HE is the leader of a new political grouping on Southampton City Council with a mission to oppose the cuts.
A decision to quit the ruling Labour group with his colleague has established a new voice in the council chamber to defend jobs and services and oppose Government funding cuts for the city.
In his first interview as leader of Labour Councillors Against The Cuts (LCATC), Keith Morrell wasted no time in questioning his former boss’ grip on the financial crisis at the council, saying he had lost confidence in him.
He compared him to the Roman emperor Nero. “Rome is burning and Richard Williams is fiddling,” he said.
Translation: The leader is occupying himself with unimportant matters and neglecting his priorities during a crisis at the Civic Centre.
Cllr Morrell said Labour’s 52-point election manifesto was mostly “candyfloss” and offered no real vision for the city.
“It pales into insignificance to the destruction the Labour group appears willing to inflict on city services,” he said.
Lifetime Labour Party man Cllr Morrell said he had to form the new group with his ward councillor colleague Don Thomas to get the freedom to speak out.
After the Coxford duo were handed a three-month suspension from the Labour group as “punishment” for voting against budget cuts to Oaklands Swimming Pool in July, they made their move this week. They now face expulsion from the Labour Party.
They said the suspension had “gagged” them from taking part in crucial debates over the shape of next year’s budget, yet they would still have been required to vote as ordered by Labour leaders.
They added that they would have found themselves facing further suspensions.
The councillors said when faced with plans for “massive” cuts in local services and the prospect of hundreds of staff being sacked, confirmed by Labour leaders in recent weeks, a split was the only way to take a stand.
Cllr Morrell called on the Labour administration to refuse to do the Government’s “dirty work”.
He said LCATC would offer costed alternatives while keeping council tax down, but needed time to “flesh out” the ideas.
The councillors will be given their own group meeting room, a pass to attend high-level leader’s meetings, and most controversially a £8,000 leader’s allowance.
Cllr Morrell said it would not be used for “personal gain” but to fund “communications” which would be publically accounted for each year.
The councillors say they have already received messages of support from within the Labour group, as well as many others around the country, and Cllr Morrell said the “door was always ajar” for colleagues to join them. Local union leaders have wished them well.
Cllr Thomas said they had decided not to trigger a by-election as they had already got a mandate from constituents – although said he was confident they could have won one.
“Keith and I are standing by our Labour pre-election words, therefore there is no need to stand down. The remaining 28 Labour councillors need to consider doing the same or stand down.”
Labour leader Richard Williams said it was a “great sadness” the pair had resigned when the future of Oaklands pool could yet be resolved and they had now “cut themselves off from policy influence”.
He said the removal of the whip only meant they could not vote on policy issues in internal Labour group meetings and activities, and were still free to “engage themselves in the debate and the meetings”, which they decided not to attend.
But Cllr Thomas called it “spin” and said the Labour group’s record on democracy was a “farce” with the decision on Oaklands being made without debate.
Opposition Tories welcomed the principled stand being taken by the Coxford councillors.
“While local Conservative councillors are poles apart from Keith and Don, we do respect them because they have their views and their principles and they stick to them. It is a shame that the same can’t be said for other Labour councillors.”
The make-up of the council is now Labour (28), Conservatives (16), Lib Dems (2) and Labour Councillors Against the Cuts (2).