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The Somerset Suiciders

Michael Crick | 10:31 UK time, Monday, 2 November 2009


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It is fascinating how the features of modern-day Westminster politics have permeated down to deepest Somerset.

In the small town of Somerton, where I was filming on Friday, 11 members of the 14-strong town council - all independents - have suddenly resigned their seats.

That leaves only three councillors to run the show, and one of those plans to resign as well, which technically leaves the council defunct until the town elects some more councillors.

Their official reason for this mass resignation is the the persistent campaign run by a local blogger, Niall Connolly, accusing the town council of being "riven with a culture of secrecy", a failure to keep proper records and lack of consultation.

He also called it a "tender-free-zone" in its decisions on who gets local contracts.

Yet Mr Connolly also uses colourful and aggressive language which verges on the abusive at times. And his targets have been paid MPs or ministers but part-time councillors who were, after all, only unpaid volunteers.

One councillor complains Mr Connolly accused him of being a racist. Mr Connolly himself admits he described two elderly women councillors (who do indeed look rather similar), as "the ugly sisters".

And the councillors complain that Mr Connolly's website, Muck and Brass, accuses them of being "corrupt and degenerate".

But scratch below the surface and the story gets a lot more complicated. When I heard that 122 people attended a public meeting on Tuesday evening I immediately knew that all was not happy among the citizenry of Somerton.

The broad critique, voiced by many other people in the town, is that the council is living in the past in the way it treats the public, that there is a lack of openness, transparency and accountability.

That is why Tuesday night's meeting unanimously called for a referendum on the council's plan to to move the local recycling centre.

In short, Somerton reflects in miniature important developments these days in national politics. "Somerton," says Mr Connolly, "is only Westminster writ-small."

So we have a political elite under fire from an increasingly disillusioned public who feel their rulers are out of touch.

Throw into that mix internet bloggers and our new Freedom of Information laws, and we see politics undergoing a transformation unlike anything since Thomas Paine and James Gilray in the late 18th Century developed the arts of political pamphleteering and cartooning

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