The following is a guest post by Nigel McCollum, who was a Liberal Democrat councillor in Bow East from 2002 until 2006.
I was a Liberal Democrat councillor for Bow East for one term, so have some minimal insight into the way politics seem to be played out in this borough, and frankly it is getting worse and I despair. I am still asked to take up casework for residents and pass it on to current elected councillors, so I do hope I still have some feel for what the issues are that matter.
For me, what mattered most as a councillor was the grass roots casework – being the ‘scissors’ that assisted those unable to assist themselves in cutting through the masses of frustrating red tape. The “Politics” of the borough was a turn off then, and is a turn off now. Yes I was lured into the machinations of the seemingly exciting Machiavellian gossip and power bases around the Town Hall. But now I recognise this was and is a fundamental problem.
There is an unhealthy “chattering class” from all shades of the political spectrum, and even political online blogs are I believe a symptom of this. On the streets, across the borough, the overwhelming majority of people are totally disengaged, and this is reflected in their knowledge, or rather lack of, about what the Council does, about their knowledge of who the Mayor is and what he does, and crucially about what political parties are offering local people on issues that matter.
Frankly, the vast majority of people in Bow don’t actually care about what state small sections of Victoria Park are left in after LoveBox; they couldn’t give a damn if Lutfur Rahman was driving around in a gold plated stretch limousine; I would say that outside the Bengali community few would recognise him if he started doing his shopping on Roman Road. Their eyes glaze over if we start to talk about links between Baroness Warsi (who’s she? they will say) and the Mayor’s cronies; for them a cabinet is a piece of furniture not some committee sitting in the Town Hall.
What is terrifying is the fact that the very important issues around housing for example are simply not discussed. Within a decade, Housing Choice which was supposed to be small local housing associations taking over council estates in the borough, and improving the housing stock has become something completely different. Housing Choice was in many ways the precursor to “localism”, offering local residents more say in how their local communities were run. Yet within a few short years, while the chattering classes are busy with their gossip and internal factions, what has happened is these small local housing associations have been victim of what in the City of London would be deemed a successful hostile takeover bid.
Old Ford where I live is now managed through an office in Stratford, in the London Borough of Newham, ultimately answerable to a corporate head office in Norwich. In the Isle of Dogs I believe Swan Housing has upped and moved to Camden. Remember the golden days of little but effective organisations like Bethnal Green & Victoria Park HA? Does it frankly matter what local parties offer in terms of housing policy anymore? There is simply no democratic accountability or scrutiny of big decisions that impact on local people’s lives. I do not see any political party really getting their teeth into issues around accountability and scrutiny of public housing. This is a tragedy.
Instead it is total turn-off and irrelevant gossip. Just as in my days on Council the Liberals were led to try and find every bit of alleged dirt possible on essentially Bengali Labour councillors. Even now, I read with despair when I see it is reported that the Mayor and a councillor from Shadwell came to see my former ward colleague, Ray Gipson to backstab Labour’s Josh Peck. So what? Is this talking about important issues that actually matter to local people? There is an element of late night private meetings in smoke-filled rooms that still permeates Bangladeshi politics (I know, I lived there for some years). But these tales are irrelevant and pointless – apart from anything, a respected local man like Ray wasn’t even able to get his core vote out in 2006 to be re-elected, probably because the Liberals were unable to focus enough on policy but more on people. So I ask again does it matter whether the Mayor was backstabbing the Labour leader to an ex-Liberal councillor?
I see former councillors who I worked with, who never once spoke in council meetings, whose ability to fight for their wards was questionable, and as such were defeated, are then put up again as candidates in recent by-elections hoping that their ethnicity and kinship networks will win votes. Please local parties, stop treating the voters with contempt. Forget ethnicity and deal with policies then maybe we will have a more engaged more diverse electorate.
I am shown case work from serving councillors and I am frankly appalled. No supplementary follow-up. No getting to the core of the problems. I was trained in many ways by the late Cllr Bette Baunton, and she instilled in me the need to keep on the case until residents got a satisfactory result. It may have simply been about an overhanging branch or a ripping tap. But, if that meant dogged terrier-like determination so be it. What happened was a local resident and her immediate friends and neighbours were relieved and thankful. That is the bread and butter of local politics. What it certainly didn’t mean was trying to become some quasi-private detective delving into another culture’s deeply held familial and communal traditions and trying to expose it as wrong and flawed. This helps no one and certainly doesn’t help Tower Hamlets.
The borough is not worse off because of some alleged Bangladeshi conspiracy. It is because the elected reps in the main, no longer fight for local people on local issues. Rather they navel gaze, live in their Town Hall bubble and have simply forgotten that a local councillor is supposed to be a local champion – fighting on issues that matter on a day to day basis, not worrying if it is true that the Mayor’s second cousin’s wife’s uncle is actually a millionaire living on housing benefit.
By focussing on these ‘conspiracy-type stories’, we have turned off entire generations of voters. Of course were serious wrong doing takes place then I applaud you and your blog for exposing it. But could we not for once actually discuss policies rather than personalities? By focussing mainly with the latter we are on a dangerous road to a much divided community. Furthermore, I believe by ignoring the everyday concerns of people we are alienating them from ever voting again.
The political culture of Bangladesh is different from the political culture of England. The political culture of Somalia is different from the political culture of Jamaica. But there can be a unity in our diversity if once and for all local leaders stopped this puerile gossip and backstabbing and actually dealt with important day to day issues – jobs, poverty, housing, education, crime, health. Please stop trying to do a Miss Marple on certain councillors. Rather use this as an opportunity to expose the serious policy problems that affect the borough’s politics.
Involve residents once again – go out onto the streets and forget the bubble around the Town Hall and local party executives. By turning in on themselves, the councillors have shamefully allowed the key foundation of our borough, namely housing, to be removed from all democratic accountability and scrutiny.
Finally, regarding Ofcom and Channel S. While this channel may be popular among one section of our community, it is merely one of a handful of Bangla language channels. Ought we not be focussing our energies more on trying to figure out how to re-engage the other disillusioned sections of Tower Hamlets. The silent majority who currently do not vote. Engage them. Come up with discussions that will make them feel involved again, and I predict a much more diverse council, with many parties represented and local people feeling once again they have not been left out to dry.
Rant over. Back to my cave