FLASHBACK post, but I’ve been busy and conference season was an intriguing couple of weeks which shouldn’t go unrecorded. Intriguing because both in Brighton and Manchester, you found members from Camden who were both enthused or dispirited by different aspects of political life. What I always find interesting, however, as the outsider looking in, is how many make the effort to be there, whether the journey is 60 miles or 250.
Before we go on, I didn’t make it to Bournemouth, no. It’s a long way to go for the Liberal Democrats while they are hanging on by one councillor in Camden, and, besides, I went to Glasgow two years in a row for those guys. The Greens’ expedition to Harrogate was also a journey too far, and maybe it was for some of its Camden members too.
The most curious 15 minutes of each conference in terms of local reporting tends to be the team line-up, which somehow became a tradition about eight years ago and we’ve been cramming councillors and party supporters into frame, whether I want to or not, ever since. On the seafront in Brighton, Labour agreed to stand in front of the Palace Pier, before completely obliterating the backdrop with their sheer numbers. A guy who runs the candy floss stall (see below) ran into shot amid the herding, although wouldn’t say if he was a Corbynista or not.
In Manchester, there was also a big crowd, which given Labour’s lead in Camden is a show of spirit if nothing. A conference in Manchester is an expensive affair, even if you don’t have to kip in your car to prove it.
But there we were, when it was just about still sunny in Brighton – it’s my home town now, so it was slightly odd seeing all these guys wandering around the streets (see Rishi Madlani shopping above). As the Labour members came across the road, Douglas Beattie, the Kilburn councillor, spotted the lens and raised his fingers for a v for victory. I don’t think this was as cocksure a gesture as it looks – more a look of there’s the CNJ and we are a long way from Camden Town. Intentional or not, however, it reflected the wider conference. Cllr Beattie is aligned with the left caucus and, after decades of waiting, it is the left that clearly had the run of the hall.
I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say across the schedule of fringe meetings, there seemed to be longer queues for the Momentum-organised events, than at the same old conference guide panel discussions, which, Brexit aside, feel like they have had the same speakers talking about the same thing for more than a decade.
Centrists, Blairites, Kendalites, Progress members, I don’t know what the vogue label is but ‘right wing’ always seems a little harsh, complained how factionalism was wrecking it all, even it did seem like a simple reversal of the tactics they had been used to retain control in the years before, the boot on the other foot. The Corbyn sceptic (and one of Frank Dobson’s former party agents) Luke Akehurst’s take on conference divisions may not be a pleasant digest for the leader’s supporters and Momentum members, but he does capture this curious situation where several councils remain in the control of what he describes as the “centre left” despite the national picture. In Camden, this has been a slightly odd dynamic where the membership has supported Corbyn (by nominating him leadership contests), while the people in key positions, locally, were signing letters calling on him to step down.
Some of those centre-left figures in Camden are departing the scene here, largely for personal reasons but bundled together leave the permanently-suspicious wondering whether their life choices are subconsciously guided by the direction of their party, nationally, and whether they no longer wanted to be the public face of it locally. Theo Blackwell got his job with Sadiq Khan, Phil Jones is off to be a planner, Sally Gimson’s path leads elsewhere and Sarah Hayward is calling it quits too. Nevertheless, their replacements, as we saw recently, more or less preserve a status quo, a set-up which explains some of the backstage posturing around council candidate selections in recent weeks.
The left do seem happy to give new leader Georgia Gould, appointed without challenge, a chance to put into action her plans for a more collegiate administration in Camden. There is a general contentment that she is giving them time and space to have their say, which they feel wasn’t there before, even if her broad church approach was not reflected in the local cabinet elections. She has gone a step further too, by saying she has changed her mind – hard for any politician – about Corbyn himself and can now see him walking through the doors of Downing Street as prime minister, a prospect, let me assure you, several of her high profile colleagues do not believe will ever become a reality.
The issues of leadership was obviously on the minds of Conservative members in Manchester too, although seeing if there is one who will say out loud, and on the record, that Theresa May really should have stepped down by now is a hard gig. As the New Journal’s office sign has been missing its dropped letter ‘L’ for half a decade, it’s probably best not to revisit her speech here.
It was easier to find people who will say ‘Boris Johnson, no way’ or ‘I’ll never support Jacob Rees-Mogg to be leader’. They know who they don’t want, in other words. You get the impression some of them would be happy if the job was just given to Chris Philp, the MP in Croydon who famously was within 42 votes of finally winning in Hampstead back in chaotic 2010 and has a hero status among the north Camden faithful. He just happened to be passing, okay, when their team shot was being taken.
Philp, previously, had been one of the three Conservatives candidates who did what now seems unthinkable by winning council seats in Gospel Oak. As the most low-key council by-election unfolds in that ward right now, with nobody expecting anything but Jenny Mulholland’s victory for Labour, it all seems a long time ago. After the general election analysis, the grim joke for local Tories is that there are no safe seats left in Camden. Everybody is aware of the possibility of an Islington-style wipeout (Frognal aside) if the wind is in Labour’s favour at next May’s council elections. Swiss Cottage is an obvious battleground but Brexit is not on the ballot paper, they keep insisting, as Leave candidates get ready to stand.
The statements of the obvious about the Conservative conference being populated by chaps in blue seats rings true, as I said in the CNJ you feel like an elephant trying to hide in an ant farm turning up in local newspaper reporter gumshoes.
But the point about the local group having little eccentricities which defy this uniformity is also real: Tim Barnes, the Holborn and St Pancras parliamentary candidate just gone, changed the script by turning up dressed as Sherlock Holmes at least, while you won’t find starched collars from the likes of association chairman Gio Spinella and certainly not Jonny Bucknell.
The party agent – D-Dog – is covered in heavy metal tattoos, while, as sad as it sounds, there aren’t many associations who have a young black teacher in their ranks. Of course, it’s not what you wear, it’s what you say, but with Labour pressing in London to wipe out the opposition at next year’s council elections in several boroughs, this different look, a different take, could funnily enough provide some insulation from the more chaotic aspects of the national organisation.
It is a could, though, and simply trying to defend what you’ve got is not the most thrilling ambition going into the local polls. The Conservatives will look to spread the play to West Hampstead, have a nibble at Highgate and so on, but with the post-mortem into how Labour MP Tulip Siddiq was able to claim a 15,000 majority in Hampstead and Kilburn almost over, they may have to do so with a new local appeal, rather being badged as ‘Theresa May’s local candidates’. The idea of fighting the elections without the overhead interference from central office was certainly something being welcomed on the train back from the north west.