I’m just off to see my old mum who has had a minor and successful op in Leicester so it may be a moment for reflection on the week.
A week ago I was an (albeit disgruntled) Conservative Councillor in Wandsworth. I had been given an ultimatum. Either I pull a paper I had put forward for discussion at one of the Committees or I ‘consider my position’ (or have it considered for me). The paper suggested we look at what several other councils are doing with ‘Ward budgets’ – small sums of money that individual councillors can spend in their own patch on public schemes that otherwise would not get any funds. The idea is to engage people more in the democratic process and to add to the individual ‘quirkiness’ of particular neighbourhoods that make ‘home’ such a special place for all of us. I wasn’t saying we should do it, just look around at what others were doing and see if it might work here. But no, even that suggestion was unacceptable – “you cannot bring that paper as a Conservative Councillor”. If after over 20 years serving the Party that is what it had come to then I had decided I wasn’t up for it any more.
I also knew that plans were emerging to consider closing the out-of-town centre libraries. I knew that because we had specifically been told it in a paper to the Group on June 23, alongside a number of other measures. Southfields library is a much-loved and well-used feature of the town centre that straddles Southfields and West Hill Wards, an area which in recent months has lost its boys’ club and its snooker hall (which could have been converted back into a cinema). Of course people have to live somewhere but they also need it to be a place worth living in, not just a dormitory.
Rob Richman and his many friends and colleagues had fought a very effective, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to save the snooker hall (or ‘Southfields Plaza’ as it would have become). He gained over 1000 votes as an Independent candidate in Southfields Ward the election this year, an extraordinary feat in a place so dominated by the political parties. We had a chat. We knew (or believed anyway) that no firm plans were in place to close the library and others, but equally thought that you don’t put things like that in a paper for fun or to mislead people and therefore that there was at least a possibility that these closures would happen. We were faced with two options – to allow things to proceed and put together a fight if and when the closure decision had been taken; or campaign now to show how we as a community would respond if such a decision ever were to be taken. The risk of the latter was that we would worry people unnecessarily when, if left alone, the proposal might simply have been rejected and put to bed; the risk of the former was that we would face a much more difficult fight if the proposals were to be passed and people started to defend a firm position.
What’s happened since then? There have been two stories coming from ‘sources close to the Cabinet’. One has it that the promise to bring the item forward was a whimsy, a joke, maybe even a misprint, that there had never been the slightest possibility of closing the libraries. The gist of it is that after over 20 years as a loyal Conservative councillor I had suddenly gone mad, invented a story and tried to make trouble where none existed. The attacks on my integrity, direct and implied, began.
The other story from a different ‘source close to the Cabinet’ had it that even before the Council election this year there were regular ‘savings’ (councilspeak for ‘cuts’) papers coming to senior councillors which proposed closing Northcote Library in Battersea – while these had not been accepted (after all the library is still there) neither had a message gone that the top councillor team never wanted to see hide nor hair of them again. I of course was not there so I don’t know which if either of these stories is true but frankly it didn’t do much to make me think I was imagining the whole issue.
We have now reached the classic ‘non-denial denial’ stage, usually phrased (as in this case) as ‘we have no plans to close any of the libraries’. Even when true this is of course meaningless – “no plans to do something” is different from “firm promises not to do it”. Adding ‘absolutely’ to the ‘no plans’ just makes the statement ‘absolutely’ meaningless though it is (I think) an advance on where we were last Monday. But worse, there is a claim that the libraries face ‘no threat’. For me that crosses the line between ‘clever’ use of language that misleads without actually lying, and something else. I can’t find a definition of ‘threat’ which wouldn’t include ‘frequent proposals to shut down’.
Rob and I never went into this to undermine anyone’s career or create pressure on them to resign. It is clear to me anyway that Ravi did not write all, maybe not even most, of the stuff coming out in his name because I believe him to be an honourable man (within the legitimate constraints of politics of course). He is getting some staggeringly awful advice – continue to deny things because that’s how you deal with this kind of story EVEN IF THERE IS DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE OUT THERE THAT SHOWS YOU ARE BEING MISLEADING. So I suggested to the Leader that we put out a press release together. On the one hand Rob and I would acknowledge – as we certainly should – that Wandsworth has so far had a very impressive record of protecting its libraries when some other councils have not and this is a cause for congratulation. Alongside a recognition that closure has been at least contemplated (since we were fed up with people being told we invented the whole thing for some mad reason), there would be a CAST-IRON GUARANTEE THAT THE LIBRARIES WOULD REMAIN OPEN UNTIL AT LEAST THE NEXT COUNCIL ELECTION (expressed in precisely those words). Not difficult, you would think, if they did indeed have no such intentions.
He declined, not least because on Friday this popped up on Wandsworth mumsnet: http://local.mumsnet.com/Talk/local_wandsworth/2193134-Southfields-Library-at-risk-of-closure.
“We have received an e-mail from another Conservative councillor (whose identity we have agreed to keep anonymous) confirming that there was a plan to close not just Southfields library but other non-town centre libraries including Northcote library. Here is the e-mail: “Obviously I don’t want to be named because I hope to have a council career, but feel the treatment of Malcolm Grimston has been very harsh. The council are lying to say there were no plans for library closures. Shortly after we were all elected we were herded into a room in the town hall and it was made clear that we would be expected to vote through the vast majority if not all the cuts proposed. Malcolm Grimston has done everyone a favour. I would have hated voting to close Northcote library, especially as you sometimes get the sense those in charge are not in control, but it was made clear we had no choice. I would have stayed quiet, but Ravi Govindia emailed us all saying it was “pure mischief making to create an issue where none exists” and that is a lie. The intention to close libraries was there.
blowingthewhistle Fri 26-Sep-14 14:40:00
PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL CONSERVATIVE GROUP MEETING – 23rd June 2014 Major decisions affecting savings in the autumn and winter cycles of OSC ………. November / December / January …….. Closure of Tooting Bec Track and Battersea Leisure Centre …….. Consideration of closure of non-town centre libraries …….. N.b. ….. are deleted items which were mostly admin/managerial/staffing issues.”
Before you ask, no it wasn’t me who published it (though I did of course have the note), no I don’t know who it was, yes I was gobsmacked, in the vernacular, as even I did not realise the depth of discontent in the Group about the culture.
In effect, the charge that we were making this up has now been put to rest. But I have lost all trust that anything but an absolutely black and white unwriggle-out-of-able commitment, in the above words, to the libraries would be ‘bankable’. If we get that simple unequivocal assurance we’ll be more than delighted to drop the whole campaign and cheer Wandsworth Council on its good sense and community values. Our instinct is that we might be quite close to that point. But we have been pelted with a lot of eggs this week and so far not one of them has produced a chicken so we’re not counting on it as yet, so the campaign goes on.
A final reflection. Leaving the Party after so long was certainly prompted by a feeling, justified I think by subsequent events, that a public campaign might achieve what the usual behind-the scenes attempts to reach secret deals might not have done. But it was more than that. Political parties – and I include Labour in this just as much as I do the Conservatives – have become so unwilling to allow dissenting views to be heard, either in secret or in public, that ‘groupthink’ is taking over, fine when the instincts of those driving policy are perfect but fatal where, as in this case, those taking the decisions on communication are so clearly out of their depth. (OK, you may say it was every thus so maybe I have just noticed it more in the last two or three years.) The most difficult moment for me so far has been when Battersea UKIP sent out a tweet supporting me. One of the things I love most about the lovely West Hill Ward is our diversity – cultural, ethnic, religious, you name it. I entered into my civil partnership with my Cuban boyfriend (is that the right word for someone in their 50s?) in the Council Chamber just over two years ago, surrounded by friends of all shapes and (in my case anyway) sizes, and we intend to ‘upgrade’ to marriage when the legislation allows us to do so. I made these points to the tweeter and got back a very gracious response, actually probably more gracious than my less positive initial contact deserved. It struck me that this is something that should lie at the heart of what I personally would like to see the Wandsworth Independent Alliance growing into. I have major differences of view on life from those which are UKIP policy and philosophy. But it would surely be hypocritical of me to brand some people as ‘intolerant’ and so to fail to ‘tolerate’ and indeed value them, as long as to do so would not compromise my own principles. Political parties often don’t really do that because of the inherent tribalism involved.
The most helpful response came from one of my constituents who advised that we should be magnanimous as we move towards getting what we and I believe the community want. It was very timely – Rob and I have tried not to overreact to some of the taunts aimed at us and we have had moments of frustration and even anger but our aim always was to save the library, not to upset anyone unnecessarily. We do recognise that whatever mistakes are being made Wandsworth Conservatives, like all other basically volunteer organisations, is people with very many fine public servants and it was good to be reminded of that.
I had no real idea where this would lead – the Conservatives could have shut this down on day one by accepting that plans had been considered because you have to think the unthinkable; saying that closure of libraries was always the last option; giving the guarantee that they wouldn’t close; and making me look a right Charlie for going off on one for nothing. We’d have got our library, they’d get credit, we could all move on. Instead they sought to mislead and created a much bigger problem. Time after time in politics the message is given – it’s never the event that destroys, it is the cover-up – and time after time it gets ignored.