Don't to be too quick to judge councillors' defection negatively says former councillor in the wake of onslaught of criticism

  Posted: 13.05.20 at 18:30 by The Editor

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FORMER Thurrock councillor Charlie Key, still a keen observer of all things Thurrock, has been reflecting on the local response to news that two independent councillors have joined the Conservatives. One local writer described the duo worse than 'slugs'. Mr Key beleives that a bit more reflection and perspective is needed.

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Luke Spillman and Jack Duffin Defections: What Does This Really Mean?

As a friend of Jack Duffin and Luke Spillman I was as shocked as any earlier this week when I heard the news of their decision to join the Conservative Group on Thurrock Council. A number of things crossed my mind when I heard, including "what the hell has happened to your principles?!"

I spent four years as a Conservative councillor in Thurrock between 2012 and 2016 during their time in opposition. I lost my appetite for politics in early 2016 (which incidentally I still haven't got back) and decided to stand down before the elections in 2016. I look back at my time as a councillor as a time when I said a great deal, but didn't get a lot done. I wasn't nearly as skilled as other councillors in local government, but it certainly didn't help being in opposition.

Jack and Luke were both elected in those elections of May 2016 under the UKIP banner. However, after the EU Referendum they oversaw the formation of the Thurrock Independents which in itself has been a successful movement. Now just a few short days after both should have seen their time as Thurrock Councillors come to an end, as they were intending to stand down this year, both have decided that their immediate future lies within the Thurrock Council Conservative Group.

Cllrs Luke Spillman and Jack Duffin.

Immediately, their decision was met on social media and local news outlets with condemnation. One comment labelled them as "traitors", whilst others expressed dissatisfaction with this alongside a wave of defections that have taken place in Thurrock in the last year.

However, in among the vitriol there were also messages of support, and that made me think and reflect on what value they can now add as councillors. There are a number of positives in this for Thurrock residents within these councillors' electorates, as indeed there are some obvious positives in this for Thurrock Conservatives and Jack and Luke. While it's always good playground etiquette to stick up for your mates, I think there are some interesting realities which this particular defection will bring.

Wealth of experience

The first and most obvious positive that comes to mind is that councillors Spillman and Duffin have a wealth of experience in local politics, in particular standing up for the often marginalised and championing causes which the main parties have been reluctant to address.

Both entered Thurrock politics as case workers in MEP Tim Aker's Grays-based office, and once later elected as Councillors achieved success on a number issues. Luke has been exceptionally consistent on the issue of housing and improving the way the council deals with homelessness, whilst Jack has been relentless in pursuing a Council Tax freeze.

Both worked doggedly against the Council's proposed "Grass Tax" and I remember both applying pressure in order to ensure all high rise buildings in Thurrock had water sprinklers installed.

Therefore both have proven their abilities in ensuring the best outcomes for their residents - something I didn't even get close to getting done properly in my time as a councillor.

In order to do that the pair have had to work with the ruling Conservative administration where possible and, of course, throw the odd elbow at other times in order to reach a similar conclusion.

The Thurrock Independents have used their craft when required, and their ability to make a noise when required too. Now their invaluable experience and determination are a part of the majority group on Thurrock Council. Their ability to achieve more has increased twenty-fold overnight - if that is opportunism, it is opportunism of the best kind.

But now they are a part of the Thurrock Conservative machine, some say they are just throwing more support behind that group's bad ideas. Quite the opposite will likely in fact occur. The broader the local Conservative Group becomes, the more self-regulation will take place from within the Conservative Group. Yes not ideal (Conservatives regulating Conservatives!), but if former members of the Thurrock Independents can play their part in that process then overall outcomes will improve.

I also believe that the "Independent Movement" has run its course. Indeed Independent councillors are usually an overwhelming success at local level when they are often power-brokers in tightly packed councils.

But the broad, borough-wide Independent movement that has fought at elections in the last 24 months within Thurrock has almost certainly lost its steam, though the remaining members of the Thurrock Independents no doubt stand ready to prove me wrong. I believe it is right that the pioneers of this movement find a new vehicle to move within. Their skills shouldn't be lost entirely.

To anyone who finds that last point contentious, I say this: they couldn't have chosen a better time for the electorate to switch.

Previous switches

Given the change in the election date to next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the pair were due to remain on the council for a further year in any event. Now they have given the electorate notice - in good time - before the next election of their political affiliations.

Previous examples, such as Conservative councillor Terry Hipsey in 2009 and Independent Shane Ralph in 2019 switched affiliations just one year into their four year term. Also both Cllrs Duffin and Spillman were not seeking re-election this year as they had both previously announced. Therefore, this all could be a non-issue.

And of course this concentrates the opposition within Thurrock Council now to largely just Thurrock Labour, who should now be re-energised following the reappointment of John Kent as leader, another exceptional political operative.

And of course John Kent is the best possible example I can think of to prove my points.

"A brick in the wall of obstruction or a spoke in the wheel of change"

I won't ever agree on politics with Cllr Kent but his understanding and depth of knowledge on local government, and getting things done in that framework is essential and invaluable and takes time to learn. Just as we need electricians to rewire a house, and as we need mechanics to fix a car, we need political ability to get things done in local government.

I appreciate the dismay, that people who are elected can just change with the wind, and that they should be held accountable for their decision. I believe it is up to the voters to do that at the elections next May.

But Jack and Luke have been confronted with a clear decision to make of their own in recent weeks, spend the one year they have left as either a brick in the wall of obstruction or a spoke in the wheel of change. Next May we will know which one it was, and whether it paid off or not.

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