Councillors should be free to say what they like

Councillor Ben Duncan
Councillor Ben Duncan

A few months back, I made some ill-advised jokes on a social media website.

A few months back, I made some ill-advised jokes on a social media website - targeting Muslim fundamentalists and members of the military.

Some people found them funny; some found them offensive. Most didn't care either way, of course.

But some of those who found them offensive lodged official complaints with the council, claiming I had failed to treat them with due respect and even that I'd brought the council into disrepute.

On Monday, a panel of councillors met to consider the complaints. They decided I had indeed broken the council's own rules and that I should be punished accordingly.

I argued that councillors, like anyone else, should be free to say what they like, as long as it doesn't break the law of the land, and that if people don't like it, they should vote for someone else instead.

Indeed, you could take the argument further and say that local democracy works best when voters know what the candidates are actually like - and that all elected councillors should be encouraged to speak their mind in public wherever possible to help.

Members of the panel didn't like that argument, saying my human right to free speech was limited by me having signed a code of conduct for members soon after I was elected.

I think that a poor decision for democracy - not just here in Brighton and Hove, but across the country.

_76147835_duncantweetWhy? Because every council, everywhere, has a members' code of conduct, and if councillors think they might be punished for making a bad joke, or an ill-judged off-the-cuff comment, they simply won't make any jokes or off-the-cuff comments. And electors will know less about them, as a result.

That'll mean come polling day they'll be forced to choose between candidates solely on the basis of their party allegiance - and not whether they think they'd be a good local councillor, or represent their views, if they are elected.

I don't - with hindsight (a wonderful thing!) - think my jokes were particularly funny. But I do think democracy depends on my right to make them, if I so choose. And in voters' right, ultimately, to vote for someone else at election time if they don't like them.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 21.42.45Human rights must apply to everyone, all the time, if they are to have any meaning at all. If they don't apply to politicians, then our local democracy can't work properly.

I think, with their ruling, the members of the “standards panel” have cast something of shadow on both respect for human rights, and democracy, and all in the name of Brighton and Hove City Council. It is they who have brought our council into disrepute.

I think this is an important argument, so I'll be appealing so we can thrash out these ideas once and for all.

Then, I'll just need to decide whether to stand as an independent, pro-human rights candidate in central Brighton in next year's council election - to give people the chance to vote against me, if they don't like my jokes - or, just maybe, to choose me as their councillor. Just as democracy allows.

Ben Duncan is a city councillor for Queen’s Park; a former Green Party representative, he is now an independent.