CAMDEN’S Labour group were split this week over lifting the basic pay of councillors. Council leader Sarah Hayward, who as it goes is one of the lowest paid full time local authority leaders in London, and others favoured an eleven percent rise, but they were outvoted by members who felt it should only go up by one percent. There was a worry among the one-percenters that councillors would look like they were hiking their pay at a time when painful spending cuts were being made across the board if they pushed through anything larger than the public pay award for local government workers.
From Monday’s group meeting, there is a story about how some of the group wanted the vote on this to be done by a secret ballot, but I have failed to get to the bottom of how that all came about, with Haywardites and the old Tulipista faction having different accounts as to what lay behind this. That squabble is in any respect dwarfed by the rumblings surrounding other divisions in the group which are now tuned into what may happen at Labour’s AGM in May, the session where the top jobs on Camden Council are decided. Yes, check the calendar, it is only January 24, and the chitter chatter has begun. The biggest line backstage is that there will be a more concerted attempt to shake up the composition of the cabinet, the inner cabal of ten councillors who effectively have the final say on policy, and even the leadership of the party.
Pub talk, coffee break chatter and whizzing whatsapp messages about somebody possibly standing against Sarah is nothing new, albeit the whispering has started much earlier in the year than ever before. She is used to it – rightly or wrongly, it sort of goes with the territory for any local authority – and she has not unreasonably challenged people in the past to dispense with their off-the-record briefings and take any differences of opinion directly to her. It was said last year that a possible challenger secretly had the paperwork all signed and ready to go, before having a last minute change of heart against the backdrop of a general election where Labour needed everybody, more than ever, to be pulling together rather than staging coups. As such, we have no way of really measuring how serious all of that was, and it hasn’t been mentioned on these pages before.
What is interesting this time, however, is the number of people talking about it, to the extent that it would feel odd to pretend they weren’t and not at least acknowledge here. People who would like a change are talking about it, and some of Sarah’s supporters clearly have wind of it too. Yet more interesting is the idea that Sally Gimson, who was promoted within the cabinet by Sarah last year to be Camden’s social services chief, is emerging as one possible challenger. Yes, Sally. If true, and multiple sources from different sides of the party suggest it has at least been discussed, it changes the normal thread of the AGM talk. Usually, it is somebody in the ‘left’ caucus who has felt sidelined and is then suggested as a possible challenger, only for the big day to come and nothing to happen; mainly because the Tulipistas know deep down they don’t have enough people to win control.
Sally, pictured above with Sarah on a general election constituency tour last year, is different. She after all is hardly a disciple of Jeremy Corbyn. She writes for Progress, the New Labour pressure group, has made several attempts to ditch Camden for parliament – the sort of ambition which is often seen as negative in this world – and gets teased for having a Conservative-supporting husband. Yet, despite all this, some Tulipistas see her as being a more ‘big tent’ operator than Sarah; somebody who can mediate between people on Sarah’s side who backed Liz Kendall in last summer’s leadership campaign or Tessa Jowell in her failed bid for the Labour mayoral candidacy, and the lefties, who are emboldened by the arrival of new local members who joined in and after the Corbyn summer. With two years to go until the next local elections, the agitators regard this as the crucial AGM. Next year, a leadership challenge may well be frowned upon and doomed to guaranteed failure as the party will be beginning its preparations for the boroughwide polls.
Why would the local Labour party want to mirror the mess of the national party by having a three month leadership contest, one member likely to vote for Sarah if all of this really plays out asked me this weekend, and what has the leadership actually done wrong? Other supporters of the top team will ask why the party would want to disrupt the flow of work which has seen the community investment programme, the use of property deals playing on Camden’s high land values to protect housing and schools from spending cuts, kick in.
Still, there is big talk, admittedly from people with an interest in talking big about this, that Sally could already rely on 15 councillors to vote for her to be leader if she went for it. I don’t know if that is true – and remember, folks, this is January 24, only January 24. And while others are talking freely about her apparent interest, Sally herself is keeping schtum. I’m worried she may have lost her phone. Or maybe it’s broken.
In the meantime, there is no official declaration, no public statement and there is a well-subscribed counter view that if Sally is thinking about such a nuclear move, there is plenty of time for her to abandon the idea and tell us all that it was never really in her mind, or to be persuaded that this really isn’t the time for a switch.