IN the new council chamber at the Crowndale Centre, countdown screens have been erected in a bid to stop councillors waffling on. The seconds tick down until the display turns red and then it’s supposed to be time to sit down. On debut on Monday evening, there was little indication that anybody is going to take any notice of them. At one point, mayor Jenny Headlam-Wells could be heard telling finance chief Richard Olszewski that she was trying to use the room’s new technology to cut him off, as she fumbled for the right button to kill his mic.
The issue of time is a sensitive as this week we returned once again to having a meeting where no meaningful vote on a motion took place. We didn’t get to see how the new buttons will allow for electronic voting, because councillors ran out of time. a bid by the Tories to secure a review of the Community Investment Programme was run out, as was the pre-billed attempt by the Liberal Democrats’ to get to a vote on supporting a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal.
The Lib Dems held a demo outside the door of the meeting on the way in – lacking a megaphone, it has to be said – and five or so members sat it out hopefully in the public gallery. Enough people had been briefing privately suggesting throughout Monday that they didn’t councillors would reach the motions to know this was always likely to be a frustrate ting trip.
There were inevitably claims of filibustering, although Labour councillors accused of tactical droning could say that at ten to 10.00pm Lib Dem leader Flick Rea was on her feet talking about freedom passes and then just before 10pm came, there had been no call for standing orders to be extended.
This was a bit of a surprise: usually the opposition groups do this knowing that the ruling Labour group councillors will never vote for another 30 minutes in session, but they can at least accuse them of running away from the debate when they do so.
The thing to remember, however, is that when Camden wants to get to the motions, it does. If there is cross party consensus or the ruling party wants to make a point, then there is nearly always, magically, time. But still bunged at the end of the agenda, as if voting on a council direction or policy is the last thing they should be there for, the stage-managed (is that the vogue word?) reality is that if there are enough people in the room who do not want them to be heard, they will not be heard.
For all leader Georgia Gould’s reforms of the full council meeting, Camden has not put meaningful motions higher up the agenda. The new themed debates do not carry a vote with them either, which risks them becoming a series of presentations rather than a more robust tool.
You can’t really blame the Lib Dems for being suspicious, then; they had better luck in Haringey last night in forcing their people’s campaign in front of councillors. In Camden, on Monday, it may not simply be Labour’s position Brexit, referendums and remaining which caused some subtle time management, however. The Conservatives, with some leavers on board, would not have fancied it, and had already criticised the idea of the motion as discussing foreign policy in a local forum. There will have been one or two Labour councillors, meanwhile, who may not have fancied the CIP motion that was a due on first being heard either.
Behind the scenes, loyalty to the programme is ever so slightly thinner among some of the leftier Labour backbenchers and the Tories sense this, and now have their own criticisms. Green Party councillor Sian Berry once seemed like she the only member publicly questioning the value of the project, now in its eighth year. Now, the Tories are saying things like ‘it’s failed miserably’.
The large majority of Labour councillors still see it as the best way to invest in housing and schools, and regeneration chief Councillor Danny Beales is comfortable taking questions on it. But it’s not necessarily something everybody in the party wants to take a vote on, in public; the leadership being keen for its smooth continuation, while less enthused comrades are looking to keep their powder dry for now,