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.