Lewisham, your democracy is dying… but does anybody care?

Will Lewisham still have a one-party state on May 4?

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Imagine the scenario. It’s the House of Commons on a Wednesday. It’s been a tumultuous few days for Prime Minister Theresa May. You choose the crisis. It could be the bombing in Syria, or another tragic shortage of NHS beds, or perhaps an unfolding scandal over the Windrush Generation. Whatever the issue, people are angry. Things have gone wrong and they want answers. The country’s most powerful politician is, as the pundits like to say, “embattled” and there’s an air of nervous expectation as she steps up to the despatch box for a crucial Prime Minister’s Question Time. And then… silence. Complete, eerie silence. No “order, order.” Nothing. You look at the benches opposite her and realise they are empty. Not a soul to be seen, not a sound to be heard. There will be no questions for the Right Honourable lady today.

Prime Minister's question time
What if there was no-one to answer back? (Credit: parliament.uk, reproduced with permission)

It’s unsettling, isn’t it? Slightly terrifying perhaps. The world and its politics may be travelling at an unsettling tilt, but it’s hard to imagine even the more autocratic democracies tolerating that. Even strongman Putin once declared a balanced political system “impossible without competition.”

So where could this dystopian nightmare occur? Not in Britain, surely? For residents of Lewisham, it is worryingly close to home – effectively within our Town Hall for the past few years, largely unchecked. Of 54 councillors, a staggering 53 are from the same political party. Put another way, more than 98 percent of Lewisham Council’s ruling body wear the red rosette with pride. Nothing wrong with the red rosette, of course. This is not a one-eyed hatchet job on the Labour Party. For the sake of transparency, I am old enough to have voted in six general elections and in four of them I cast my vote for Labour – including once under its present leadership.

And the Lewisham councillors who served from 2014 until purdah this spring were of course democratically elected, among the first three past the post in their ward. There are some good, hard-working, responsive and community minded councillors. Others, of course, are not so highly regarded.

But whatever you make of your local councillors – if you even know who they are and I would hazard a guess that most Lewisham residents don’t – this is hideously unrepresentative local politics. Last time Labour took around 51 percent of the vote (with a turn-out just a shade over a third of the electorate) but won 98.2 per cent of the seats. Even the Green Party’s John Coughlin – the one non-Labour representative on Lewisham Council – describes it as a “virtual one-party state”. Yet apart from a few mutterings on social media, where is the concern? Where is the outrage, even?

There are many reasons why such a stark imbalance should bother everyone in Lewisham, with the possible exception of councillors within that one-party state. There are a few below – along with a few pointers for more information, and answers to possible questions.

Perhaps this is just a howl into the wind and nobody does really care. We get the government we deserve, they say, and if as a society and an electorate we can’t be motivated to cast a considered vote or get to the ballot box, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when apathy and complacency is reflected back at us by our elected representatives. But, maybe, just maybe, this will make one or two people re-consider the vote they cast in the local elections this May 3 – or even get them down to the polling booth. In which case writing this was time well spent…

Why a one-party state is bad (as if you needed telling)

Questions don’t get asked. Quite literally

The House of Commons scenario above is unrealistic, right? Think again. Research by the local Liberal Democrat party showed that half of backbench Labour Councillors have not asked a single question in full council for the past four years. That’s worth repeating. Not a single question in four years. That line of attack riled the Labour Party mayoral candidate Damien Egan – who protested that his colleagues ask questions all the time, directly and by email. But, as this is effectively the only way the public can see the questions their representatives are putting to power, it all sounded rather hollow.

Being a one-party state helps you to stay a one-party state

This is something I only learned recently and was scandalised by. Labour councillors are expected to pay a percentage of their allowance to the Labour Party (this is not unique to the Labour Party). Which means, along with a huge local campaign team (there are around 5,000 Labour Party members in Lewisham), it is also receiving more funds every year – indirectly from taxpayer money – for its own campaign coffers. Hence the small rainforest destroyed in the making of Labour party leaflets that have dropped through your letterbox over the past few weeks. One opposition candidate in my own ward (Lee Green) had a football analogy for it, telling me: “It makes it feel very much like the Premier League. The top four get in the Champions League, receive a windfall of cash for getting there, then spend it all on making sure they are there again the next year. Breaking into that top four becomes harder and harder. Unfortunately I don’t see a Sheik Mansour coming along and leading us to the top of the table any time soon!”

The council often operates in a vacuum

For much of the past four years, there has been very little press scrutiny of council matters – with a glaringly obvious exception with the Millwall/ New Bermondsey controversy, which was covered relentlessly by The Guardian. More recently there has been signs of life in the local press, which by and large is a very good thing. But it’s not guaranteed in the future – and in itself it is no replacement for rigorous scrutiny by an opposition party.

Yes, your Labour councillor represents you. But they represent their party more

If you’re a regular visitor to Lewisham Lately (hi, mum) you will have read the latest troubling case of the deselection of Joyce Jacca in Evelyn Ward. Here’s a key passage from her leaked rejection email:

“The panel recognised that you had skills of engaging with your community, but felt that you failed to understand your position as an elected Labour Councillor working under a political regime with specific requirement to fulfil, something that is expected of all elected Labour Councillors.”

In other words, if you thought your local Labour councillor had purely the best interests of local residents at heart, you may (sometimes) need to take that promise with a sprinkle or two of salt. Pit locals against some of the other more contentious plans supported by the current administration –  New Bermondsey, Leegate and Beckenham Park Place to name but a few – and you may find greater aims of the Party trump local concerns.

One-party councils are more prone to inefficiency and corruption

That’s not me saying that. It is the Electoral Reform Society, who campaign to build a better democracy and improve the rights of voters. They have criticised “the absence of any real scrutiny from opposition voices” in Lewisham as well as suggesting that one-party dominated councils are at much higher risk of corruption (51% apparently) than competitive councils. It also concluded that such councils often achieve lower price savings: 2.1 per cent compared to 6.2 per cent achieved by competitive councils in England.

Issues get swept under carpets

Inconvenient news tends not to surface when there is nobody around to ask inconvenient questions. Take Lewisham’s secondary schools for example, which – in broad terms as there are notable exceptions – have been in quiet decline for a number of years, while much of the rest of London has seen dramatic improvements. Back in 2014, Mayor Bullock made an oblique reference in his manifesto to needing “more improvement from our secondary students” and committing to improving GCSE results by 10 percent. Performances subsequently declined further and an in-depth report was commissioned looking at the issues facing Lewisham’s secondary schools.

school-silhouette
Was Lewisham Council’s leadership open enough about education in the borough?

When I summarised the report last year, which had been squirrelled away on an obscure part of the Lewisham Council website, it was very widely read. It told me a simple thing: most parents just didn’t know. One of the most crucial questions for Lewisham and its future generations, and the public were largely kept in the dark. Obviously nobody wants to browbeat schools that are already under pressure – but the failure to acknowledge the issue more publicly and engage parents more openly is a black mark against the current administration.

Opposition can barely get a motion seconded

Poor John Coughlin, the Green Party politician otherwise known as “the opposition”. Even when he can get a word in edgeways, the chances of him having anyone to back him up are slim.

Self-interest takes over

Last November, Coughlin did actually manage to get a motion heard, with the backing of Mayor Bullock, calling for a more representative voting system. It got defeated by one vote and three abstentions.  Perhaps the 21 councillors who voted against had good reason although it is hard not to be a little cynical. As for the three abstentions, the only possible reason I can see is naked self interest.

Lines become blurred between Town Hall and its politicians

More than once, the council’s Twitter feed has been used to cover issues with a political slant, when its stance should be neutral. Barney Ronay, the Guardian journalist behind much of the Millwall coverage has called it out, as has the Conservative Mayoral Candidate Ross Archer

It shouldn’t happen, full stop. But if no other councillor is on hand to protest, it’s no surprise it takes place.

Doesn’t the council have a Scrutiny committee?

Yes. But in a one-party state, the lead councillor is, inevitably, going to come from the same party.  That’s not to denigrate the current chair of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee, Alan Hall, who has shown himself to be more responsive to local concerns than many of his colleagues. Yet compared to true opposition or a vigorous local press, it’s a fig leaf.

Why should I bother? Isn’t it just about street lights, potholes and bins anyway?

So wrong. This is education, mental health, our community and parks. This is about spending a billion pound budget – and managing a much reduced one in the current austerity climate, and directing your council tax money, in the best way possible. If you live in the borough of Lewisham, this matters.

Not sold, sorry. I’m Labour and always will be

Fair enough, of course. You stand alongside many friends, neighbours, fellow park runners and so forth. But please do join non-tribal voters in calling for greater scrutiny, more accountability and transparency in our local public affairs, whatever the political colours over Lewisham on May 4.

You’ve convinced me. Down with the one-party state. What can I do?

More than anything, vote. Even if your ward would vote for a donkey with a red rosette, the more people who make the effort to turn up to the ballot box, the better. Every vote cast against the incumbents is a small cry against a one-party local government. Apathy is a powerful ally of the status quo. donkey-red-rosette

In the more marginal wards, consider voting tactically even if it is not your normal political preference.

Consider Blackheath and Lee Green for the Lib Dems, who have also historically thrived in Downham and Whitefoot, at least until 2014. Unsure in Brockley? It would be a great shame indeed if the Green opposition were snuffed out by a growing Momentum presence there. The Greens also have significant support in Ladywell.

The only area where the Conservatives have done well this century is Grove Park and that is probably the best bet for any alternative voice to Labour in that ward.

Remember, Lewisham only recently became so lopsided. It has been Labour for generations but always with the checks and balances of a vocal opposition until the collapse of the Lib Dem vote in 2014.

Find out who is standing in your ward here.

See the full list of results from 2014 here.

What about the mayoral elections?

On the issue of opposing one-party states, the mayoral election is something of a red herring. It’s the ward councillors who will provide the opposition. There is an argument for dismantling the mayoral position in Lewisham – and one supported by two of the current candidates – People before Profit’s John Hamilton and the Liberal Democrats’ Chris Maines. But that, perhaps, is another debate for another time.

The return of the curse of Evelyn: backstabbing, deselection and despair in Lewisham’s forgotten ward

What news of the ward of Evelyn, covered previously on Lewisham Lately for its bizarre history of absenteeism, in-fighting and neglect? Surely, as D:Ream might have put it, things can only get better?

A note earlier this year from one care-worn local suggested otherwise. “Evelyn… sigh,” went the subject line, followed by a world-weary account of fleeing councillors and internal Labour Party politics.

“Lewisham’s most neglected ward just got more neglected,” my unnamed contact began. “Evelyn’s Jamie Milne has moved to East Sussex while David Michael has moved to Luton (no longer has a residence in Lewisham). Quite how long this has been the case has not been communicated to the locals.”

And, it went on, the one locally based representative, Joyce Jacca, “got deselected by the CLP [Constituency Labour Party].”

Sigh indeed.

The bleak tone continues in a follow-up email with news of the other Labour candidates (the ward historically has been a dyed-in-the-wool Labour stronghold).

“Two of the Candidates don’t live in the ward. Caroline Kalu lives four miles away and Alex Feis-Bryce in New Cross. Neither any history in the area but keen to stand in Labour’s safest seat.”

“The third Labour candidate Silvana Kelleher is cause for concern. Facebook posts (defended by the candidate) have upset residents both inside and outside the party.”

Another local makes the same complaint, citing “disturbing opinions on violence towards children and women.”

Lewisham Lately has seen the posts allegedly put on Facebook and, to put it diplomatically, they don’t seem like the product of someone with a balanced and measured approach to local politics. And a blocked Twitter feed is rarely a sign of a healthy attitude to accountability and transparency (a new one is in motion for campaign purposes).

Both Kelleher and the Lewisham Labour Party have been approached for comment but no reply has been received.

And what of Joyce Jacca, the local community leader who was elected as a Labour councillor in a by-election in October 2016 then rejected unceremoniously by her own party less than a year later?

Officially, her deselection was put down to her “lack of understanding about the role of a Labour Councillor” and for failing to take up training opportunities.

But there is one particularly telling passage in her rejection email, sent by Ian McKenzie, the Secretary of Lewisham Labour Party:

“The panel recognised that you had skills of engaging with your community, but felt that you failed to understand your position as an elected Labour Councillor working under a political regime with specific requirement to fulfil, something that is expected of all elected Labour Councillors.”

Joyce Jacca
Former Labour councillor Joyce Jacca is now standing as an independent

In other words, one of the reasons Jacca was turfed out was for representing her constituents over and above her political party.

One senior, long-standing Labour councillor Roy Kennedy (Lord Kennedy of Southwark) was so concerned by her treatment that he wrote to Iain McNicol, the then Labour Party General Secretary, expressing shock and dismay at Jacca’s deselection and the subsequent rejection of her appeal.

The letter praised Jacca’s hard work, loyalty to the Labour Group and good attendance. “Joyce is respected by the community she represents on the council and has been an articulate voice for them,” he wrote.

There was “no justification whatsoever” to her treatment – which he described as “just wrong” before requesting a new NEC (the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee) panel to review her candidacy.

All this to no avail as three entirely new but by no means universally appreciated candidates were confirmed in her place.

Jacca was so dismayed by the proceedings – which she described as discriminatory – that she decided to stand for the local elections in Evelyn ward as an independent.

“I became a councillor for Evelyn because we had councillors who were not really active in our ward,” she told Lewisham Lately.

“I was very low [after the deselection]… but I have worked with local communities and residents for 17 years.

“My community development colleagues kept me empowered. Labour, who were my family, left me to die.”

“I’m standing because I believe that I’m the right person to represent my ward.”

And a final word to my anonymous source:

“A 5% rise in child poverty to 43% (almost double the borough average) was reported [in Evelyn recently].

“If anywhere could use some high calibre representation it’s Evelyn.”