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Issue 7 - July 1972
The Most I Could Hope For Was To Get Elected...

An Interview With Paul Moss

Durham University student Paul Moss in May this year became the first-ever student to win a seat on Durham City Council and is, in fact, the only student in the entire North-East who has a seat on a local authority council.

His arrival into the world of parish pump demagogues and crusty trade union men could hardly have been more spectacular.

For in winning the city's Elvet Ward, he sensationally defeated the Mayor-elect, Mr Charles Mitchell, by more than 250 votes.

He has now been in the 'Big time' politics for two months, so Muther Grumble went along and asked him how he felt about it.

MG: What was your motive in standing as a candidate for the city council?

Cllr Moss: This is something that had been discussed for some time in the students' union basically arising out of negotiations we were trying to initiate about the proposed youth centre in Durham.

For some years now there have been efforts to get a youth centre of some sort provided. There are absolutely no amenities whatsoever in Durham in particular, the youth of the city are very badly provided for.

I think this was partly out of frustration at our failure to communicate with the city council and the county council at any level and our failure to be recognised by them as being people with ideas and people who should be listened to, and partly because we felt that by putting someone on the city council in this way, we could get this particular problem solved.

MG: How many meetings at the council have you attended so far?

Cllr Moss: I have attended three meetings of the actual council itself but you have to remember that the council is just a body for ceremonially proceeding in and sitting down with the Mayor and having prayers read to it and rubber-stamping all the decisions of the committees.

I have been to about two each of the committees that I'm a member of and that's where all the work, such as it is, gets done.

MG: Which committees have you been appointed to?

Cllr Moss: Well appointed is a good word. The first council meeting before the official mayor making was the meeting for quote 'elections' to the committees.

What happened was that you went through a list of committees and the leader of the so-called independent group read out a list of names and then the leader of the Labour group just stood up and read out another list of names.

All this was of course preceded by kicking out the press and anybody like that, so it was all very hush-hush for no apparent reason.

But my main disagreement with that, apart from being put off by the whole procedure, was that I very much wanted to be on the planning committee which dealt with the youth centre of course, which I had been plugging very much throughout my campaign.

And I got up I think three times during this incredible procedure and said that I'd had planning experience, that I'd got a clear mandate to get this programme moving and that if they didn't elect me they were ignoring democracy.

Then they just forgot about it. Then I was appointed by the Independent group on to housing, which is quite a good committee, works, which is not bad, health and parks and that was it. So I didn't get on to anything really important except perhaps housing.

MG: What has struck you most about the meetings you have attended so far?

Cllr Moss: I think perhaps that the whole thing - except where it does come down to matters of ideology, shall we sell council houses at a certain price or the price plus something? - is based totally on personality which is something that surprises me. It is amazing how something can be accepted or rejected on the grounds of the person who talks about it. That's not such a good thing but it is perhaps hopeful in that party politics don't play all that much a part because the parties in local government are pretty pathetic affairs.

MG: How does what you have seen so far measure up to your preconceptions about what a councillor does?

Cllr Moss: I've not had much to do in the way of people coming and asking me for help as I'd like to have had.

Where I have had, it's been remarkably easy to get something done about it in most cases. I haven't had as much personal hostility as I thought I would have which surprised me but, then again, I haven't had much co-operation either. It's peculiar. It's done quite subtly; more subtly than I thought it would be, so perhaps they are a bit more intelligent than I thought they would be.

But as for the structure, and this kind of thing, I don't think I had too many misconceptions about that because I was fairly cynical and my cynicism has been borne out really.

MG: Is there any sort of national movement among students to involve themselves in politics and council work from the inside, as you are doing now?

Cllr Moss: Certainly there is no organised conspiracy or anything like that. There might be what you call an 'awakening' perhaps to things like local issues.

You now have community action groups in practically every university in the country, which are flourishing and which are doing really very good work.

We saw the opportunity to do something in a positive way which would affect people around us in the community and which would affect our own community within a community in a way that we could actually accomplish something or at least try to.

The election itself is probably more of an accomplishment than anything else I'll manage to do throughout the year, which is a sad thing to say, but I think it is true.

MG: What do you hope to achieve in your term of office as a city councillor?

Cllr Moss: As I said, perhaps the most I could actually hope for is to get elected, which I have done. Ideally I would hope to bring about all sorts of major and minor policy reforms but I'm obviously not going to because the city is run in an undemocratic way.

I would like to have some sort of effect over the youth centre and see that it turns out the way I think it should and I'd like to see some improvements in things like warden services for old people and community centres for old people too, but I don't think I'm going to be totally successful in doing that because the city is run by people with business interests and political interests - albeit fairly small-time political interests, rather than people with community interests and I don't think community interests are going to win out though there are a few people on the council who are determined that these interests should.

MG: What do you think about the relationship between the council and the people of Durham City?

Cllr Moss: I think there is no real relationship except in a few cases there is a relationship between some of the councillors and some people in their wards, but that is all. Some councillors are very positive and get their names on every page of the papers and it is recognised by people that they will do something if asked. But the council itself has no relationship at all with the people except in so far as it represents the Rotary Club, frankly. It's a hopeless arrangement.

At the moment the elected composition of the council - with the seven wards and three councillors for each ward - is that there are nine 'Independents' which means Tories, 10 Labour members, one Liberal and myself, the student candidate. However there are also seven aldermen and all of them are independent, i.e. Tory, so they have an equal vote with elected councillors and the Tories run the council and that's the way it is.

By and large, in policy matters, the council doesn't work for the people, the community, it works for itself, and for its political interests and ideological thinking, and that's as far as it goes. So there is no relationship there, in that the council doesn't do anything for the people except in a very small-time way.