What happened on Wednesday…?

SO, it all got rather emotional on Wednesday night as Camden’s Labour councillors locked themselves away in the Town Hall for an emergency special session to discuss the budget. Those who were there say, as things turned heady, finance chief Theo Blackwell swore (in frustration, rather than malice) at Kilburn councillor Thomas Gardiner as they locked horns on whether there were any alternatives to making the cuts to council services due to be confirmed over the next week.

It must have been a pretty brave stand for a councillor with less than a year at the Town Hall to challenge probably the best known Labour councillor in Camden. One witness told me they wanted to eat their own fist during the awkward exchange, but that the stand-off had been building over several days and weeks. Few were surprised at the strained tempers.

The issue of raising council tax is still a sticking point. Theo says the government has tied the council’s hands. The rebels, if you want to call them that, can’t see why. At the very least, a not insignificant number of backbenchers feel that they have not had the input they might have had as Labour’s budget package was developed. They feel they’ve had to sit on the sidelines and watch the cabinet councillors – specifically three or four of them – press ahead, making big decisions which they will have to defend in the wards they were elected.

The flipside of all of this is that there is a feeling among Labour councillors who have been around the block a little longer than colleagues who only joined the Town Hall for the first time last May have yet to get to grips with the tough reality of the job or the scale of the cuts being asked of Camden Council. The fine detail of local government rules and disappearing budgets has curbed all of the bright ideas they may have had about being a councillor last year.

What’s more, the leadership will argue that colleagues on the backbenches have been unable to suggest any realistic alternatives – other than raising council tax. Their line is: They couldn’t come up with any alternatives, because there aren’t any…

It must, howver, be disillusioning when months after an emotional election win councillors are going back to the voters who secured them their victory and telling them: ‘Sorry, but your play group/library/lunch club is going to be cut’. No wonder there are unhappy faces, the team spirit stretched. A few of them will yearn to be outside with the protesters next week, maybe some of them will fetch their coats.

A tiny number of Labour councillors I spoke to at the end of last week were mindlessly pretending there were no differences of opinion at Wednesday’s meeting with the old ‘nothing to see here’ line, like a police officer talking to a rubbernecker on a tape surrounding a murder scene. Silly.

Even the Conservatives have got wind of the angst as they try and break off a few dissenters to vote against the Labour budget. It wouldn’t need so many to abstain or vote against to topple the budget plans on the table but it would be a massive, massive step for Camden’s Labour Party, changing the landscape of the administration from here on in. With a crafty motion, the Tories are nonetheless trying and tease out the rebellion. Don Williams and Kirsty Roberts have said to heck with convention and goodwill, and set up a motion explicitly calling on Theo to resign his position.

It reads: This Council does not believe that the Labour Cabinet has done everything possible to look for efficiency savings and so protect front line services from cuts and therefore calls on the Cabinet Member for Finance to resign.

One insider said that more than one Labour councillor is already considering abstaining. There is a massive difference between considering and actually doing, but Theo, one of the most experienced operators left at the council, will have smelt the danger already.

10 Comments on What happened on Wednesday…?

  1. Thomas Neumark Jones // February 19, 2011 at 8:28 pm // Reply

    Richard,

    This post is quite fanciful. There is no prospect of the Council raising council tax. The Government has announced that they will stop councils raising council tax by more than 3.5% (http://lgiu.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/council-tax-cap-of-3-5/). As well as starving local authorities of funds they are putting us in a straight jacket.

    In the face of these absurdly rushed cuts all the local Tory opposition can muster is personal attacks on Labour councillors. We hear a lot about the need for “imagination” from the local Lid Dems but we also hear that they are not even preparing an alternative budget.

    Theo and the whole Labour group are working to find as many efficiencies as possible. We must ensure that the council’s finances are kept in order. Given the scale of the cuts in funding from central Government this will mean reductions and probably the closure of much loved services.

    The Labour party is a democratic party. We have members from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide range of views. We discuss things which are important to us and the people we represent. These discussions can get passionate. However, none of us believe that there is some kind of miraculous way of saving all the services which Camden currently runs.

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    • Richard Osley // February 19, 2011 at 8:49 pm // Reply

      I agree… it is fanciful*

      * if fanciful means the following didn’t happen

      1. There was swearing and heated discussions at your meeting this week.
      2. Raising council tax has been discussed by the Labour Party in Camden and is an issue where there has been difference of opinion.
      3. Conservatives have a motion asking Theo to resign.
      4. Some Labour backbenchers felt they could have more of an input in the development of the budget.
      5. Some cabinet members feel the criticisms over their budget from the backbenches have been unfair with the scale of the cuts not always fully appreciated by new councillors.

      Come on Tom. It’s fanciful to think those things didn’t happen. Best of luck.

      Like

      • Thomas Neumark Jones // February 19, 2011 at 8:56 pm // Reply

        Thanks for the good luck wishes.

        I meant the issue of raising a council tax is not a sticking point. The possibility of raising council tax has been removed by central government. We could not raise council tax even if we wanted to.

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  2. Richard Osley // February 19, 2011 at 9:02 pm // Reply

    So nobody suggested the idea?

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    • Thomas Neumark Jones // February 19, 2011 at 9:09 pm // Reply

      Not at the meeting on Wednesday.

      Like

      • Richard Osley // February 19, 2011 at 9:20 pm // Reply

        That means people have suggested the idea – in fact they have written to newspapers about it – but it wasn’t discussed on Wednesday. Still an unsaid ‘alternative’ could be raising council tax.

        But to suggest the post is fanciful is a bit of stand up comedy. See five point list.

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  3. I hesitate to intervene, but I do rather suspect that – as of in politics – Mr Osley’s account of the meeting he was not at may be rather more accurate than the spin of some of those attending. The most interesting point out of all of this is that the leader of the council doesn’t appear in any of these reports. The Council has a rather non-executive chairman model at present, which may not necessarily be a bad thing, as long as people understand that’s what it is.

    I’m not sure btw that calling on Theo to resign is very central to the issues Camden faces.

    Like

  4. Don McIntyre // February 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm // Reply

    Nash is like the Clement Attlee of Camden.
    By not trampling over his colleagues, as primus-inter-pares he can best make use of their collective talent.

    Like

  5. Mike O'Smoke // February 23, 2011 at 4:13 pm // Reply

    Are we to understand, therefore, that the Williams/Trott motion does not reflect the position of the Tory group at large?

    Like

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