WE joked that when Theo Blackwell disappeared to fill Sadiq Khan’s new £107,000-a-year digital guru role at City Hall, local journalists might feel a sense of Stockholm Syndrome and miss the guy, such was the regularity of his fuming criticisms of one story or another.
Not so much, to be honest, but you could feel the big beast’s absence at Monday’s full council meeting. Could it have been the first all member meeting in 15 years where the three hours passed without a heckle? Former leader Sarah Hayward, although still a councillor, wasn’t there to tweet every contribution, either. Things have rapidly changed around here.
Some Labour members would say, this staid arena needs a bit more anger and that Theo’s unashamedly adversarial stares across the chamber and heckles at the Tories were a good thing, in the sense that if you feel, like he and others do, that there has been a nuclear assault on local government funding, why would you meet this with a convivial chat and polite disagreement. Others said it was unnecessarily aggressive and reductive, and that jeers and point-scoring are no way to solve the argument.
Rishi Madlani, never short of a trending sound bite about WEAK AND WOBBLY POUND SHOP THERESA MAY or something, has taken up the attack dog role, with the same missing top button as it happens, but it’s not the same. The room is quieter without Theo. This was a good thing for Leila Roy, at least, on Monday night who was sporting NYPD aviators to shield her eyes due to a migraine.
Newish leader Georgia Gould has already pledged to anybody who will listen that she will be the one to finally do something about these awful sessions, but without any of her ideas actually in place so far, the meeting felt a bit like a late summer term lesson where the pupils are ready to move up to the next year, and look rather bored of waiting for the change. The change in scenery will come here at May’s council elections, and some councillors are actively counting down the number of all member meetings they are (sort of) required to be at before they leave the Town Hall altogether, having already decided not to run again.
They will not be here, then, to see how Cllr Gould changes things. It’s potentially a brave thing for the leader to do. The lack of execution by any previous leader to reform these sessions, which now take place under the unapologetic understanding that we probably won’t see a meaningful vote or a policy-making motion discussed, has felt driven by a fear, consciously or not, that anything livelier would only risk some form of minor public embarrassment.
Bringing in the angry public or more direct votes on policy, the second potentially exposing splits in opinion with one of the political groups, have always been avoided in favour of set piece questions to the cabinet, deadened further by unfunny filibuster supplementary questions. So turgid is the process of Labour colleagues asking Labour colleagues questions they either already know the answer to or, worse, have been told to ask, it was something a surprise when late into the evening the father of the house, Roger Robinson, rose to his feet to lament how nothing was being done about anti-social behaviour on council estates.
Sometimes he launches into speeches about how nothing has changed since his upbringing in Scottish tenements, but they are normally directed at the Conservative government. His unscripted weariness about the performance locally was almost more striking.
So what will Cllr Gould do? If she brings in the public, she must avoid upsetting councillors who might feel their hairbrush speeches have been unfairly curbed. She must also resist the temptation to fill any open forum with party stooges, for want of a better word.
On Monday evening, there was a moment when there was more members of the public in the galleries than councillors in the chamber, like the golden age they talk about. It may have been slightly disappointing, however, for Cllr Gould that during her own leader’s address, cyclists and residents split over a bike lane in Camden Town trudged out en masse as she got up to speak. having heard the only bit they were actually interested in. It left Hampstead election rivals Hamish Hunter and James Slater, the octochamp, and some journalism students on their own up there. I’d have sent a ‘save yourself while you can’ if I had an A4 and a black marker pen at hand.
We should, however, at least welcome talk of reform, even if it is sorely overdue. Apparently the nap time of questions to executive members will be one of the first sections axed. Good. Also promising is the chance – and not just because I want a headline story but because, come on, they are wasting three hours of their live sin there – of a more targeted debate. A bit like the one they had this week on engine idling, but longer and on more controversial topics.
It would surely be better to have an hour on a dedicated subject rather than flitting around from one issue after another, leaving cabinet members with such a range of questions that none are dealt with in any depth or are left to email promises. Radical as it sounds, there could also be a meaningful vote at the end of the debate. It might occasionally be tough for the ruling group to be on a spot in a way it has resisted as much as possible in past, but ultimately it would be more rewarding for them too.
My eyes lit up at some of the other suggestions being proposed in Camden to improve council elections, but hold your horses. Some of our more cynical/perceptive councillors stopped me in the corridors to puncture the hope of something better.
“Georgia can change it all she likes but if she is running a council with only Labour councillors after the elections, there won’t be any proper debate whatever way they set up the meeting,” said one. “It’s true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”