FIRST of all, as much as we prod and challenge the councillors at the Town Hall, and morph them into pomegranates, the commitment and service shown by the ones that do the job properly is something admirable.
Not the ones who sit in a sort of self-gagged silence, watching the clock, looking concerned at the right points, and voting this way or that depending on how their friends have raised their hands. No – I mean the members who straddle normal, busy working and family life with spending their evenings at the Town Hall and dealing with pained residents, often presenting with truly dire living conditions and appealing for help that isn’t available. That’s not an easy gig, and it’s even more impressive if their choice is driven by a genuine sense of community and not solely a personal stepping stone to the House of Commons.
The realisation that it is not how it was first imagined is often revealed by a tumble of by-elections that come soon after a new administration is formed. If you don’t have the support of a group of councillors on the same team, it must be an even more chaotic existence.
So, it is easy to understand why, after a fair old slog, Maya De Souza, Camden’s only Green councillor, announced her decision over Easter to step down. She has spent her life in recent months darting from one commitment to another. After eight years of it, she will feel she has done more than her bit. In fact if her Highgate ward wasn’t such a tetchy square-off between the Greens and Labour ahead of next month’s council elections, maybe more Labour members would today be recognising her contribution.
But that’s the thing: Highgate is one of the wards with some level of interest next month as the Greens look to defend that one seat, stay alive and pinch one or two more from Labour. Labour in turn want the clean sweep and have the local firepower to get it.
What Labour may fear here, however, is the likelihood of split voting cards among left-leaning residents who feel both parties have something to offer. The threat of this possible trend seemed like it might be watered down when Sian Berry, the former mayoral candidate, announced she would stand in the ward. The theory goes: If the split-voters were ready to hand one vote to the Greens, they might either give it to Sian simply because ‘B’ comes before De Souza on the voting card, or to Maya because of her local recognition. Either way, this would dilute the concentration of the ‘and-one-for-the-Greens’ votes for a single candidate and risk none of them actually getting elected.
Maya’s decision to not seek re-election removes this danger of more scattered voting, but the importance of local recognition – something the Lib Dems will trade off in West Hampstead and Fortune Green when things get tough next month – cannot be underestimated. That’s why her decision to step down cannot be talked away as anything other than a blow for the Green Party. When you’ve only got one councillor and that councillor decides to call it a day, certainly there must be a worry that you are simply surrendering your chief advantage. Colleagues apparently tried to persuade her to press on and she was wracked with a measure of self-conjured guilt as she tried to find a way to depart without the whole branch suffering. She had previously had to play down the bubbling rumours that this was all on the cards.
Really, it’s a bit late in the day for all of this, four weeks from polling day. Only last week we were invited to photograph her at the launch of a local election housing strategy as if she was still happy to be fronting campaign set pieces.
While some members have called for more political ‘gimmicks’, Maya is not really a point-scorer, not aggressive in the Town Hall punch. She once left the council chambers in tears after the bruisers refused to let her speak at an all member meeting. Certainly, some Labour members remained irritated that she had dug in and managed to hold onto her seat in the sweeping Labour fightback in Camden in the 2010 local elections.
And there are signs that Labour retains some of that lasting caution about the Greens in Highgate, who despite having a full slate of candidates across the borough are likely to throw its biggest focus at this one ward. That spooks Labour, despite the fact they hold the majority power there. A sneaky Labour letter sent out to voters suggested Greens, locally, were ready to do coalition deals with the Conservative and Liberal Democrats. In true local election leaflet style it included a broken website link and a glut of sweeping statements.
Outraged by this apparent scare tactic, Sian tweeted reminders that she was very publicly advising people to vote a Green-Labour one-two when she stood to be the Mayor. Back then, as it became clear that London might be turning right and ready to elect Boris Johnson as Mayor, and then actually did it, Labour were happier to talk to the Greens to form some sort of left unity discussion. In Camden right now, where Labour is confident of expanding its power base next month – including an extra seat in Highgate – and needs no assistance from the Greens, the chat is cooler.
Switched-on but unpredictable, the voters of Highgate have a recent history of changing their minds, upsetting predictions. Only the Lib Dems have failed to make any real ground there in the last decade. But as they eye the prize of three seats, Labour must twin its confidence with wariness of what this deliciously meddlesome audience can do. There will be some residents who broadly support Labour but consider it highly unlikely that the party will lose the Camden elections overall. If they have that premise in the back of their mind, there is room for some split-voting and, for some, the idea of giving the Greens another roll would be more beneficial than than just adding to rows and rows of nodding Labour councillors. In that respect Labour would probably find it easier work arguing it out with the Tories in Highgate.
But then they will also find it easier arguing it out with the Greens now Maya is no longer on the ticket.