As Andrew Dismore claimed a victory in excess of 20,000 votes for Labour in Camden and Barnet, Coleman slipped silently out of the count at Alexandra Palace. There were no tantrums or fireworks. Dismore was speaking on the stage and being applauded for succeeding where Nicky Gavron and Lucy Anderson had failed, when all of a sudden Coleman, with his mother, who always attends the election day counts, was away through the Palm Court entrance double doors and gone. There were no words of congratulations for Dismore, no public statement of thanks for his campaign team. The only journalist who saw his Cinderella escape was Karl Mercer from BBC London but Coleman (pictured earlier in the campaign with Phillip Hammond) was in no mood for stopping for interviews.
Bitterness reigns. It is hard to recall a candidate from elections in these parts over the last ten years capable of drawing such lashing dislike from opponents. At the count, you got the impression that people with no affiliate to a political party felt similar bubbling rage and, worst still for Coleman, some of his own Conservative colleagues struggled at times to be enamoured. The grievances were mixed: expenses, parking, Barnet football club, parking, the fire service, parking, parking, parking, parking…
Every pantomime needs a panto villain and this year’s London elections were a pantomime, power cuts and uncounted boxes led to silly delays for a final result in the mayoral battle. Coleman’s sharp tongue, uncompromising style led him to fill that classic panto villain role to many. While it was a fun performance for any journalist wanting an easy story about a councillor saying something outrageous – or at the very least saying something more colourful than his assembly colleagues – grudges built over time with the people who mattered most, the electorate. Bloggers chased him relentlessly and Dismore made special thanks to the online writers who had taken such keen interest as he accepted the applause.
The Assembly members are too often anonymous in London. People aren’t really sure what they do. When you go to the Mayor’s Question Time around the boroughs, they can get through a whole session without speaking, like muted quiz show contestants with a broken buzz-in buzzer. That needs to change swiftly and they probably need more power for that to happen. But while others melted into the City Hall wallpaper, Coleman’s reputation spread beyond borough borders. While he was not seen enough in Camden, and he would always remind people that two thirds of his assembly electorate were in Barnet, news of his squabbles and quarrels in Barnet wafted over the whole city.
I actually quite liked the way that he said what he thought and appeared to operate beyond press office rules – journalists like characters, good and bad, rather than those silent also-rans. And if he was rude then so be it – the best way to judge that rudeness was at the ballot box. And look what has happened.
Dismore now has the chance to show how assembly work can count for more, particularly in Camden where there has been a disconnect. He promised to be a ‘street campaigner’ in a way Coleman hadn’t. The question had to be put, however. Was this victory not a pro-Dismore movement but an anti-Coleman one? He said: “No, this is a victory for Labour.”
Nobody wants to deny the man his centre stage moment. He is the man who finally beat Brian Coleman after Labour’s 12 years of trying. He has to have a chance to make good on the promise to help Camden. But when the breakdown of results of what went on in Barnet and Camden, a different story was told than simply one of Labour adulation. While 20,000 more people picked Dismore ahead Coleman across the two London boroughs, over the same constituency and the same electorate 24,000 more people put Boris Johnson down as their first preference for Mayor ahead of Labour’s Ken Livingstone. Ken was said to have his own personality problems with the electorate this time, but Tories had backed away from Coleman here and the indications here are that they can rebound with a different candidate.