Leaving so soon? Tom Currie escapes

SO, let us begin this catch-up with Tom Currie. We never start with Tom Currie, and soon he will be gone.

He may not be at the centre of a big deselection or resignation story, but his decision to walk away from the Town Hall provokes some quiet questions about how attractive the political life of a councillor really is in an executive system where power is concentrated among a small number of individuals.

Tom politely tells us that changes to his work, and possibly to where he lives, lie behind his decision not to stand for election again in Hampstead Town ward next year. He wouldn’t be dragged into commenting, however, on the noise backstage among some of his colleagues who suggest that, beyond the reasons given, he is also rather tired of how the council functions.

“He’s fed up of coming to the council and just being shouted at by the other side in really adversarial and pretty unhelpful way, when actually there is agreement on a local level on a lot of issues, such as protecting pubs from developers,” one Conservative party source.

Does this sound like simply the lament of a guy whose party didn’t get enough votes and must therefore suffer in opposition? Maybe. But there are councillors on both sides of the chamber who, like Tom, clearly have the potential to do more for Camden than simply thank executive members for their excellent reports or nod their heads in the right places. Higher roles stand bed-blocked with little opportunity of wider rotation and it’s not too much of a stretch to wonder whether there just aren’t enough meaningful positions available to keep 54 councillors enthused.

On the ruling side, it’s not for cabinet members to step down if they are doing a good job, for the sake of giving someone else a go on the swings. But it’s been muttered before in some quarters that beyond the executive there are too many people with not enough to do, which in turn leads to back-biting. One of the main ways of gaining a promotion, after all, is challenging party colleagues, hardly a recipe for happy families.

This was not the exact theory in the widely-leaked election analysis drawn up for Labour by Lewis Baston, but there was a slight sniff of it in his observation: “The more councillors the better, provided that a large group does not generate disunity or complacency. But the priority needs to be a working majority rather than a landslide,” his report said.

In neighbouring Islington, every seat bar one is occupied by Labour and it’s said that some councillors fade into the background. Three years into a four-year cycle, the desire for a fuller experience as a councillor can perhaps already be seen around the edges in Camden too; as a small example you might cite Oliver Lewis’s potential challenge of his comrade Jenny Headlam-Well’s for the chairmanship of the Children Schools and Familes scrutiny committee come the group’s AGM.

It’s true that backbenchers are appointed to new commissions, taskforces and working groups, but there is always the risk that this feels token to those who get asked. Maybe there was something to digest, then, in former council leader Gerry Harrison’s letter published in the Guardian earlier this week about how things changed under the Local Government Act back in 2000.

Talking generally about local government rather than Camden specifically, he wrote on Monday: “With the abolition of committees, new councillors, and particularly those from opposition parties, had no say in contributing to policy by debate or consensus, and were instead fobbed off with alleged powers of overview and scrutiny. This has led to the cronyism of those in power and marginalised those on the back benches or in opposition.”

There’s some Blair-blaming in his letter, so maybe this voice from the past will be taken the wrong way by some of the current Labour councillors. What’s more the idea of shaking back to a committee system drew little appetite in Camden when Labour discussed it internally a while back. There are councils around the country who do use a committee system and struggle to make a decision after hours and hours in session.

Yet while Tom Currie wears a different colour rosette, maybe, as he makes good his escape, he has a sense of what Gerry is driving at.

10 Comments on Leaving so soon? Tom Currie escapes

  1. If Conservatives want to be on the Cabinet then they need to make a compelling case at the elections next year.

    The current scrutiny system is one that the Conservatives and Lib Dems put in place in 2006. I think colleagues currently do a good job and work really hard at scrutiny (often not reported on) although IMO in 2006 the new system replaced one where backbenchers could get more hands-on with thematic scrutiny panels (youth work, anti-social behaviour etc) and a powerful cross-party Overview and Scrutiny.

    Suspect this is chaff & the truth is more to do with the politics of the Conservative Group, which is increasingly uncomfortable for moderate and sensible voices like Tom’s.

    • Richard Osley // March 12, 2017 at 7:20 pm //

      Thanks Theo, as always I welcome your contributions. I think I know what some of your colleagues who do feel underused – and I’ve spoken to a few – may say: It’s easy for him to say, he’s been in the cabinet for the last seven years. That said, I don’t really hear people at the Town Hall blaming cabinet members for staying on and on (and on); it’s more that some frustrated by the lack of opportunity caused by circumstance and the consequence of Labour’s large victory in 2010. (Or in the Tory party feeling, as Gerry put it in the Guardian, that the system is set up to marginalise all opposition to make it seem they are not really there). As I said in this piece, it’s not about executive members feeling they should step down if they are doing a good job, just because somebody else wants a turn.

      I very much agree with you about thematic scrutiny panels. Whoever is in power, if we’re honest it is unlikely that scrutiny or call-ins will really halt a policy if the cabinet has its heart set on it, but with the old scrutiny panels there was an opportunity to see many hours of hard work make a real difference by suggesting new approaches on relevant or under-researched issues. The aim wasn’t necessarily to change a policy, more to suggest a new one or come up with something that had never been thought of before, and with that came more wriggle room. I’m not saying, above, that the councillors who are on scrutiny now aren’t ‘working really hard’, it’s just interesting to see whether the council is getting the best out of the effort that they put in, and, in turn whether the councillors doing that work feel inspired, and go home thinking it’s all been worthwhile.

      • Yes I agree – as per middle para – but let’s not pretend this issue hasn’t been discussed at various stages, nor obscure that Cabinet is elected every year by Group (not appointed as elsewhere).

        The question is what and how & haven’t read Gerry’s letter but the issue with the old Committee system now is that the way the Town Hall works and serves residents is very different from 1999.

  2. Tom Simon // March 12, 2017 at 8:20 pm //

    It certainly can be frustrating being an opposition and/or backbench Councillor, though there is some limited scope to have an impact at the Town Hall. However being a Councillor still leaves you with a fantastic platform for making a difference in your ward, and I don’t just mean doing casework and the stuff that falls in your lap. I’d recommend to any Councillor to find a couple of major projects that will benefit their constituents and push those. For Example, for Belsize I helped open a new post office and a new school.

  3. Barry Edwards // March 13, 2017 at 9:35 am //

    When all political opinions are represented in the Council Chamber then the debate will be for real.

    When politics does not happen in Council Chambers or other elected assemblies it does not stop happening. I will probably upset some of my former colleagues on Islington Council as some of them would lose their seats but I would like to see councils elected by some form of proportional representation, probably using Single Transferable Voting in multi-member wards.

  4. Anonymous // March 13, 2017 at 10:33 am //

    Aah aint that sweet the Tory Blackwell agrees with the Tory Currie??

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