DAVID Miliband (yes, him again) was full of his usual confidence at an open talk in Gospel Oak last night, meeting mainly Labour supporters at the Queen’s Crescent Community Association. The jokes and charm were there. It’s almost as if he thinks these Labour members, in his own part of town, are about to side with his brother Ed in this marathon leadership contest.
He glided unscathed through the questions until Raj Chada, the former Labour council leader in Camden, asked him about that long running thornbud: the refusal of the Labour government – of which Miliband was a major part – to fund repairs to council homes. While everywhere else in the country got so-called Decent Homes money to fix up estates, Camden was missed out on the spending list because tenants voted against allowing a private company (an Almo) to take over the running of council housing – as Labour wanted. The tenants wanted to keep council housing as council housing and the Labour government – of which, let’s say it again, Miliband was deeply entrenched – effectively said: Pigeons to you then, you won’t get any cash out of us. £283 million promised to Camden was suddenly locked up.
Recap over. The words you read below may not leap off the page in transcript form, but if you were one of the 80-odd people inside the community centre you will know it was an awkward mess of umms and errs, surprised eyebrows and Miliband presumably wishing he had a magic teleport elsewhere. It’s funny because the curious exchange came from nowhere. Chada didn’t want to embarrass the former Foreign Secretary. He just wanted to know why when Labour was in power there seemed to be an overwhelming inclination to haul in private companies to do work that local authorities were doing perfectly well. That’s how it came across, he told Miliband.
Yet inevitably this wider discussion turned into an analysis of the Almo row and the government’s belligerent role in this unhappy chapter of a book that still needs finishing. It ran like this:
MILIBAND: I’m aware there was a specific issue in Camden. I think it was about council house building.
CHADA: No. Decent Homes. I don’t want to get into the history of it but 80 percent of tenants rejected the Almo and the government said no: it’s an Almo or nothing. No money.
MILIBAND: Um-eh. What? Was it a very low performing department?
CHADA: We we’re top, we we’re for stars. In terms of performance, there was no need for it (the Almo).
MILIBAND: Ah. What we should be saying is that if you are outstanding you should be allowed to do more – not less. How was this resolved?
CHADA: You didn’t give us the money.
MILIBAND: You didn’t have any Decent Homes money? At all? And it’s still not resolved.
CHADA: It’s still not resolved.
This is clanger territory. Surely, if you are going to speak to Labour supporters who feel they lost out electorally in 2006 because of the lack of help over housing from your government, you make sure you don’t fumble around trying to remember the history of the dispute. Of course, D-Mil can’t be expected to know the ins and outs of every dispute every council had with the Labour government.
i) This is his patch. It’s where he grew up. This was his branch of the Labour Party for years.
ii) He lives so close to the affected estates. He walked drove past them regularly as a minister presumably thinking they were a-ok and sorted out for Decent Homes cash – when they clearly hadn’t been.
iii) All he had to do was read the New Journal’s coverage. Any edition in the last six or seven years would probably give him an idea. A major faux-pas that one.
But even you say blah-blah-blah-so-what to all of that. There’s something more important. In 2006, when then-PM Tony Blair rode into town to try and keep Chada and Co in a job before the council elections in May of that year I asked him what the government was doing to break the deadlock.
He said: “David Miliband is trying to resolve it. Until he gets to work out what the right solution is, there is not much point me commenting.”
Miliband, you see, was then Communities Minister working under Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. He was the man that tenants, councillors and Labour party members had been told to look to, to sort out the painful stalemate. Yet last night, Miliband could hardly remember a fig about it.