A time for unity?

NOT so long ago, particularly in Camden, there was no prospect of Labour standing on the same stage as the Liberal Democrats. After the coalition government and, perhaps more relevantly to our local politics, the cold shock of losing control of the council at one stage, there were Labour campaigners and councillors who at times seemed to be more vitriolic about the Lib Dems for working with the Tories than the Tories themselves.

On Saturday, however, there was a new unity stitched together against the prorogation of Parliament and the prospect of a no deal Brexit. The scars of the ward by-elections of the past set aside for a ‘Camden Defends Democracy’ rally, people applauded each other like old friends.

The suggestion in the field was that council leader Georgia Gould has forged a more constructive relationship with the opposition than her predecessors; Labour Party councillors also helped vote through a Lib Dem motion on Europe last year, which was something that once might have been wrecked by irreconcilable red and yellow hostilities.

No prizes for guessing that leftier critics within the party think it should not come as a surpirse that some ‘centrist’ councillors might find it easier to work with Jo Swinson’s party than Jeremy Corbyn.

And there’s the cynical view circulating that local Labour leaders looked at the European election results earlier this year and drew a mammoth sigh of relief that Camden’s boroughwide elections had not fallen on the same day; they might all have been out of a job if they had been. Realising they are competing for airtime with new MEP Luisa Porritt (pictured below), why would it not be a good idea to get her on the stage… and then swamp her with five times as many Labour speakers with a Labour Party flag hoisted up behind her. As I said, a cynical view.

You can see some of the speeches from Saturday on the CNJ’s Twitter feed or read a report of the event on the website.

Listening on the grass, it felt the hand brake was off.

The language of some of the speakers was uncompromising; two or three pointedly drew comparisons with the beginnings of Nazi Germany. The former Lib Dem council leader Keith Moffitt said he wakes up at night in cold sweat worrying about a repeat here, telling the crowd that as a gay man he felt a growing intolerance and fear.

In other speeches, the names of Mussolini, Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein were mentioned, notably by former mayor Lazzaro Pietragnoli. One student, Saba Asif, who has just finished her A-Levels at Hampstead School, outright accused Mr Johnson of being a fascist. Keir Starmer made similar points as others, but with Donald Trump as his reference point.

It was also striking to hear talk of marches and direct action to try and change policy, particularly as they are now being semi-advocated by politicians from Camden who have not always been as gung ho about resistance. Some are now going to the same demonstrations near Downing Street as people with ‘liquidate the Queen’ banners.

When strikes, sit-ins and disobedience were suggested as the required solution to these austerity years, the response, for better or worse, has been to instead write a letter to a minister or make a speech about inequality in the council chamber. Fire out a press release, get someone at the Guardian to write something long for its website. Ultimately, councillors acquiesed to working with all the diktats amid fear of punishment from the government and, albeit imaginitively in some cases, developed the best workarounds they could.

Now, with a no deal Brexit coming up fast, there is fighting talk of being on the streets every waking hour and public demonstrations which in the past might have been described as… dare we say it, all a bit Corbyny.

Oops, that’s a photo of Russell Square when FOOTBALL was screened there last summer, not Saturday’s event in the same park.

It’s a cheap point, yes, yes, why don’t people care as much about politics as they do about football… and it’s true Saturday’s rally was whipped up at short notice by Cllr Gould after the local press went to print. But if the streets are to be filled with demonstrators on this issue – Tuesday is apparently the big day now – then you might have expected a few more people to come out of their houses.

I’ve said in the CNJ report that up to 500 people were there, but surely no more; you could have been sitting by the fountains and not really noticed a rally was taking place. More telling, was that all of the people who were there seemed connected to one of the parties in some way or another. It felt the often-repeated idea that Camden is a special, different place with special residents ready to come out and stop Brexit at all costs because of how special it all is may need some more numbers to add to the sentiment. For sure, those who were there enjoyed the powerful speeches and were glad it had been organised, thanking Cllr Gould repeatedly, but they might be asked to bring a friend (or ten) next time.

After all, Labour presumably has the means to contact all of its members across Camden to ask them to come to something like this. Of its 4,000 plus membership, then, a quite small percentage were actually able to make themselves available to spend their Saturday morning here to answer the call to show the strength of opposition. Tulip Siddiq cancelled a family event to speak in front of some very familiar faces.

Even among Camden’s group of councillors, it was interesting as ever to note who wasn’t there, as who was. One absentee said they didn’t think ‘a garden party of north Londoners holding cups of latte’ would change things, adding: ‘It wasn’t exactly Hong Kong, was it?’

So while Keir Starmer joked from the stage that he was enjoying a time when his party was not arguing among itself, in the WhatsApp wind you could hear the opposite. This time there were all sorts of emojis over who in the local Labour Party had approved the use of its funds for the event without consultation and why Holborn and St Pancras chair Sagal Abdi-Wali had been given a spot on the stage but other candidates for the London Assembly selection in Barnet and Camden had not.

Please don’t fill the comments with: Are you saying a black Muslim woman should have been prevented from speaking? I’m not saying anything of the sort, just explaining some of the friction actually going on behind claims of great consensus.

How does a blog about an EU rally and unity end up slipping back into internal back-biting of the Labour Party, the trend which made this blog for many months (yeards) repetitive to read (and write)?

That’s Camden, folks, maybe it will never change. It’s a sign, though, that Cllr Gould may still find it easier to stand with the Lib Dems than some of the arbiters within her own ranks.

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