Lights, camera, action

IT’S easy to see why some Labour councillors in Camden see the ‘stage management’ row in this week’s New Journal as a fuss about not much, largely because questions have always been ‘planted’, ever since any of us can remember, and the practice can be found going on in councils and among political groups all across the country. To some, it’s a stating the bleeding obvious story, afforded too much space in the local paper.

As chief whip Lazzaro Pietragnoli said in one of his emails: “I don’t really see where the problem is.”

But it’s the fact that they can’t see any issue which is partly feeding the irritation among some of those who say they can.

The recap is this: Awale Olad, chairman of the culture and scrutiny committee, reacted angrily to a group email from Cllr Pietragnoli suggesting councillors turn up to a question and answer session in which cabinet member Danny Beales was to be ‘grilled’ on his portfolio.

He then suggested some questions that might be asked. This has in turn been described as “stage management” and “planting”; not my words, those of Labour’s own backbenchers.

On the night, Monday, Labour councillor Abdul Quadir asked the first question on the whip’s list, almost word perfect, although others went off script. It’s been said this was because members had seen Cllr Olad’s frustration written through the emails beforehand; equally it has been maintained by others that everybody asked the questions that they had always intended to.

In one email, Cllr Pietragnoli, while explaining that the local press might attend and that the meeting would be broadcast on the internet, had said: “I know it can be extremely boring to sit at a meeting and listen to a cabinet member boasting about how good she/he has done… but it helps to create a positive narrative about the Labour administration and the unity of our group.”

Among several choice quotes in response, Cllr Olad said: “I just do not want to spend time asking cabinet members: ‘Well, we’ve read the report on how great you are, we’ve seen the performance report on how fantastic you’re doing, but I’ve not heard you tell us how super and amazing you really are.” He warned that debate was being ‘suffocated;.

Councillor Sue Vincent also raised concerns, suggesting to Cllr Pietragnoli in one line:  “If it is extremely boring to listen to cabinet members drone on ‘boasting’ maybe your email can include a directive for them not to.”

As told above, Labour organisers feel they feel are being unduly attacked, that they were just trying to get more people interested in the committee and had made clear that the session was a open to all members to ask whatever they like. Cllr Pietragnoli reminded his colleagues that his email had not been titled ‘Saving Private Danny’.

It was slightly odd, however, that the party had explicitly asked non-committee councillors to come and participate but then, on the night itself, Labour councillor Rishi Madlani, a committee member ,went onto complain loudly that “Johnny Come Latelys” had eaten up the agenda time, limiting the time for the actual panellists to have a go.

There is context behind this quite technical disagreement, and why a backstage ‘process’ row has tumbled out into open.

Firstly, most people within the group, including those who you might not associate as being in the same wing of the party, see Cllr Beales as being perfectly able to answer the questions without any pre-arranged protection. What’s more, at a time when the Labour group has such a large majority in Camden, many really do not understand the motivation for any element of “stage management” at all in the cross-party scrutiny committees where policy is supposed to be forensically examined.

Cllr Olad eluded to how weak he thought the Conservative opposition is in his messages – he used the term ‘rigor mortis’ about the Tories. Whether you agree or disagree with that crushing assessment, it may be impossible for real scrutiny in Camden, due to the lop-sided numbers returned by May’s council elections, unless Labour is challenged by its own councillors, sometimes.

Some of this is dismissed up top: this argument was about bringing Labour’s party politics to the table in some way, I’ve been told.

Maybe, but Cllr Olad is one of the councillors who is hard to peg to a faction. He does not appear to be a cheerleader for Corbyn, but there is little indication that he is paid up centrist either. He is conspicuously fierce about the integrity of his committee, however, and you could imagine any councillor being equally sensitive if they had spent eight years in a council role like that, giving up evenings and so on, without of course the prestige (if that’s the right word) of being an executive member. With the arrival of many new members to Camden Labour group’s email chain, it’s not a stretch to think that he wanted to mark a line in the sand about he think scrutiny should work.

Think too, Labour has a big cast now, with councillors who might not be ready a cabinet post but are raring to take on a more meaningful roles.

And then there is the wider picture of council leader Georgia Gould’s reforms of Camden’s council meetings. She has already led some switchabouts to the all member meetings, eliminating some of the stoogey set piece questions which really did qualify for that word, boring. To be fair on her she is one of the first council leaders to both admit the problems with the way some meetings unfold and act to try and improve them. Everybody used to conceded things could be better in the Skinners, post-meetings, without really doing anything proactive  to change them.

The idea of stage-management, however, sits slightly uneasily with this mini-crusade, and the argument that it’s always been done like this clanks up hard against Cllr Gould’s stated ambition to change.

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