A contest in the corridors

CamdenAGMSarahSallyWITH a week to go before Camden Labour’s AGM and the leadership contest, where are we at? It may sound like a cop out, but don’t ask me to predict a winner; both sides seem equally adamant that victory is in sight, while some backbench councillors say they simply didn’t have the heart to let either Sarah Hayward or Sally Gimson down to their faces, and so have indicated to both that they could count on their support.

This may sound weak and indecisive of them, but it’s worth remembering sometimes that this is not the Westminster bubble populated by professional political schemers, it’s Camden’s Labour group; some of those in there are people with day jobs and lives beyond politics, who signed up because they thought they could be of some use to the community or under the belief that it would be fun and interesting, rather than a plunge into the sudden white heat of a small electorate where every vote counts and the careers of the more politically ambitious are thrust into their hands. They all sit around a small table in the grand scheme of things. They drink in the same pubs after meetings. It’s a sharp process. Rather them, than us.

The leaked emails relating to Sarah Hayward’s management style raised the temperature further, however, last week. In fact it was essentially pressing the nuclear button, for there have been disagreements in the Labour group over the years about policy and direction, but now it is about style and to some extent personality, and when it gets personal it can all get very fractious. Aware that this is now a bit ‘win or bust’ for the two candidates and there’s no going back once you question someone’s personal style, a couple of councillors, from both sides of this divide, have told me they just want it to be over with now.

Some of that leak story last week, however, goes some way to explaining why Sally Gimson’s challenge has been confusing to people, especially from the outside, who see her as being on the same side of the party as Sarah –  the wing which often like to be called modernisers rather than Blairites – even if Sally didn’t follow Sarah’s subscription to Liz Kendall’s campaign in last summer’s Labour leadership contest. Without a candidate from the Corbyn left emerging, this lingering why Sally? question has made it easier for Sarah’s camp to dismiss her bid as a streak of political ambition following a handful of failed quests to reach parliament. They will challenge her to name one policy that the Labour council in Camden has embarked on which she disagrees with.

Sally’s backers say the issues are more delicate, and so things like these emails are the kind of thing being discussed away from public sight, fuelling a contest in the corridors and briefings over coffees which tap into a theme among rivals that you could even trace back to a confused memo at the start of Sarah’s leadership in which an official at the Town Hall told staff that she should be properly addressed as ‘Dear Leader’.  In fact, Sarah had not made any such demand, but newspapers like the Telegraph and the Daily Mail were already claiming Camden had ‘echoes of North Korea’. There has been innuendo here and there about Sarah’s robust style from critics almost ever since; but nobody has ever put their name to any of it, and no member of staff has made an official complaint about anything that has happened at the Town Hall.

To that end, as uncomfortable as it may have been to be asked about claims of furious rages and some eye-catching internal disagreements, the fact that she has finally been presented with a document and responded to the discussion on her management style may make this leak seem like a blessing in disguise for her supporters in the future. If, of course, she is successful next week, it will have given her a chance to answer it head on for the first time. Sally would not comment last week as the story bounced around before press day, essentially handing the stage to Sarah.

And what will people make of it all? Critics say you get more done without screaming and shouting and somebody needs to broker a peace, while the view that Sarah inherited a misfiring operation and had to break some balls to fix it, occasionally at the cost of some tense scenes like those seen in any high pressure workplace, is being shared readily by those who want her to stay. The opinions contrast so severely, the division suggests there will be wounds to heal within the group even once the secret ballots have been cast next Tuesday night. It will be interesting to see who is comfortable to serve in whose cabinet as the dust settles next month.

The Sally pitch will no doubt continue to focus on management and style in the final days of campaigning. The offer is to bring more opportunities to those who sit on the backbenchers, apparently sometimes scared to contribute, and to glue better relations with like-minded campaigners to fight the Conservative government. There is a pledge to take the ‘I, I, I’ and ‘me, me, me’, out of all of this, losing a whispered-about one-upmanship with other councils and an apparent desire for Camden to be known most as ‘the first council in the country’ to do something, anything, on the local government pages of the Guardian‘s website. In its place, Sally’s supporters say they want a more flexible leader who can stitch together left and right, and recognises Camden cannot win national campaigns on its own, and must work with other local authorities, particularly those under Labour control in London, MPs and potentially the Mayor of London too, if Sadiq Khan comes through his own moment of truth next week.

Sarah’s side fight back and say huh? we are already doing that, working with Keir Starmer and Tulip Siddiq, and taking on Zac Goldsmith in the mayoral contest. The counter here is to question Sally as somebody who is belittling the resistance and effort of people already giving up most of their evenings and weekends on campaigns. The line: Councillors have been fighting really hard against the Tories in the toughest circumstances Camden has known, and then Sally comes along and says we’re not dong enough. And then, to those who are potentially floating, will come Sarah’s pitch, a reel of achievements which her supporters say are being grossly overlooked by the claim that a change is needed: a record win at the boroughwide elections, a fight against HS2 which saw the link across Camden Town abandoned, campaigns on police cuts and the housing bill, and so on. Again, Sally will be asked, which bit did you disagree with?

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