COUNCILLORS are due at the Town Hall this evening for their first all-member meeting since the summer, after skipping the last diary date so they – or those who wanted to at least – could head to Trafalgar Square to watch Eddie Izzard and Co plead with people in Scotland to vote against independence. It would be facetious to suggest that Scotland would be free from the union right now if these brave warriors had not done what they did on September 15. You will remember though, how councillors ‘marched’ from the Town Hall for a short demo, while Green councillor Sian Berry, one of the dissenters to this whole caper, turned up to an empty council chamber. The SNP later cited Camden as the sign of ‘no’ vote desperation as the polls narrowed.
This cartoonish episode, however, has not yet been consigned to another chapter of Camden’s curious local political history. And that’s because the Tories are feeling more than a little double-crossed, having waited and waited for the cancelled meeting to be re-scheduled. When the joint agreement to walk out was cobbled together late on that Monday afternoon, the Conservatives say they thought it had been agreed that this unusual step would only be taken if a new meeting swiftly arranged.
After the event, however, Labour are accused of suggesting the missing meeting could be bunged onto the agenda of the next two council meetings, making the sessions longer and covering the gap that way. I was told this week that the Tory whips were offered, if they didn’t like the ‘two longer meetings’ suggestion, an alternative of re-staging the skipped meeting in a week which would have clashed with their party conference in Birmingham.
On the opposition benches, the Tories are using terms such as ‘bad faith’ and ‘breakdown of trust’ in relation to Labour leader Sarah Hayward, who was at the forefront of the sally-forthing to Trafalgar Square, and her party whips. For Labour’s part, there is a feeling that this was a unique moment in British history and that, although the missed meeting was unfortunate, it feels a little crazed to demand another diary date is found with the likelihood of two all-member sessions staged close together in January.
It may seem funny to sound protective of a full council meeting which has been criticised on these pages as disastrously ineffective, a session drowned in the most boring point-scoring and insular partisan politics. But the argument that you can only reform it if you don’t cancel it or treat it as an irrelevance is popping up in the council corridors.
The Tories are now suggesting, I understand, that the tone of their relationship with the majority party may now have to change, that week-to-week negotiations will not be able to take place in the same way if they hold no trust in Sarah and her team. The threat is ‘non co-operation’ with Labour in the future.
From the outside, many might think big-whooppee-do, what can a Tory opposition really achieve with a ‘non co-operation’ stance at the Town Hall, when Labour’s majority in Camden is so strong?
Well, what might – might – explain a degree of Labour nervousness is the issue of members allowances that is lurking in the background and at risk of a flare-up. The ‘salaries’ are up for a review and have been discussed internally. After a freeze, there is a feeling – from councillors who have been knocking about for a while, at least – that there should be room for some sort of small rise and that it could be achieved without bad press if there is a cross-party agreement. If the Tories, however, begin to play hardball and oppose all increases to member allowances, Labour risks being left exposed as the party that is out there surveying where austerity cuts should fall, while handing their local politicians a pay rise, however tiny that raise is. It’s just a thought, but wouldn’t it be much easier to sell with Tory co-operation?