THEY say in some quarters of Camden’s Labour Party that Angela Mason was quietly doing as much as any councillor to run the Town Hall until she fell to an ambush on Wednesday night. The only councillor who went to Judd Street everyday, she told me once that her retirement made it easier for her to devote more time to council office than others. She certainly seemed to know her way around leader Nash Ali’s office. With a lengthy CV of politics and campaigns, she is credited with having helped steer him through his first year as Camden’s number one.
So what went wrong? Challenged by Sean Birch for her sustainability portfolio, she lost the internal vote on Wednesday night. Pushed out of a cabinet position, she could no longer be deputy leader and Sue Vincent stepped in (or ‘pounced’ if you take one version of events).
Angela’s supporters say the messenger has been shot. When she was accused of being too focused on what unelected officers wanted, it is claimed she was misread. She was simply, her admirers say, delivering the bad news cascading down from central government over the weight of cutbacks.
The other side see it differently, claiming she was not strong enough opposing the HS2 rail link threatening to clatter through Euston and Primrose Hill and that she had lost faith in the idea of a new school south of the Euston Road, issues that backbenchers hold dear to their hearts. Her critics say she didn’t listen to the group, instead giving a greater audience to chief officers.
Still, for the group to send her back to the backbenches after just a year is a big step, a statement. Whether you think posts you read on blogs are all overblown or not – that’s been the accusation of these pages in the run-up to these internal contests – there is now no doubt there is pretty much a 50/50 split within Camden Labour group. Cabinet members who did survive challenges, like Sarah Hayward, only did so by one or two votes. Polls were 16/14 or 17/13, that kind of thing – like winning a football match with a last minute injury time goal.
Some characterise it as a left/right division, some geographically as if there is a south versus north tug of war. Theo Blackwell, Sarah and others wouldn’t take kindly to the idea that they are part of the Blairy right of the party but that’s how people from their own group brief it as. They make strident arguments against this – but clearly need to convince their colleagues.
For the Holbornistas, the lefties, whatever you want to call them, who will see the events of this week as a victory (or cast it at least as a victory for a democratic way of choosing their leaders), it is a message to Nash and others that nobody’s post is secure. There have been long-knived nights before in Camden Labour Party’s history and this week was a very Camden Labour Party coup, it isn’t after all so long ago that Sue Vincent scalped Theo Blackwell for the deputy leadership in another administration.
But this time, even though there are only two new faces in the cabinet, there is an extra jagged edge. It is true that the message poster on this blog named as ‘insulted backbencher’ yesterday is as he/she suggests a serving Camden councillor. Yesterday he/she left two messages effectively telling colleagues to go fuck themselves… The tone, the nature of those posts is a new level of anger. Imagine if they had had blogs and Twitter in the rate-capping days, or the library rebellion. It suggests a fragile, not broken just fragile, fraternity as the council deals with some of the biggest dilemmas in its history, a sharp contrast from the high spirits that met election victory 12 months ago.
When people are telling people in their own party to go fuck themselves, then the idea held by some that the group’s ballots are simply a ‘beauty contest’ where people edge contests for emotional reasons and friendships over any proper judgment of a person’s political attributes holds some weight. The democratic edge to it all is weakened by the relatively small number of people voting.
You might imagine that those who voted against Angela and Heather Johnson, might vote against Sarah or stand against Theo. But a vote here or there was the difference, one survives, another doesn’t. There were other sub-stories. Roger Robinson had a storming victory to hold off Mike Katz to the chief whip job. Abdul Hai, supported by Nash in the community safety role, held off Thomas Gardiner and Jonathan Simpson, the outgoing Mayor. The latter, beaten in that contest, then made impromptu challenges for the floor for other cabinet jobs – housing and then sustainability, his margin of defeat increasing with each vote. He must be cross about that after all the sweet words his colleagues have shared about his year as the borough’s first citizen.
Why did he not poll better? It’s hard to determine. His interest in staying on in the job of a Mayor for a second year presumably at the expense of Mayor-in-long-time-waiting Abdul Quadir had caused mild irritation, apparently. If that was the only reason he didn’t get more votes, then the beauty contest model seems to fit. One wrong move and you’re onto a loser.
That said, why shouldn’t the top jobs be decided by a fair ballot of the group rather than being simply handed out by the leader, as they sort of were last year. This could have been a scar of a night for some councillors but it is a wake up call to some who were disbelieving (publicly, at least) of the hints of unrest that have been published on these pages and part of gossip in the council corridors. A wake-up call with a jagged edge. Those who wanted this changearound must now prove why and I hear they are very confident they will.