New Labour with a small ‘n’: a quiet revolution in the Town Hall

Labour out in force in the ultra-marginal Blackheath Westcombe ward in May 2014: how can this enthusiasm be harnessed to change our Town Halls for the better?

Labour out in force in the ultra-marginal Blackheath Westcombe ward in May 2014: how can this enthusiasm be harnessed to change our Town Halls for the better?

My first post on this new blog is about Greenwich – a borough in which I was a Labour councillor until May 2014 – and how a huge influx of new councillors is changing the culture of its council.

What happens in an organisation when nearly half the bosses change overnight? An unprecedented 21 new councillors in Greenwich are settling into their new jobs this month – 18 of them Labour. Of the borough’s 51 councillors, almost half either retired or lost their seats at the local elections on May 22nd and have been replaced with new ones. 

Greenwich’s council now has a new Leader Denise Hyland (its first ever woman leader, and about time too), and a new Deputy Leader, John Fahy. Of the council’s eight other cabinet members, four (Sizwe James, Chris Kirby, Danny Thorpe and Miranda Williams) have never served on the cabinet before (see the full list on the New Shopper’s website, here). And the council’s chief whip – a key behind the scenes role – is now a newly-elected councillor, Stephen Brain.

Such turnover is rare in London’s Town Halls, and rarer still in Greenwich. There was much less change at the local elections in 2002, 2006 and 2010. It’s all the more surprising that this turnover has not resulted from the Town Hall changing hands between political parties. Many of the departees had quit voluntarily and in all but three cases, their seats have been taken by councillors of the same party colours.

These radical changes in Greenwich, as in other boroughs, have resulted from changes within the ruling Labour Party, not the council elections themselves. As always in safe Labour boroughs like Greenwich, the internal elections within the Labour Group are just as important as the council elections that precede them. And the scale of Labour’s victories in London in May make it easy to overlook the seismic changes that have taken place behind the scenes in many Town Halls, which may have more lasting importance than the election results themselves.

I’m sympathetic to concerns that one-party boroughs can be bad for democracy, and that the lack of a strong opposition can reduce transparency and breed in-fighting and complacency. But realistically there was never any doubt that Labour would hold onto boroughs like Greenwich in 2014: the only uncertainty was the exact margin of victory. Eight Conservative councillors can be just as effective at holding the Labour administration to account as the eleven Conservative councillors Greenwich had until May 22nd. Conversely, the success of the Labour administration depends not on its numerical strength, but the skills and diversity of its members.

The paradox of Greenwich’s local election results is that just as Labour tightened its grip on the borough, the council has at a stroke become much more representative – and its councillors have become a lot younger and more diverse.

Greenwich’s new councillors are very different from those they replace: of the 18 Labour newcomers eight are women, six are aged under 40 and six are non-white. Of the 15 retiring Labour councillors (of which I am one) that they replace ten were men, eleven were white, and only two were aged under 40. Many of the new councillors in Greenwich – Sizwe James, Chris Kirby, Cherry Parker, Aidan Smith, Denise Scott McDonald, Ambreen Hisbani, Rajinder Sehmar and Chris Lloyd – are in their twenties, thirties or early forties. The others (Linda Bird, Sarah Merrill, David Gardner, Wynn Davies, Paul Morrissey, Stephen Brain, David Stanley, Christine Grice, Averil Lekau and Olu Babatola) are a bit older but bring badly-needed heavyweight experience from outside the council. Among them are lawyers, former headteachers, a former EU official, a retired senior officer in Children’s Services at Lewisham, a radio journalist, a campaigner at the Alzheimer’s Society, and a shrewd retread (David Gardner served previously as a councillor in 2002-2006). The three new Tory councillors are also an impressive bunch: Matt Hartley is head of campaigns at the Personal Finance Education Group, Mark Elliott is a former Managing Director of Time Out magazine, and Nuala Geary is a training consultant and ‘independent celebrant’ for secular funerals, weddings, civil partnerships and baby namings.

None of these people are time-servers and their arrival should have profound implications for how the council  works with, and communicates with, the community it serves – not an easy task as the council will have to continue to make heavy cuts whoever wins the General Election in 2015.

Changing the council’s culture won’t be easy and won’t be achieved overnight. Even though both the candidates to succeed outgoing Leader Chris Roberts – Jackie Smith and the victor Denise Hyland – were women, there were signs of ingrained sexism during their leadership contest that ran in parallel to the council election campaign. Both candidates were described as “Chris Roberts in drag” by their opponents within the party and in social media: it’s clearly impossible for some people to accept that women can be politicians in their own right, rather than imitations of their male predecessors. Tackling this sort of sexism could take years, but the work must start now.

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It’s very tempting for Labour in boroughs like Greenwich to interpret its resounding victory on May 22nd as a ringing endorsement and to sit back, relax and wait for the local elections to be followed by parliamentary gains at the 2015 general election. This is flawed for two reasons: firstly piling up Labour votes in London and other big cities isn’t enough to deliver Ed Miliband the keys to Number Ten. Outside London Labour’s results were often disappointing: the growth of UKIP meant that Labour  – not just the Tories – lost seats in Basildon and Thurrock, two towns that Labour probably has to win to have any chance of winning the 2015 election outright.

Secondly, even in London the results weren’t quite as good for Labour as they first appear. In inner London, Labour failed to unseat Tower Hamlets’ independent mayor Lutfur Rahman, and the Greens also polled surprisingly well (unseating a senior Labour councillor, Valerie Leach, in Camden’s Highgate ward and coming second to Labour in many wards in Greenwich, Lewisham and Hackney). While Labour achieved outstanding victories over the Tories in Redbridge and Hammersmith & Fulham, there was a much more mixed picture elsewhere in outer London: in Havering (a borough which elected two Labour MPs out of three in 1997) Labour was reduced from five councillors to just one, a sign that Essex man is not coming back to Labour anytime soon.  Seven Labour councillors were elected in Bromley and 15 in Bexley, but the Conservative domination of these boroughs is not threatened anytime soon. Labour gained a toehold of two councillors in Kingston but still has no councillors at all in Richmond-on-Thames (which had a small Labour presence from 1994 to 2002): in leafy suburbs like these Lib Dem voters are defecting to the Tories more than they are to Labour.

In Greenwich, as elsewhere, Labour was helped by a collapse of the Lib Dem vote: in two Greenwich wards which had Lib Dem cllrs as recently as 2006 (Eltham South) and 2010 (Middle Park & Sutcliffe), the Lib Dems came fifth behind Labour, Conservatives, Greens and UKIP (in Eltham South the Lib Dems actually came seventh, behind an Independent and the BNP). The Lib Dems had targetted Shooters Hill ward energetically but they still came fifth, and their highest-placed candidate got fewer than 400 votes.

But where the Lib Dems were already weak and where UKIP did not stand candidates (sometimes because of a cock-up with their nomination papers), many Conservative seats defied the tide and stayed beyond Labour’s grasp, and in some the Tory vote share actually increased. Until May 22nd I was a sole Labour councillor in the ultra-marginal Blackheath Westcombe ward (now unique: it’s the only ward in London to have always been split between Labour and Conservatives since the 2002 boundary changes). While I was pleased Labour gained two seats in Blackheath Westcombe, the third was held by a hard-working Tory incumbent. In another marginal ward, Eltham North, Labour also took two seats but a Conservative not only held on to the third seat, but topped the poll. Everywhere there was more and more split voting which shows that increasingly people vote for individuals, or for a deliberate mixture of parties, rather than loyally cast their three votes for party slates.

This fickleness does not threaten Labour’s grip on Greenwich anytime soon, but there are no grounds for complacency. Greenwich’s stability – but also its insularity and the machismo of its political culture – stem from the fact that it has been solidly Labour-controlled ever since the early 1970s. Apart from Newham and Greenwich, all other Labour-controlled inner London boroughs – Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth, Hammersmith and Fulham, Brent, Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets – were lost to the Liberals or Conservatives at some point in the 1990s and 2000s (Barking and Dagenham has admittedly been Labour-controlled ever since 1964, but in 2006-2010 12 of its 51 councillor were BNP, a fate that thankfully never befell Greenwich).

In all these boroughs, the Labour Party had to reform in order to win back power – a wake-up call that Labour in Greenwich has never received, and possibly never will. Although two of the borough’s three MPs were SDP from the mid-1980s until 1992, the SDP never came close to winning control of the council. This is both a blessing and a curse: while Greenwich has not seen the privatisation, cuts and costly bungling that Tory or Lib Dem council control often brings, Labour’s 40-year domination has meant it has never been forced to take stock and relaunch after defeat.

It’s a good thing that Greenwich’s staleness and paternalism should be tempered by 18 new faces on the Labour benches. But how? Here are three ways the new Labour council can hit the ground running:

1 Have  a clear vision

Labour in Greenwich has gone on about Royal Borough status, Crossrail and the Olympics so much in recent years that residents might have forgotten what Labour councils are there to do: reducing inequality, delivering quality services and offering a ladder out of poverty.

In and around Woolwich unemployment remains stubbornly high. The council has made much of its success in getting unemployed people into jobs at Tesco, or street-sweeping and caretaking jobs at the council. These new jobs are welcome but Greenwich’s youngsters should also be aiming for skilled jobs in IT, financial services and the creative industries. The new skills centres should help but we need a proper mentoring and training programme for young people. Standards have improved hugely at Greenwich’s primary and secondary schools, which now have better results than Lewisham’s. But the proportion of Greenwich school leavers who don’t have Level 3 qualifications (such as A-Levels) – 52% – is the highest in London.

Greenwich Council was often criticised for being too obsessed with Greenwich and Woolwich town centres (and Eltham, although the Tories denied it) at the expense of other parts of the borough like Plumstead, Thamesmead, Charlton and Blackheath. There’s some truth in this: the council has been slow to revitalise Plumstead High Street which can, at best, be described as Woolwich’s poorer relation.

But the council’s vision for its two main town centres is confused: decisions on pedestrianisation of Greenwich Town centre have been kicked into the long grass, and in Woolwich the arrival of a giant Tesco and the promise of Crossrail in 2018 have not been enough to really change the town’s fortunes: while TK Maxx, the Travelodge and new pubs are welcome, it’s not been enough to stop M&S pulling out of town (indeed, some could argue that the opening of a giant Tesco in 2012 may have hastened M&S’s demise). It’s not fair to blame Greenwich Council for this, as the local Tories have attempted: Coldharbour and New Eltham’s new Tory councillor Matt Hartley ran an impressive campaign to improve a small shopping parade, the Mound, but he needs to recognise that Woolwich’s problems are harder to fix. M&S have been closing older town-centre stores for years and have just announced that their Gravesend store also faces the chop.

But M&S’s likely exit does show that the London Plan’s goal of making Woolwich one of London’s top dozen “Metropolitan centres” by 2031 is increasingly far-fetched. Rather than fighting an uphill battle against Stratford’s Westfield Centre, Bromley and Croydon, maybe Woolwich should take advantage of its relatively low rents and become an edgier town where creative industries and independent shops can thrive. To achieve that the council needs to think more imaginatively about land use, marketing and the kind of businesses that Woolwich attracts. No more betting shops or Tescos please: the key to Woolwich’s revival is small, independent shops. Woolwich is now one of the diverse town centres anywhere in London, but this diversity is not reflected in the council’s marketing materials for the town, whose identikit glossiness does not explain why Woolwich is a better place to visit than Lewisham , Bexleyheath or Bluewater. Woolwich might never regain its department stores, but it has got tremendous assets – its Royal Arsenal, river frontage and Co-operative heritage – that all its competitors lack.

Just waiting for new homes to be built and for their new residents to start shopping  isn’t enough: you need to make Woolwich an interesting place which people from across the borough will want to come to. The revamped General Gordon Square is a start, but it’s time to take down the pointless big screen which most of the time broadcasts BBC News 24 to an empty lawn. Starting a “cultural quarter” in Woolwich is a fantastic idea but it should’ve happened many years ago, not as a panic response to the impending closure of the Royal Artillery’s Firepower Museum there.

2 Get the basics right

No, not “back to basics” (the doomed moralistic crusade launched by John Major in the 1990s). One reason Labour did so well in Greenwich in 2014 was that most basic services – refuse collection, street sweeping, parks and libraries – are delivered well. Problem areas (like underperforming schools and the council’s highways department) have been turned round in recent years, and council tax has been frozen for most of the last decade. However, the council’s housing repairs service has worsened: I dealt with dozens of complaints about leaky roofs not fixed, and rampant damp, in my last year as a councillor (in a ward where only a fifth of homes are rented from the council: wards with more council housing will produce many more complaints). The service needs fixing, fast.

Greenwich needs to spend less time and energy on big capital projects and festivals like the Olympics and the Tall Ships – welcome though they are – and focus more on the boring but important stuff: ensuring that day-to-day services are delivered well.

3 Change the culture

Finally, the most tricky task of all: changing the culture of the council. The BBC, 853 blog, News Shopper and others ran a series of reports about alleged bullying, cover-ups and intimidation in Greenwich over the last two years of Chris Roberts’ administration. These made excruciating reading for all Labour councillors and it’s tempting to put your head in the sand, blame the media and pretend that these problems are all in the past. But real action is needed to ensure these problems don’t happen again.  A new anti-bullying policy was drafted last year but has gathered dust ever since and now needs to be adopted, fast.

The council needs to urgently review its relations with the media. Denise Hyland’s interview with the News Shopper last week was a good sign (until last month the local newspapers were ignored). Many Labour councillors still think that the media should be hated and shunned: if Greenwich’s new councillors are new Labour with a small n, then many of the older generation of councillors are conservatives with a small c. I hear that some councillors were angry that the News Shopper and local blogs reported who had been elected to the cabinet at the Labour group’s AGM on May 27th, arguing that the news should be kept under wraps until the council’s AGM on June 11th: an absurd attitude that needs to change. Surely it’s a good sign that the composition of the council’s cabinet – ten people with executive responsibility for an annual budget of £300m of taxpayer’s money – is judged important enough to be reported immediately. The council is a public body, not a private club.

In most places local politicians lament the lack of coverage of their councils by the local media. In Greenwich it’s often the opposite: too many councillors automatically view any coverage of the council by any part of the media as unwelcome. Kicking decisions on allowing council meetings to be filmed, or streaming them on the council’s website, into the long grass has gone on for long enough: the council could win plaudits for more openness at little or no cost.

The council should enthusiastically endorse plans for new community councils in Charlton and Plumstead/Shooter’s Hill: just because some of their backers aren’t Labour supporters doesn’t make them a bad idea. Indeed, the concept has been successfully trialled by Labour councillors in Westminster’s Queen’s Park ward. Rumours that each ward in Greenwich might get a budget of £30,000 to be allocated by councillors and community representatives sound like good news. The Tories will claim credit and to be fair, the idea was one of the few good things in their 2014 manifesto (which was mostly a Victor Meldrew-style rant about parking charges and the need for a new Grammar School in  Eltham). But again, being floated in another party’s manifesto does not make ward budgets a bad idea: they’re a vital corrective to years of creeping centralisation in Greenwich.

The new administration is in many ways a break with the past and Labour in Greenwich now has a once in a generation opportunity to renew itself without a painful spell in opposition, become more transparent, responsive and better at listening to residents. As long as the council can harness the talents of its 21 new councillors, it should succeed. I hope I’m right.

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13 Responses to New Labour with a small ‘n’: a quiet revolution in the Town Hall

  1. Deborah says:

    Yes, yes and yes. It’s almost as if you have bugged my living room. Let’s hope the new councillors have been listening in too.

    • Nuala Geary says:

      Yes listening but the right people have to be too and working together to make a positive difference

  2. Pingback: Will Greenwich Council’s new boss be the same as the old boss? | 853

  3. ken welsby says:

    Spot on. It’s not just Deborah’s living room that’s been bugged. And you have obviously been lurking at the next table in the pub! Seriously, Alex informed comment on Town Hall and other local centres of power is needed and welcome – please keep it up.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Bexley Labour actually has 15 Councillors.

    Great post.

    • Alex Grant says:

      Apologies for that – a good friend has just got elected as a Labour councillor in Bexley so I should not have committed that howler and undercounted them (11 until the May 22nd elections and 15 since). My general point is still valid: although Labour is advancing in many outer London boroughs it is still some way off its performance in 2002, when Labour won control of Bexley outright. Labour has to do better in the suburbs in 2015 to win nationally.

  5. Roger Allen says:

    First rate think-piece with clear analysis. Leaving behind the constraints on public which go with being a Councillor has freed up your ability to comment incisively. I look forward to further installments as & when they are posted.

  6. Roger Allen says:

    Oops! End of line 1 should read ‘constraints on public comment’.

  7. Matt Stiles says:

    “Labour is advancing in many outer London boroughs it is still some way off its performance in 2002”
    A notable benchmark in that this was just one year before the Iraq war. Of course, since then the economic crash has also badly damaged Labour’s image on economic competence (even though the response by Brown was exceptionally good).
    More generally an excellent article, hope to see more from you in the coming months.

  8. Pete Murphy says:

    Interesting Alex but I think the Woolwich Big Screen is a positive whether for News,sport or opera. Also please remember Kidbrooke; it is not that far from you.

  9. ken welsby says:

    I have to say I agree with Pete, the big screen is a big positive. The other day there were lots of people chatting and watching Wimbledon while their kids were playing; I talked to two women who said “this is like our own giant garden – and the big TV is almost enough to tempt me to watch the World Cup”.

  10. Alex Grant says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments on this.

    I agree there are times – like the World Cup – when the Woolwich Big Screen comes into its own. But at other times it does seem pretty pointless: the first thing visitors arriving at Woolwich Arsenal station see is the back of the big screen, blocking views of the wonderfully-well landscaped General Gordon Square. When the Square was being redesigned in 2010 the Big Screen was added to the plans at the last minute, once Greenwich had been offered a Big Screen for the Olympics. It’s not clear that the benefit of the screen justifies the townscape problem it creates. When there’s not a big event to see on the Big Screen we should allow the Square to be a Square. Maybe a demountable screen is the answer?

  11. Pingback: So long, Greenwich. I predict that by 2050 you’ll swallow up Lewisham and Bexley. The Thames Barrier will be a boutique hotel. And everyone will be mad as hell about air pollution | Alex Grant

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