A voice from the backbenches

russellTHE all-in general election effort means there is likely to be a smoother run into Camden’s Labour Party’s annual general meeting than years gone by. It’s not really the done thing to be seen plotting and scheming for cabinet spots or, breathe in everybody, the leadership, at a time where everybody with a red rosette is supposed to be pulling for the same cause. They are supposed to be doing that all the time of course, but election time brings with it an easy demand for discipline. In fact, we have a scene every weekend where swarms of members meet in the street to have their picture taken together to show Twitter what a great turnout they have had canvassing. Nobody, you will notice, ever has a disappointing session of door-knocking. 

This pre-polls bonhomie, however, could not completely mask the tension surrounding the Liddell Road school development, and the upset which surrounded backbench councillor Lorna Russell’s opposition to the plans for the site in West Hampstead. She had called for more affordable housing and her voice cracked when she told a planning meeting why she disagreed with her own party’s proposals. It’s not that longer-serving councillors become desensitised to it, but you can guess how hard it is for new members to listen to some of the horrific housing stories which arrive at their surgeries, especially when so soon after gaining a ‘Cllr’ prefix they find themselves feeling quite powerless over what advice they can actually give.

Lorna’s friends in the party say she was upset by that feeling of desperation, but add too that she was also distressed by being called ‘misguided’ by her own party in an online news article that appeared on the Ham and High’s website on the day of the hearing. The Tulipista wing of the party felt this was all rather harsh; that the disagreement had been agreed upon and there was no need to use such a term about a councillor whose motive had been to make a shout out for social housing, rather than to undermine the leadership. Beyond the clip above, the webcast shows Kilburn councillor Douglas Beattie saying that Lorna ‘does not stand alone’ on the issue of council housing here; comments decoded by some as a deliberate way of providing some cover for his exposed colleague. It was felt the public had been effectively told that Camden’s masterplan had been too hard for her to understand, even though that wasn’t exactlt what finance lead Theo Blackwell had actually said.

What happened next depends on what side of the group you listen to, and whether you read this as all ‘pre-agm politics’ before the group vote on a possible local cabinet reshuffle.

Some of Lorna’s supporters say that the episode plays into a culture where backbenchers feel a little nervous about speaking in meetings.

It’s sticky territory. The Tories on the other side of the room took a whack or two over the fact that their former councillor Laura Trott (linked most recently with the Conservative selection contest in Kensington) had hardly said a word in meetings during her four years on the council – but, in recent weeks they have been wondering whether the same criticism should soon apply to some of the quieter faces in the Labour back rows.

Ms Trott, a Downing Street adviser, could certainly fight her own battles. Inside the current Camden Labour group, however, the issue is said to be different. There is talk of councillors now remaining silent, not because they have nothing they want to add, but because they fear criticism from within if they wander, deliberately or accidentally, off message.

Regardless of this particular incident, there are members on both sides of the party who think there could be more support and encouragement for those who have so far not troubled the meeting minute-takers. 

The other side of the coin is that Labour has a big group now and the queue at meetings to speak is longer, and the opportunities are restricted by practicality rather than whipped design. Inevitably the cabinet councillors will say more because they have to talk us through their portfolios. And they do.

The idea that Camden Labour only talks through a few voices is, however, to some extent, exacerbated by the relationship which has evolved between the group and the local press. New councillors are often – not always, but often – a little more wary of calling the papers for anything more than a jumble sale that needs promoting in their ward.

Often, you will see Theo is the one quoted in CNJ or H&H stories due to the overarching nature of his finance brief. He approaches the press on the front foot in a way that his colleagues do not, and as a result it can seem like he is doing all the talking.

That assessment of is a little skewed: for over the years, and who’s to say not now, some of his senior colleagues have been silently happy for him to face the press in their place. At the same time, they can’t have been blind to the internal gripes about him speaking on everything.

In turn, the local press have become used to going to to him for comment, sometimes even on issues that are are a bit of a stretch on his remit, because a) he is fast and reliable in getting back to journalists, and b) he does not follow the trend of cabinet members who, despite their lead positions and responsibility, only supply comments through the council press office.

In a way, he should get some credit for fronting it all up, while others slip by without interrogation. The leadership’s critics don’t buy that, though, and with varying degrees of fighting talk – mild irritation to angry defiance – have been insistent in these last couple of weeks that they will make sure other will get a word in edgeways. And without being called ‘misguided’ for their trouble.


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