UNDER normal circumstances, if a well known Liberal Democrat quit the party right now and wrote to Nick Clegg with a list of coalition failures and claiming they had been betrayed, Camden’s Labour members would surely be delighting in the development. Especially if the member had a profile locally like the one built up by Alexis Rowell over the last half decade.
Not so this week. His switch from yellow to Green has generated little more than spikiness from old foes in the Labour ranks. Rather than present his case as evidence that left-leaning supporters among the Lib Dems are unsure whether this whole coalition idea with the Conservative was ever a good idea, Labour are painting a portrait of a madcap serial defector, an opportunist.
That’s by-elections, folks.
Recognising him as the biggest threat to Labour’s likely defence of Highgate ward next month, the guns are pointing squarely in his direction. Still, it’s true that if this mini-drama in the small bubble of Camden council politics was being played out in Frognal or Hampstead Town, anywhere Labour has scant hope of winning seats on the council, the words in Alexis’s Dear Nick letter would probably be quickly grabbed as ammunition against the Lib Dems. The criticisms Alexis makes are more or less identical to the criticisms Labour organisers use when trying to persuade Lib Dem voters to switch allegiances.
Instead, Labour members this week have been more interested in blogging, tweeting, talking about, worrying about the superquick turnaround of Alexis writing to Clegg on Monday to resign and being chosen as a Green candidate the following day. They ask: Would he have resigned if there hadn’t been a by-election going on? And so on.
Those questions are all fair enough but such scrutiny of the selection of a Green candidate in Camden is pretty unique. This says something about Green strength in other parts of the borough, but also something about a nagging Labour fear that defending Highgate ward next month will not be the simple task they would like.
There are personalities involved too. A grudge match. Alexis rubbed half the council, maybe three quarters of the council, maybe more, the wrong way when he was a Lib Dem councillor for Belsize and holding the role of ‘eco-champion’. His persistence and agitation were all too much for some and treated as sanctimony. The old joke was that he should have been called the ‘ego champion’ rather than the ‘eco champion’. Some translated his drive as arrogance. Some called him patronising, capable of belittling issues that other councillors felt needed greater discussion by comparing them to the global crisis of climate change. What’s the importance of security gates on that council estate when the whole planet is about to turn into a fireball?
Rightly or wrongly, he came across as some to want exclusivity on caring about the environment.
But it wasn’t just rivals who he irritated. He told his Lib Dem colleagues that they were not being radical enough, always nagging away at leader Keith Moffitt and making a frustrated attempt at one point to win the group leadership. His ideas clearly did not always square with agreed council budgets.
For all those pointy relationships and spats with councillors and officers, Alexis will point to how he drove the issues he cares about most up the agenda and won changes in attitudes and policy. Old colleagues will say those issues were heading to the top even without his incessant badgering. Alexis says he achieved ’80 percent’ of what he wanted to do.
When people call Alexis an opportunist, I get the impression he hardly bats an eyelid. I think he would happily take that accusation if being an opportunist translates to seizing the chance to push his agenda. Clearly to him, political parties aren’t like football teams, you are not lumbered with supporting the same side you did when you were four no matter how they fare or what direction they take. As political parties change, so does their support – and Alexis will no doubt argue so do the people who sought and seek to represent them in authority.
Moreover Alexis’s basic principle, it appears, has always been to use whatever tools he can to get what he wants – and what he wants is just the minor matter of saving the whole world. Far more important than the squabbles and knockabout teasing we witness at full council meetings in Camden each month. The Green Party, with a possible opening in Highgate and policies he approves of, is the best tool available to him right now. For now. In setting out his stall once more, he clearly has old friends and enemies rankled.