This is a cautionary little tale for the chief whips and leaders of party groups on local authorities everywhere, courtesy of Camden Liberal Democrats.
In 2006 the quaint traditional annual custom of the ‘Labour Local Elections Bloodbath’ took place in, amongst other places, the London Borough of Camden. The Labour group lost half of its councillors, including many in traditionally safe Labour wards, with control of the council shifting to a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition. Amongst the seats lost was Kentish Town, where two Labour councillors lost their seats to the Lib Dems: a by-election in December 2006 following the resignation of the remaining Labour councillor permitted the Liberals to complete the set. The influx of new Liberal Democrat councillors in Camden in 2006 mirrored the national situation of Labour in 1997: a lot of individuals who had not expected to win and were not necessarily suited to the role suddenly found themselves elected.
One of the Liberal Democrats elected for Kentish Town was a Mr Philip Thompson, who had at least the distinction of being just 24 when he was elected. So far as we can tell, he distinguished himself no further until 2008, when he took up an offer to study for a PhD in American Politics at…the University of Arizona. And for some reason, thought that this was entirely compatible with remaining a representative for Kentish Town, 5000 miles away. As the Camden council website continues to list Cllr Thompson as being chair of one of the licensing committees and a member of the scrutiny committees for the Culture & Environment and Health & Adult Social Care Scrutiny committees, we must assume that he considered it possible to carry out these rather important responsibilities from the safety of Arizona as well.
Now, let us assume that Cllr Thompson would eventually be relieved of his committee-based responsibilities and accept that he might have been able to achieve the legal requirement of attending a council assembly every six months to avoid disqualification. All entirely possible, except for the inevitability of huge quantities of negative media publicity. Something that we might expect to have weighed quite highly in the minds of the chief whip and council leader when they discovered Cllr Thompson had decided to pursue academic interests across the herring pond. A quiet resignation at this point would have led to nothing more than an article in the Camden New Journal, a bog standard by-election campaign, and in the current political climate, an easy Liberal Democrat retention of the seat.
Instead, Lib Dem leader Keith Moffitt and chief whip Russell Eagling decided to take the high risk strategy: letting Cllr Thompson stay on. And the inevitable happened – the story hit the pages not of the local press, but of The Evening Standard , The London Paper ,The Daily Express and The Daily Mail, amongst others. Inevitably, given the nature of the papers involved, there is a certain amount of false outrage involved, but the under-lying point stands: for a councillor and his group to believe that he can carry out his representative duties from across the Atlantic smacks of the highest arrogance. Cllr Thompson’s quotes do nothing to dispel that impression:
“There is no reduced service for people in Kentish Town. I have carried on with all my casework. I will not continue to do it if it is impossible.”
Nor did that of the group leader:
“He can do a lot of community casework by email. If he can’t do his role justice, I am sure he will decide not to.”
Working as I do with councillors, I am well aware that this is, put simply, a lie. A councillor can do very little of benefit for their constituents without being on the ground. A lot of what an effective councillor should be doing is pro-active: spotting problems before they are brought to them by constituents.
And so, the inevitable has happened. After a couple of days of low-level media uproar, Cllr Thompson has tendered his resignation. And what has been achieved by the attempted brazening out of the situation by Camden’s Liberal Democrats? Merely that they are now in a much worse situation to fight the forthcoming by-election, with community representatives queuing up to denounce them in the media. For a party that sells itself on localism, this really isn’t a narrative that sits well for the Liberal Democrats. It seems very likely that Sian Berry, the Greens’ Mayoral candidate and previously a candidate in the December 2006 Kentish Town by-election will stand for the Greens. Having narrowly beaten Labour into third place in the last by-election, in these circumstances she could well take the seat, adding to the three Green councillors already on the council, who could form the basis of a future Labour-Green coalition in Camden. Nor, regardless of national circumstances, can a Labour ‘October surprise’ be ruled out.
Party political point-scoring aside, the lessons of this episode should be learnt by all local authority politicians – because this level of hubris and by-election-aversion is universal. There is nothing wrong with a councillor resigning to take up a job or educational opportunity that makes it impossible for them to continue their job – everyone has moments when their lives change course. And there is little evidence to suggest that such resignations reflect badly on the party concerned in the resultant by-election: in general local and national trends more than compensate for any animosity resulting from an ‘unnecesary’ poll.
If Camden’s Lib Dems lose Kentish Town to Sian Berry or Labour’s candidate, it will be their own arrogance that has cost them the seat.