Tory rebel: Cut back on cabinet councillors

WHEN Labour members in Camden get twitchy about these pages pointing out differences of opinion within their pride, a familiar shot is that such interest is not taken in the organisation of the local Conservatives and Lib Dems. The answer to that is pretty obvious, smaller groups, especially those that aren’t in power, naturally have less splits because there are fewer people to row with.

But there is one obvious throb within Camden Tories which remains unhealed, always there in the background. Andrew Marshall, the former leader of the group, appears on many occasions willing to walk his own path. While his party colleagues were raising themselves from their duvets to be photographed and filmed outside the proposed Belsize Park Tesco at a still dark 7am last week, Cllr Marshall has been hinting that he thinks a broader view should be taken on the issue. He tweeted about a reader’s letter in the New Journal which suggested locals might find shopping at the new supermarket cheaper that more expensive independents. He’s ‘favourited’ another tweet which suggests the same thing.

Cllr Marshall is not a stranger to stepping off message. He seems to feel little regret for upsetting colleagues when he ignored party lines at mayor-making back in 2013 when he seconded Flick Rea for the role. The group was supposed to be simply abstaining on the vote in a modest protest at Labour’s apparent hogging of the mayoralty.

In a shake-up of positions, he later found that a spot on the planning committee, a role he always seemed to relish, was no longer there for him in the Conservative nominations. 

Things don’t seem to have changed. This week, and next week, there are full council meeting sessions but Cllr Marshall has been unable to get a question to Camden’s Labour rulers on the slate of official questions. Undeterred, he has sent his query directly to council leader Sarah Hayward, cabinet members and Town Hall chief executive Mike Cooke (copying the press in too). It’s a controversial one, asking the council, given the cuts being ordered to public spending, to effectively strip down the number of cabinet councillors at the Town Hall, and cut down on the staff time used to support them.

Here’s the full text of his email:

Dear Sarah

I wanted to ask a council question at one of two meetings we’ve got – didn’t manage to do that, so I thought I would send to you directly. I think it’s an important issue, though not a straightforward one. On this occasion, if you have time and desire to respond, that would be very kind and I’d be very interested in your response, and I could post both question and reply on our ward website.

Mike – the first paragraph below is a factual question that I wonder if you could get answered? (ie on number of chief officers in 2001 and today)

with best wishes

Question to the Leader of the Council from Cllr Andrew Marshall
In 2001 the Council adopted a new constitution with the executive/cabinet model. In 2001, how many members were there in the council executive/cabinet, and how many chief officers (ie. directors and assistant directors) were there then? In 2015 in contrast, how many members are there in the council cabinet, and how many chief officers are there?

Given the thrust of the finance strategy report (for example, on rationalising engagement mechanisms), does the leader not think that the council should consider ways of reducing the significant direct and indirect costs that councillors themselves represent – in terms particularly of senior officer time and attention. Such costs are not very visible to the public or even to members, but have become increasingly heavy as the senior officer team has been shrunk. Would she consider examining the following:

reducing the Cabinet from ten to seven members (as provided for in the legislation)
Scaling back further both the Leader’s office/policy staff, and the member support function
Reducing the number of council and committee meetings where possible and appropriate
Reducing officer support for scrutiny committees, and especially scrutiny panels
Rationalising the DMC structure

What would the potential direct and indirect savings from such a package over the coming three years?

Such a package would affect the roles of all councillors – whether cabinet, backbench or opposition – but given modern technology and the vibrant nature of Camden’s local democracy, would not fundamentally affect the nature and effectiveness of local government in the borough. Ideally such measures would be implemented on a cross-party “grand bargain” basis, recognising the roles of all councillors, both in the majority and the opposition. Does she agree that while local residents want their elected representatives to remain at the heart of local decision–making, they rightly expect the “cost of councillors” to be as modest as possible?

Two things of interest. As I said, Cllr Marshall doesn’t seem to be able to get a question on the agenda through his own party, or at least the one he wanted to ask. That’s quite a path from leading the group before the 2010 council elections.

But also, there is the substance of his question to think about, which is one of those which will attract strong views in the Camden bubble even if we don’t hear them all in public. There will be those who feel upset by the suggestion that every single thing that they do as senior councillors is not absolutely, bloody well vital to public life, that somehow Camden could simply chop a few of them from chief positions and still function perfectly well.

When championing the need for democracy behind the running of the council, and the sacrosanct need for transparency, it is hard to argue that less meetings, less debate, less explanation, and potentially less interaction with the public would be helpful. There is also a risk of his suggestion sounding like Tory sour grapes now that 40 Labour councillors occupy the hall, a risk, that is, of sounding like he’s simply saying there’s too many of you over there…

As we have documented and debated many times over the last half decade or so, however, some council meetings are more effective than others, and it’s fair to wonder whether other councillors may agree with at least parts of what he is saying, even if they would not say so in public. The full council meeting session could be exhibit A in Cllr Marshall’s argument, that stultifying scene where council chamber grandstanding replaces active negotiation with the borough’s residents. 

But if Cllr Marshall is looking for allies on this crusade, my guess is that he is still likely to find colleagues of all political persuasion reticent to say publicly, out loud: yes, yes, get rid of some of this lot sitting around me, we don’t need so many executive members. Moreover, the same may apply to councillors who deep down think: we really don’t need all these scrutiny meetings either


4 Comments on Tory rebel: Cut back on cabinet councillors

  1. John Bryant // January 19, 2015 at 12:05 pm //

    The real problem is the scant regard given the scrutiny function by Labour members who do not like to question their Cabinet colleagues or query their departmental policies in fear of future demotion in the ranks. A classic example from my experience was when I was attending a Children Schools and Families Scrutiny meeting a year or so ago as a ward member and was challenging the information offered by officers about split site schools in London. I was told by an aspiring Labour backbencher that it was not appropriate for me to challenge the officers…

    With such a large majority now for the leading group a return to the old committee system might offer better rounded discussions and better scrutiny of decisions and departmental performance.

    Personally I don’t agree with a reduction in Cabinet posts, although the split of functions could be more evenly distributed. If a committee system was resurrected, the Cabinet position would be changed to a Committee Chair role with more decisions actually taken in public, which would not be such a bad thing.

    • Thus spoke a former Lib Dem Chief Whip who was very adept at quelling dissent in his own group when he ran the show.

      Cabinet and other roles are voted on by all of Labour group, which as the record shows, respects independence of mind. Not sure the same could be said of John’s party which was surprisingly ‘top down’ in Camden for people who call themselves democrats.

      • John Bryant // January 19, 2015 at 4:02 pm //

        I cannot remember quelling anything during my short time as Whip (about 3 months in 2006) It is a pity that Theo prefers to substitute an argument about scrutiny with a string of unwarranted personal attacks instead.

  2. A Swiss Cottage Tory // January 19, 2015 at 1:39 pm //

    Isn’t Andrew Marshall an opposition councillor? An opposition councillor wants to reduce scrutiny? So what is he there for if not to keep an eye on Labour?? If he thinks he shouldn’t be lookin at what that lot are doin in Camden, then why is he there?? Why don’t he step down and let someone else do the job? As a Tory-voter in Swiss Cottage I’ll help him along by sayin I won’t vote for him ever again. Maybe he can take the hint and s*d off!
    Now that I think about it, he was the one on Twitter who said the Swiss should join the euro. The euro??? Is this fellow stupid? To what degree are his parents related because this kind of “thinkin” can only be the result of incest.
    Why did the Torys ever let this b*rk stand to being with???

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