Peterborough’s council chambers - where rhetoric doesn’t match up to reality

An insight into the workings of the council chamber
An insight into the workings of the council chamber

For those who didn’t see the proceedings via Facebook, the council met on the evening of October 17 (writes columnist cllr Shaz Nawaz, Labour group leader on Peterborough City Council).

Those who did see the session might have come away with a peculiar impression: if the Conservative administration is to be believed, the city is well managed and things are improving all the time. B

ut if you put down your mobile phone and step outside, the rhetoric doesn’t match up to the reality: fly tipping is still endemic, crime remains an issue, the schools are still clinging to the bottom in test results.

So how can we explain this gap between rhetoric and reality? To begin with, many of the answers to councillors’ questions and those from members of the public are prepared with the assistance of our professional council officers. However, there are also a number of techniques which are used in the course of our debates, which obfuscate the real situation.

The first of these is “whataboutery”; this is a tactic often used in politics. Comparisons are made to other situations which appear to be worse; for example, waiting times in Watford and homeless statistics in Luton. The intent is to make the state of Peterborough look better by comparison. However, Watford and Luton, though similar by some measures, face into very different circumstances than Peterborough. The comparison isn’t valid; nevertheless, by saying “what about Luton”, “what about Watford”, we are encouraged to think that the status quo is acceptable.

The second rhetorical device is “the long grass”; the response to a question about the future of St. Michael’s Gate was a good example of this. Yes, the contract with Stef & Philips will continue, but after this, there will be a review into whether or not the city will take it over.

But note, this doesn’t commit the council to actually doing anything except to consider the possibility. Residents of St. Michael’s Gate shouldn’t be comforted by this non-committal answer.

It is not for me to presume what lay in the hearts and minds of others, but it’s clear that moral outrage, feigned or real, can also be an effective tactic. This erupted a number of times last Wednesday, thunderous complaints about daring to question Councillor Smith on her track record, and outrage about rudeness of one council member to another. Moral outrage is difficult to argue with; someone who is offended by an argument is not open to debate. This also manifested when a councillor unfortunately asked a question using the phrase “taking the mick”, that utterance alone meant his valid query was entirely dismissed.

No doubt the practitioners of these arts clap each other on the back at having survived yet another challenging council session, and come out of it relatively unembarrassed. But the sun comes up, another day begins, people step outside and see the reality of their lives. The magic dust of rhetoric and obfuscation won’t make it vanish; we still need change.