James Frankcom, who used to be a Tower Hamlets Labour party official, writes for that strange phenomenon, East London News. He has a curious writing style, but his account of last Wednesday’s Tower Hamlets Council meeting is enjoyable and informative. He has asked me to publish it as a guest post, so here it is:
By James Frankcom
Those of you who have never been to a council meeting need to know one thing above all others; Tower Hamlets is not a ‘normal’ council and the behaviour you will find in the council chamber is not typically what you find in other chambers of local government in this country.
The full council meeting on January 25th had all the elegance and profundity of a squabble in a school dinner queue. The issues discussed were rarely, if ever, things the council could actually do something about or ones with real relevance to the lives of the people outside the debating chamber. Worse still, with embarrassing regularity the meeting descended into a cacophony of vicious bickering as allegation and counter-allegation were bandied about.
The meeting began with several motions moved forward in the agenda. A highly partisan Support Ken Livingstone’s Fair Deal For Transport motion was proposed by Cllr Rabina Khan (Independent, Shadwell) and seconded by Cllr Shafiqul Haque (Labour, St. Katharine’s & Wapping) and despite an amendment tabled by the Conservatives – described as “a load of guff and wind” by Cllr Marc Francis (Labour, Bow East) – it was passed by a large majority.
However, what did this motion actually do to help the people of Tower Hamlets? Entirely nothing; neither doing anything to assist Ken Livingstone in his re-election nor reducing the cost of transport for the people of this borough.
Another motion titled Sexual Exploitation, which righteously condemned the trafficking of people “for the purposes of sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic slavery and organised crime” was proposed by Cllr Rania Khan (Independent, Bromley-by-Bow) and seconded by Cllr Ohid Ahmed (Independent, East India & Lansbury).
It resolved to “express support” for a charity “promoting the rights of children” and “acknowledged” that more people will enter the UK during the Olympics and some of these may be the victims or the exponents of this vile trade.
All very noble, but what does this actually do in real terms for the people of Tower Hamlets struggling with the worst economic circumstances in eighty years? Arguably, not a lot.
There was a motion condemning the Dow Chemical’s sponsorship of the Olympics (as if anyone from the IOC even opens letters from LBTH) and then yet another motion about the London mayoral election.
Good politics as these issues are I could not help wonder in what tangible ways did their discussion in this forum make the lives of Tower Hamlets residents any better.
During a debate where everyone took turns to say how much they hated racism (usually more so than the last speaker) and what little the council can do to combat it, Cllr Ohid Ahmed, the Deputy Mayor, shouted “by true Labour – not like them in front of me!” implying the Labour Group were not serious about fighting racism, or worse, were complicit in it.
Given that the context of this discussion was the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence this was an extremely serious allegation to make.
Cllr Josh Peck, the leader of the Labour group, immediately took issue with him and raised a Point of Order condemning the “unacceptable allegation” he had just made.
Peck, waving a piece of paper in the air containing what he called “a weak three line apology for the last time he [Ahmed] made similar remarks”, the Labour leader duly demanded that the Deputy Mayor’s comments be recorded verbatim in the official minutes.
This proposal was seconded by Cllr Peter Golds, the Conservative Group leader, who also called for action to be taken against the recalcitrant Deputy Mayor should an apology his “outrageous slur” not be forthcoming. As he spoke howls of derision erupted from the public gallery from people Cllr Golds eruditely described as “the bussed-in Lutfur fan club”.
I then watched with a mixture of depression and disbelief as councillor after councillor berated their neighbour in bile-laden vanity speeches and, to be honest, the only party which came out of the meeting with any semblance of dignity was the Liberal Democrats; but that was a relatively easy task because they have just one councillor – Stephanie Eaton – who wisely kept her head down.
By way of contrast, the small and truculent group of independent councillors allied to the mayor repeatedly disgraced themselves by bitterly attacking their former colleagues in the Labour Group with all the hatred and spite of a recently divorced couple arguing over the division of their CD collection. This was a fight made all the more sad, if I may continue the analogy, because the CDs were the well meaning and sincere gifts of friends whom both partners once shared but now each sought to claim as their own.
The Tories, for their part, appeared to take a certain pleasure from goading the Independents in much the same way naughty boys enjoy poking angry cats with sticks. Frequently that evening they rather incongruously supported Labour motions against the Independents in circumstances which reveal far more about Labour’s poisonous relationship with their former colleagues than they do about the Tories tactics in minority politics.
Labour, in all this, appear to have found themselves in a situation made all the more bitter by having lost the power which once seemed so assured to them and now reduced to contriving ways to frustrate the Independents, and failing that – just heckling.
Indeed, at one point during the meeting Cllr Bill Turner appeared to ‘take one for the team’ by apologising to the Speaker for his heckling during a rambling speech by Cllr Shahed Ali.
Things became especially fractious during a recess when an ignoble exchange of words took place between Cllrs Rabina Khan and Peter Golds. This was later regurgitated by Golds in the form of a Point of Order wherein he claimed she had called him “a sexist”.
Throwing any dignity to the wind Rabina Khan erupted in the way you would expect a teenager to respond to someone throwing chips at them on a school bus. In a worryingly aggressive ‘yeah-but/no-but’ style tirade, Little Miss wagged her finger, rolled her eyes and quite ridiculously proclaimed she felt “threatened” by the ageing Conservative councillor.
Indeed, throughout the entire meeting the pugnacious Rabina Khan behaved quite appallingly; spitting self-righteous venom and dragging the council chamber down with her as she repeatedly bickered, hectored and swaggered with all the dignity and restraint of a guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show.
I look up during one of her repeat performances and my eyes momentarily catch those of an ashen faced, sad older man at the side of the room. I look down and read his name plate – he is Commander Ludgate, the Deputy Lord Lieutenant and Her Majesty’s high representative to the borough.
Now all but a relic from a bygone era of civic duty and national service he has, without any compulsion, come to observe these dismal proceedings and I cannot help but wonder what thoughts are going through his head. I return to my note-taking suspecting his private thoughts are not enthusiastic ones.
Sharing that same dais was Lutfur Rahman, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, whose countenance during the meeting was quite different. For he observed all this with the self-satisfied smile of man watching a fight between two people he doesn’t like over a rumour he started.
Indeed, at the only point where his participation was really needed, nay expected, he made the astonishing decision to refuse to answer almost all the questions put to him by councillors – questions actually printed in the order of business and which he would have had ample time to prepare for.
This risible decision which strikes at the heart of formative democratic accountability was weakly defended by the legal assistant on the basis that to force the mayor to speak would “breach his human rights”.
This bizarre excuse, when announced, struck all as an absolutely extraordinary thing for an elected public official to proclaim and thankfully not an excuse either David Cameron at PMQs or Boris Johnson in City Hall has ever used.
Responding to the Mayor’s obvious act of distain, Cllr Motin uz-Zaman asked him directly why he would not reply and was told, “because you’re just a councillor and I’m the mayor!”
Not very long after this, the Mayor completed his snub by wandering out of the council chamber and disappeared for nearly 15 minutes without an explanation or by your leave.
However the abiding memory for me was the pantomime of the Independent Group proposing an Emergency Motion – written in pen like motions are at a joke student union conference – that “condemned the Labour and Conservative Parties for their time wasting tactics and blatant disregard for the public who have come to listen to council business that affects their lives”.
The motion was quite predictably defeated so then the Independents decided to do some really special time-wasting of their own by raising of point of order after point of order and amendment after amendment all of which were defeated and thus further delaying any council business from being made.
Eventually the Labour Group with the tacit support of the Tories moved a procedural motion to speed things up but this was of course opposed by those erstwhile opponents of time-wasting and the moribund meeting finding its life unnaturally extended staggered on until almost midnight.
It would be very unfair to condemn all the councillors alike. The names which stand out among the few who can walk away with any notion of pride were Rachael Saunders (Labour, Mile End East) and the harassed Speaker of the Council, Mizan Chaudhury (Labour, Bethnal Green South); both of whom remained calm, eloquent and dignified throughout.
Many other councillors maintained their dignity by hardly speaking at all and despite their best efforts very little useful business was given much discussion that night and examples of excellence in local government were instantly inundated in the squelching ordure of hate-filled political fractiousness.
As for the “public” who had come to “listen” to “business which affects their lives”, it is fair to say a substantial portion of this public were a political rent-a-mob who happily encouraged the bluster and vitriol in the chamber by heckling from the gallery but a minority of them, myself included, left that place saddened and troubled, wondering why anyone really bothers to vote in local elections at all.
But then it occurs to me – it is precisely because most people don’t bother to vote in local elections that we get what we’ve got – a substandard charade at local democracy containing aspects of a non-specific Carry on Film where at any moment a fight might break out or someone’s trousers might fall down.
Quite frankly, the people of this borough – a borough which has produced true working class heroes such as Millie and George Lansbury, Nellie Cressal and John Scurr – deserve much better. All of the aforementioned were councillors on Poplar Borough Council and were jailed in 1921 for defending East Enders against unfair local rate hikes – and for the record while imprisoned one of their number died.
So I recommend you come and watch your councillor at work and then make an informed choice at the next elections about who to vote for because there are fifty-one of them at Tower Hamlets and, excluding expenses, each of them is paid at least £10,000 per year from our hard earned council tax contributions – that’s more than half a million pounds. Are you angry yet? I know I am.