Camden’s motion: The people vs Donald Trump

Westminster police

SUDDENLY, motions – and not walkouts – have become the Town Hall’s favoured strategy. Yes, that unloved part of Camden’s all member meetings, which are often talked out, sometimes never reached or occasionally heard after one or two councillors have already called it a night, is at last the show-stopper.

Last night, in response to Donald Trump’s disgusting, divisive, choose your own adjective Muslim travel ban, and on the basis that thousands of their constituents would be affected, councillors passed a motion condemning the new US president’s policy. An emergency motion was ramped up the agenda and councillors took it in turn to say why it is bad, and why their own personal experience or family ties made them even angrier about it. Sometimes, even if everybody is thinking it, it’s good just to say it out loud.

There were some fantastic contributions. If you watch it back on the council’s recording, start with Maryam Eslamdoust’s explanation as to why this one hurts so bad.

For a motion which had unanimous support, there were flashpoints of political anger. Some Labour councillors treat the Conservatives sitting opposite like voodoo dolls for Theresa May and her cabinet, so we had Rishi Madlani riffing about a ‘pound shop Thatcher’ a few times. But while there was a difference in style and compromise, after 40 minutes everybody put their hands up to show they didn’t like the ban and that Camden should be on the public record as being opposed. And good on them too, it’d be easy to make a sarcastic comment about Trump quaking in his slippers over the thought of Camden Council coming at him, but in these desperate, confused times in global politics, where not a lot makes sense, you can understand a desperation to something, anything.

And yet, as they looked at their phones and tablets, for we well know they spend half of these meetings doing just that, we could be forgiven for thinking that if they wanted to make their points more powerfully to the President and to the people who voted him in (and can vote him out), they might have been in the wrong place. Could, for example, this ready made line of resistance to Trump at the Town Hall have left their seats, stopped talking to themselves and a handful of election hopefuls watching in the public gallery (and a webcast with unknown live viewing figures), and headed to Downing Street and joined the thousands saying it in numbers. Pictures of the growing crowd and people pouring into Whitehall were trending on Trump’s favourite social media channel, Twitter. The one above is from Westminster Police.

The language inside the Town Hall last night was often linked to that of Holocaust Memorial Day, with a warning that something similar is on the horizon. If that is really where we are at, shouldn’t we all be out on the streets. You, me, them, everybody. Nobody is suggesting that the motion wasn’t welcome or important, but with minimal tinkering of the agenda, then the councillors could have done both: a protest in the streets and then  back to base to outline their opposition in a motion. Would it be so radical to start the meeting at 8pm on a special occasion?

After all, there is a semi-precedent for postponing council business. In the week of the Scottish referendum, councillors walked out on their session to attend a rally in Trafalgar Square and listen to Eddie Izzard and others talking about the importance of the union. Truth be told, the event was not really the historic night out that it had been billed as and I know some councillors have since changed their view on whether the walkout that evening was worth it. Last night’s rally, however, had just as many people filling central London and the councillors were possibly talking more passionately about this subject than any other I’ve heard before. You felt like some of them were itching to be outside, with a placard, although before the meeting I was told by the Labour side that going to the protest wasn’t possible because, unlike the Scotland case, there wasn’t cross party agreement. The Tories, in turn, the suggestion of another walkout was never put to them.

As it happened, Sian Berry, the Green councillor, did go. She turned up unashamedly late to the Town Hall having been in the crowd, but still had time to talk in the council chamber debate and vote too. She had missed some affectionate tributes to former Labour councillor Sybil Shine, the unpredictable resolute former councillor who died earlier this month. I think she would have had Sybil’s blessing, though. Sybil might probably have done the same.

2 Comments on Camden’s motion: The people vs Donald Trump

  1. Good piece and it raises a legitimate point but towards the end I feel framing this as ‘talking shop’ vs ‘on the streets’ is a little binary.

    Regardless of whether people are members of a political party, councillors are still residents elected by fellow residents to propose, debate and scrutinise things which matter to the people of their area. The consequence of these things is often to do more, such as building a consensus to authorise more information or assistance to residents impacted. Sometimes it is important to have more debate on more controversial – and emergency – issues so such action is not misunderstood or misrepresented.

    A recent example is the Referendum/Brexit, where the council’s position on matters empowered it to be proactive: e.g. providing clearer information to the thousands of residents and hundreds of council workers who are non-UK EU nationals than given by the government of the day on potentially big changes to their lives. Subsequent large public meetings identified more issues of concern.

    The public would expect you to do this in the open, while other organisations can come to extra-ordinary decisions in private (e.g. here IKEA’s statement on the U.S. ).
    The important point is that some may agree or disagree strongly, but for a Town Hall it’s a matter of public record how you came to your decision.

    Of course, other action will be via protest which is also another route taken by the very same people. The very same elected residents go on protests, marches etc., on 21st Jan the Women’s March and the NHS – or for a variety of other causes, most less reported on than on Monday. I’m sure more would have done but Monday’s protests were almost spontaneous and not everyone could get there in time as quickly as, say Sian could – given she could pop down a couple of stops from her other job at City Hall on her way in.

    So it’s not an either/or it’s both. Also – there were important issues to discuss – lifting 16,000 of the poorest households out of Council Tax, passing items on Council Tax base & business rates. Leader, cabinet members are held to account by the opposition etc.

    It’s not too difficult to cancel meetings at the drop of a hat where items required by law have to be discussed, but sending 54 people at the most short notice across London carries the risk that other more bread-and-butter items will not be discussed and passed, and that’s what meetings are there for too.

  2. Richard Osley // February 1, 2017 at 9:11 pm //

    Thanks Theo. But I didn’t say it was an either/or… I said both were useful, and as I’ve put in the piece, I just thought there might have been away to go crazy and change the time of the meeting so people could go the protest and then back to Camden for the meeting. There is not a league table of important international issues but felt a lot more passion and fear among councillors this week about Trump than I did from them on Scots referendum week.

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