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.