GUESS what: Camden’s Conservatives think Sadiq Khan has already begun breaking his promises as London mayor, while the Labour group say Zac Goldsmith ran a bad and racist campaign and the Tories should remain ashamed of themselves for ever more. When the motion debates become this circular, as they did at last night’s full council meeting, it’s time to cut your losses and leave them to it. Shop me to my boss, but you don’t need me, or anyone else to report on such a numb quarrel, and so I left the full council meeting 20 minutes or so early.
You’ll say the getaway was to watch England in European Championships football, but really, Camden could have dispensed with the last hour of their meeting and it would have made no difference to anybody’s lives. Motions are, in theory, a chance to vote on changing policy, or at the very least to prise an opinion out of tactically quiet councillors. To use one up (and 20 minutes in doing so) on whether Sadiq Khan is a let-down or the new messiah is an odd course.
In doing so, our elected representatives risk looking like they have self-elevated themselves to be MPs, swapping debates about what happens or should happen in Camden, locally, for the wider arguments which Labour and the Conservatives could have in any borough, any day. Are they really saying there is nothing specific to the borough worth debating and voting on? Recycling rates, unlocked parks, the potential overdevelopment of Somers Town, that bloody weedkiller and so on.
No, they decided, far better to run with: Sadiq, good or bad, discuss.
It’s nights like these where you start to understand the claims from councillors who are visibly disappointed to lose their seats, but within two months are claiming an election defeat has actually set them free, and was the best thing that had ever happen to them. Yeah, yeah, we might think, believing they are veiling a coping mechanism, but why shouldn’t it be true? Nearly any activity in the world would have been more productive than angrily re-running the London election bloodsports. Our Twitter-addicted council leader Sarah Hayward could at last be forgiven for being distracted by her ipad.
Jonathan Simpson could have been rocking and rolling at a gig, Oliver Cooper could have got at least halfway through his mum’s new novel, although not without blushing, and if there are any councillors now claiming dragon roots, they could have been watching Wales’s fantastic triumph over Russia. Instead, for that last section, all of the councillors were willing participants in the kind of debate which has made Question Time, on the national stage, increasingly unwatchable.
I say willing because this is hardly a new thing, and no matter how empty the public gallery or press bench is, no matter how many times they shrug to each other in the pub afterwards about how terrible the meeting they’ve just sat through was, none of them ever do anything about it. It remains a wonder why some of the sharp minds among our councillors acquiese to simply sitting there accepting it all, as if this is as good as it could ever be. Rational in every other part of their lives, it is almost inexplicable that they are still happy to do this for three hours every five weeks.
You’re bad, no you’re bad, the debate on Sadiq went on, accusation and a counter-accusation. When it gets like this the chief executive Mike Cooke should lock the chamber doors, check on them every now and then, and come back when they’ve puffed themselves out. I think it’s called ‘controlled crying’ in nannying circles.
The ‘watching football’ defence may be resurrected to explain why once again no member of the public felt like it was the right time to make a deputation to the all-member meeting about any issues of concern. Either that, or everything is perfect in Camden. These are more convenient options than the unthinkable alternative that nobody came because they can’t see the point in pleading to a wall of pre-prepared answers and a traffic light stopclock. The brave step of making more effort to invite the public in, as other councils have done, still causes too much of a fright in Camden for it to be taken here.
The tipping point may be coming too for the press, who historically have come to the Town Hall for these meetings with the high-minded but genuine view that they need to be there to keep local politicians accountable. It was both welcoming and ambitious for the council to leave five chairs out for reporters to fill in the main chamber last night.
Long-serving councillors can testify that ten or 15 years ago, you’d have two from the CNJ there, one or two from the Ham and High, someone from the Camden Chronicle, god rest its soul, an editor from one of the main ones every now and then, a council press officer and always Camden’s head of communications. Not any more.
It’s true that dwindling resources in the local and regional newspapers means that up and down the country, journalists, to much industry lament, have been retreating from council meetings. The same goes with the now largely unreported, and quite chaotic, world of the magistrates courts.
It might be said that in Camden we didn’t get the chance to retreat from the cabinet meeting last week; for although we may be told that the local authority is facing its biggest ever challenges, there was apparently not enough business on the table for the executive to discuss. But more generally, and there is a track record to support this, I don’t think the local newspapers here can be accused of skiving from council reporting. The appetite is there to continue to host the debate between the council and the public, but even the councillors themselves will know that listening to gratuitous, point-scoring debates is not part of our brief. Truth is, it’s not really part of theirs, either.