If you watch politics in Greenwich borough for a period of time, one of the most striking things you’ll notice is how local Conservatives occasionally take positions that put them to the left of the ruling Labour party.
Opposition leader Spencer Drury often points out the poor state of much council housing, for instance. Candidate Thomas Turrell might never have got elected, but he made former leader Chris Roberts look like a fool on TV over zero-hours contracts. Some of this is the proper scrutiny that an opposition party should be doing. And sometimes, it points to so much more. As it was yesterday, when Greenwich Council suddenly signed up to a scheme to nudge local businesses into supporting the living wage.
The story starts across the other side of London. Labour-run Brent Council has a scheme where firms get discounts on their business rates if they pay the living wage, which in London is £9.15 per hour.
It’s a corking idea. So corking, it’s being proposed at Greenwich’s next full council meeting tomorrow night. Council meeting motions are often an excuse for a bit of posturing and a barney. It’s often a good time to abandon the public gallery for the pub.
But who’s suggesting Greenwich take up this Labour scheme? The Tories.
Of course, Labour candidate Matt Pennycook knows a lot about the living wage – he’s been on the advisory board of the Living Wage Foundation, and to his enormous credit, managed to cajole former council leader Chris Roberts into making Greenwich into a living wage council; an accolade it can be proud of, but one it’s been shy about shouting from the rooftops.
You can say this is a non-partisan issue as long as you like – there’s an election on, and it’s a cheeky incursion by Matt H onto Matt P’s home turf. This isn’t cynicism. It’s good politics. If you’re in Greenwich & Woolwich, you’re lucky to have two very good candidates representing the main parties. It might actually be an interesting campaign here.
And then yesterday, the Guardian snuck out news that Greenwich was all set to follow Brent in adopting the scheme.
The news was then confirmed by council leader Denise Hyland.
I can confirm that it is our intention for RBG to also support businesses in joining the London Living Wage Foundation through rate relief.
— Cllr Denise Hyland 💙 (@CllrDHyland) January 26, 2015
And look! Here’s Labour’s shadow treasury secretary Rachel Reeves with Matt Pennycook!
— Matthew Pennycook MP (@mtpennycook) January 26, 2015
Meanwhile, here’s Matt Hartley in the FT, talking about how non-partisan it all is. Is it the first time a Greenwich Council motion has made it into the pages of the Pink ‘Un, I wonder?
Opposing the Tory motion would have made Labour look like ogres – and rewriting it to slag off the government (which is what Chris Roberts would have done) would have made them look like fools.
So, to Greenwich Labour’s credit, they took him up on it, and people from across the area will benefit from the scheme. It’s a funny case of non-vindictive politics in the borough of Greenwich. This rarely happens.
But it has touched some raw nerves. If I was a Labour member, I’d be asking a few awkward questions of my local councillors. Why didn’t they come up with this in the first place?
What Matt Hartley has managed to do – possibly unwittingly, possibly not – is show just how emasculated Greenwich Labour are as a force for getting things done locally. Not the council, but the Labour movement itself.
It’s very good at promoting national policies, but 14 years of bullying leadership have left it with nothing to say locally. Councillors spent so long taking their lead from Chris Roberts and chief executive Mary Ney that now they’ve gone, they don’t know what to do.
Despite Roberts and Ney’s departure, it’s still as if the council controls the councillors, not the other way around. So Labour councillors end up with nothing to say. Where are the blogs, local newsletters or social media accounts boasting of Greenwich Labour’s achievements? Or even just explaining what they’re up to?
Some of this can come down to the party’s struggles to overcome a bullying culture, while councillors at one stage were actually forbidden from having social media accounts. But that doesn’t explain everything. A few weeks back, I had some Labour leaflets through my door – all about national issues, nothing about what the council was doing locally. They went straight in the bin.
I’ve tried following my own local councillors, and those in neighbouring wards, on social media, and have ended up largely giving up and unfollowing them. I’m genuinely interested to see what the councillors are up to, what they think of local issues, and what Labour’s ambitions for the borough are. But if they have any views, they’re keeping them quiet. If I want to see endless retweets about how bad the coalition are, I’ll follow the national Labour Party account.
There are some exceptions, but on the whole, Greenwich’s Labour councillors are the Labour party’s worst salespeople.
Over in Lewisham, councillors and the Labour group proudly display their policies and decisions. You may agree with them, you may not. But they display their local decisions and policies with pride – something their counterparts in Greenwich simply don’t do.
— Joe Dromey (@Joe_Dromey) January 25, 2015
— Lewisham Labour 🇬🇧🌹🇺🇦 (@lewishamlabour) January 26, 2015
— Kevin Bonavia (@kevinbonavia) January 14, 2015
— Lewisham Labour 🇬🇧🌹🇺🇦 (@lewishamlabour) January 18, 2015
Lewisham Labour campaigners tell train companies to get a grip after severe disruption to local services pic.twitter.com/r8uGEBKYT3
— Lewisham Labour 🇬🇧🌹🇺🇦 (@lewishamlabour) January 13, 2015
The failure of the vast majority of Greenwich’s Labour councillors to communicate any kind of local vision to a wider public created the space for Matt Hartley to nip in and steal their clothes on the living wage.
That’s a big problem for us all. And it manifests itself in bad policy – think the pavement tax fiasco, or blindly backing new road crossings – as well as a thoroughly unhealthy local political atmosphere. Greenwich Labour knows it has a problem in engaging with the outside world. Maybe Matt Hartley’s motion will be the hint it needs to make it realise it must change.
Thousands of people will benefit from Greenwich supporting businesses who want to bring in a living wage. And while tomorrow night’s motion might well see the same tedious old barneys, hopefully it’ll be a spark for some more positive change on the council.
1pm update: The dishonest spin – this week’s council propaganda paper, Greenwich Time, claims all the credit for Denise Hyland. No mention of any non-cabinet councillors – whether Labour or Tory – having a role in this, even though they’re due to vote on this tomorrow night.
And when did Greenwich Council’s press office tell the local media about the scheme? Just this lunchtime, the day after Greenwich Time started hitting local doormats, and the day after deadline day at both the News Shopper and Mercury.
All in all, the whole episode demonstrates the cynical circle of how the council is run. Local councillors asleep on the job, their rivals embarrass them into doing something, then the council hierarchy wakes up, claims credit for it and uses its propaganda story to push the local media out of the story – a propaganda paper which means those councillors can stay asleep and not communicate with locals.
And they wonder why people are disillusioned and cynical. The Dear Leader might have vacated his office long ago, but the old key-thrower’s habits are still ingrained in a thoroughly dishonest administration.
(Stewart Christie has another take on this at Royal Greenwich Time.)
8 February update: This got overshadowed by other events, but here’s video of the debate in the council chamber on the issue, where Matt Hartley proposes his motion and Denise Hyland responds to it.
The second half of the debate kicks off with Labour’s Olu Babatola inviting Hartley to switch sides…