SEAN Birch’s resignation from the council in Gospel Oak has raised the temperature at the Town Hall. Labour’s opponents – and hey, some of Labour’s own people too – are gossiping about how he must have been disappointed to drop out of the cabinet last year in that bloodiest of group reshuffles. The official line is that he had personal issues, nothing scandalous, to sort out.
Regardless of how the poll has come about, an intriguing battle is now set up in Gospel Oak now. It would be plainly embarrassing for Labour if they failed to hold this seat through candidate Maeve McCormack. The wind changed in its favour in Gospel Oak in 2010 when the party reclaimed all three seats there at the boroughwide elections. This was a vote on the same day as the General Election when other areas were happy to spike Labour and evict Gordon Brown.
Conservative chief Councillor Andrew Mennear said last week: “We’ll be giving a good fight. It’s Labour’s to lose.” But what is this by-election really about? Sure, Labour’s record at the Town Hall is under the microscope in a ward which has been both red and blue in the last seven years and where there is a difference of opinion about to get by with less public money to spend. There have been clashes over the Community Investment Programme in the neighbourhood.
But the Conservatives should also see this as just as much a test, locally and nationally. Locally: If they are aiming at comeback in Camden when the whole of the borough votes in 2014, a poor showing here would be a disaster. It would be the worst way to sow the seeds for a triumph next May. That’s why they will be going in hard here.
And nationally: do the punters blame the government at a national level or Labour at a local level for the loss of some public services and benefits? This by-election could be an indicator. In that sense, Conservative candidate Leila Roy, a well known local campaigner, will no doubt be reminded her name appeared on a group letter of concerned people to the New Journal and the Ham and High in November. The text of that letter said government cuts were “frightening”:
“We believe we are entitled to the housing and the benefits which are now under threat, and that we should defend them. The government’s sweeping cuts are frightening. Many people in low-waged or part-time work, sick and disabled people, single mothers and families with two parents, pensioners, young people who can’t get jobs and other benefit claimants, asylum seekers, victims of rape or domestic violence… have already been affected. We are sick of seeing our children and vulnerable people go without while others profit!”
Judging by the street stalls over the weekend, the battle has already commenced.