunts this miserable Blukip coalition in my town

6th October, 2017 11:00 am

A few weeks ago, the three UKIP councillors elected to Plymouth city council since 2014 defected to the Conservatives. As I sat reading that, my first reaction was gallows humour. I wondered if the former UKIP councillors, John Riley, Maddi Bridgeman and Chris Storer, had read about the trouncing that the Conservatives had suffered in the by-elections that took place across the country in September, and, out of pity, had joined the Tories in order to swell their diminished national council ranks? Or, perhaps, they had changed parties because the British pound, whose symbol features so prominently on the old UKIP logo, has been devalued to such an extent that the shrunken icon would not be clearly visible on the ballot by the time May’s council elections came round.

But behind my silly jokes lies a far more serious point. These newly-minted Tories stood for UKIP in three Plymouth wards in 2014 amid a surge of anti-establishment sentiment that coincided with that year’s Euro elections. No matter how much I revile UKIP, the party’s message resonated with a group of voters who felt alienated by the policies of mainstream parties, including the Tories.  In each of these three wards in Plymouth’s largely working-class north that went UKIP in 2014 – Ham, Moor View and Honicknowle – the Tories came in third.

Of course, nationally, UKIP is a ship foundering at sea. After a fractious party conference they have their fourth leader in a year – Henry Bolton, a former Lib Dem, won out over a hard right winger, former Pegida UK deputy leader Anne Marie Waters.

Morrissey, that canny political analyst, claims the conference was rigged, and the new UKIP logo features that well-known native British beast, the lion. As Labour has laid out a comprehensive, socialist vision for the future, the Tories have co-opted many key Labour policies, like building council houses and an energy price cap. They have also co-opted the core views that brought UKIP to the national forefront years ago. But local officials betray their communities if they follow national trends alone.  By defecting to the Tories, these three Plymouth councillors have made a mockery of the democratic values that underlie any free and fair election.

When the UKIP councillors were elected in 2014, many in the Labour and Tory parties mocked them. Conservative group leader Ian Bowyer even called them a “rabble.” But after a year of minority Labour administration starting in 2015 they started looking less like a rabble to the Tories and more like a ticket back to power.  After Labour won Plymouth’s popular vote but lost a single seat to the Tories last May, the Tories went into a coalition with UKIP – a nasty arrangement which we nicknamed Blukip – that put them back in control of the council.

Blukip set to slashing and burning council services with alacrity.  This year, they’ve cut bin collections to twice a month, without properly administering the transition – leaving rotting, stinking rubbish, infested with maggots and feasted on by rats and seagulls, both in the city centre and the university area, and in the northern estates where many of our poorest residents live. They’ve done nothing to ameliorate the damage to the NHS caused by their cut-happy Tory cohorts at Westminster, whose policies have made many Plymouth doctors’ surgeries untenable for their practice owners. GP practice owners are leaving across the city. At my own surgery, it takes about three weeks to get a doctor’s appointment, and it’s very hard to see the same doctor twice.

Blukip have presided over traffic chaos, arranging planned roadworks on major arteries in the middle of busy days and making getting to our hospital, Derriford, extremely difficult for our poorest and sickest residents. One person I know, suffering from with cancer and poor, but unable to qualify for free patient transport, has had to take 45 minute cab rides each way to attend chemotherapy and specialist appointments at Derriford, just a few miles away.  The cost has left a family with very little for food and basic necessities.

And one of the worst things that Blukip has done is slash library provision. They planned to close 10  out of our 17 libraries, mostly in Plymouth’s poorest areas. A vibrant campaign, spearheaded by Plymouth Labour activists, managed to save three libraries from the planned closure, but the seven remaining are in areas where many of our poorest and most isolated residents live.  

One ward, Honicknowle, is home to councillor John Riley, formerly UKIP group leader, cabinet minister for governance and democracy, and now a newly minted Tory. The ward’s two libraries, Ernesettle and West Park, will be shuttered in the next two years, meaning people will have to take long bus rides or walk for miles to get to their nearest libraries. For a near-destitute person, someone with small kids, or someone with mobility issues, that puts the library out of reach. Kids won’t get rhyme time or literacy support, and jobseekers whose internet or electricity have been cut off due to benefit cuts or sanctions won’t be able to look for jobs or resources.

As part of their deal, UKIP councillors got themselves a cabinet post. Riley took responsibility for democracy and governance; on his watch, 6,500 votes were not counted in the Efford and Lipson ward at the June 8 general election – and so were not included in the final tally of the night for the Plymouth Sutton and Devonport constituency. 

Some registered voters were turned away from polling stations, with council staff unable to find their names. The electoral “omnishambles” was investigated by an outside assessor, but as Riley and his colleagues bring the Tories into full control of the council, I wonder what new havoc they will wreak.

Labour group leader Tudor Evans and our wonderful new MP, Luke Pollard, have called for a by-election in the three wards where UKIP defectors hold office. To me, this is right. The UKIP candidates in 2014 stood with a promise that they would never go into coalition with the Tories, and then they did. They opposed cuts to our public services in their campaigns, but in office the reins and rewards of power tempted them too much. They have compromised the principles of public service again and again, leading to a worse quality of life for all Plymouthians, especially our poorest.

If the people of Honicknowle, Ham and Moor View had wanted Tories, they would have voted for them. So let there be by-elections, soon.  

Labour has already announced three brilliant candidates to contest these wards, and they have hit the ground running. The Conservatives, old and new, should not be afraid of by-elections, not when the three wards in question sit within a parliamentary constituency that went strongly Tory in June.  Or, maybe, they are afraid.  Maybe they’re afraid that Mrs May’s Tory message of a strong and stable Brexit with economic prosperity for places like Plymouth has proven to be as wooden and as hollow as she is, even to voters who went Tory. But their fears shouldn’t matter. What matters is democratic choice.  

If these councillors have changed their convictions, let them have the courage to refresh their mandate with the voters. Otherwise, their constituents and their fellow councillors have good reason never to trust another word that they say. And, whether or not they choose to face the voters now or in May, the Tories old and new should worry about Plymouth Labour, because we are already working hard to throw them out, so we can set things right.

Margaret Corvid is a Labour activist in Plymouth.

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