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.
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.
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.
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.