ONE leftover from last week is Conservative group leader Claire-Louise Leyland’s speech at full council in which she appealed for a new way of doing things at Town Hall meetings. She basically asked councillors to stop sniping at each other and work out what they actually agree on, or what she says is ‘the best of what we believe’. All hazily romantic, say some opposition councillors privately, and not realistic in our entrenched adversarial politics, especially just six months from boroughwide elections.
Her words are from the part of Camden’s full council meetings where the group leaders have a speech on any subject they want and, in the past, you would have found Piers Wauchope here jibing like an irritating little brother at Dame Jane Roberts, who often reacted like a dismissive big sister, or Anna Stewart trying to take on Keith Moffitt. The segment has almost always been defined by point-scoring, where leaders over-sell successes and rivals flag up little failures.
At 2mins 47 in CLL’s speech (above), you can hear heckling and giggling and she accuses Labour of such ‘disrespect’ in the council chamber that ‘a lot of residents who would be interested in our meetings don’t bother to come’. She then doubts the sincerity of a muffled apology from Labour’s Theo Blackwell and says that people laugh at others to ‘make themselves feel special’.
Who knows the audience figures on the council webcast, but the empty public galleries have been a concern among some of Camden’s politicians for a while, especially those who have a creeping fear they might as well be talking to walls if nobody is listening. Maybe it will always be unrealistic to think that people with busy lives and worries of their own are going to use their precious free time to pop down to the Town Hall to hear council debates, as we are told regularly happened in the ‘old days’. But hearing councillors replicate the point-scoring of Cameron vs Miliband, regurgitating the circular lines you hear on Question Time every week, is unlikely to ever increase interest or participation. Reviews of how full council meetings are regularly promised.
One idea might actually be lifted from last week’s session: the fact that a policy was decided on the night, a clear debate on a specific issue and a vote. The busking control decision did draw interest, okey, only perhaps single issue interest, but rather than float ideas and vague suggestions into the chamber, councillors, altogether in one room, were making policy there and then. They could do more of that, rather than just ask questions to portfolio leaders, half of which are answered by email at a later date, and offer niggly motions that are rarely debated anyway. Over time, backbenchers frozen out by the cabinet system might feel a little more useful too. One Lib Dem broke his party’s line on busking last Monday.
This is not all to say that CLL has been received as some sort of long-awaited prophet whose softly-spoken words are a sage prescription for a general lack of public care. There is a vast difference of opinion on the content of her speech among councillors. Some concede she has a point and that not much of any use is ever achieved at full council meetings when the sledging begins. On some simple areas of council work, some neighbourhood points, there are many areas of consensus that could get lost in the heckles.
But a lot of other councillors, a lot on the Labour side, were irritated by CLL’s approach, insisting she came across as ‘pompous’ and ‘patronising’. The old-fashioned term ‘school maarmish’ has been muttered and some of those who have been around the block saw it as a leader disorientated by the age-old cut and thrust of fierce debate where opinions are fundamentally poles apart and essentially distasteful to those in disagreement.
“She talks like this, about process, because she can’t use her time to defend government policies,” said one unimpressed Labour member. “When she talks about paying the living wage to carers in Camden, she needs to say how the Tories would pay for it. Make that point to her and you get accused of being confrontational and disrespectful. That’s why she isn’t being realistic.”
It’s true that her style is different to her predecessor, the experienced old attack dog Andrew Mennear. She can at least prove consistency, however. When she became leader in May, her theme was the same, telling us then: “There is nothing to gain from point-scoring. We need to sit down with people from all parties and work out how we can help people in Camden.” Time will tell if anybody, including the rowdier members who sit behind her, will sign up to her kindness offensive.