CONGRATS to Heather Johnson for becoming Mayor of Camden again this week, and her deputy Jonathan Simpson for making a quick return to the parlour. At the annual mayor-making ceremony, the name calling and hostile speeches are replaced for warm words for everybody.
This week, as Heather collected the mayoral chain, however, there was a familiar lament among the private thoughts of some opposition councillors: why does the majority Labour group only allow Labour mayors to be appointed? This has been groaned about before with calls for this non-partisan position to be shared about all corners of the chamber. In fact, during the four years in which Camden was run by the Lib Dems and the Tories (2006-10), that’s exactly what happened: Labour’s Nural Islam was allowed to take on the role and he gladly accepted.
Yet once back in full power, Labour pulled up the drawbridge on their Lib Dem colleagues and have stepped away from discussions with the other groups over the potential for sharing the chain. All four mayoral years in the current span of the administration have been assigned to Labour councillors, just like they always were when the party had majority control in the past.
While not the top issue of concern at the Town Hall – nobody has forgotten the recession and cuts, cuts, cuts – it is beginning to grate among some, especially as both Heather and Jonathan, for all their popularity when carrying out the role, have done it before. “The only thing the Labour council can recycle properly is mayors,” muttered one wag on Wednesday night.
It is also a nagging issue this time around because there is an obvious candidate for the job amid the Lib Dem opposition. Flick Rea would clearly have loved to have been mayor in Olympic year, even if she is diplomatic if you ask her for her thoughts on it. She has been a long serving, loyal councillor, she makes people laugh and she would be a lot of fun with the gavel, but friends think she is the victim of Labour’s ‘hogging’ policy.
So here’s the thing, while Labour show no sign of a change of heart about how the mayor is selected in Camden, their colleagues just over the road in Westminster are disputing that very same rigid approach. Tired of the majority Conservative majority group, which has run Westminster for time immemorial, choosing only Tory councilors as Mayor, the Labour opposition fielded their own nomination this week. The idea of Barrie Taylor, MP Karen Buck’s husband, getting in was predictably outvoted by the Conservative majority. But not before Labour group leader Paul Dimoldenberg had made his point in the press, writing in the West End Extra: “Barrie will not get elected because the Conservatives choose to play party politics with a position which is supposed to be ‘non-political’. The Conservatives have a sense of entitlement which is out of place in today’s society. Being elected mayor is not a right, it is a privilege which should be open to all members of the council, regardless of party. There needs to be a wind of change through the tired old corridors of power.”
As another Conservative became Lord Mayor of Westminster on the same night as Labour’s Heather became Mayor of Camden this week, I wonder if Mr Dimoldenberg thought that wind of change needed to blow further afield than his own borough boundaries.