Councillors face a vicious cycle of expectation, indignation and bitter apathy

Six months into the job, I'm trying to do things differently.

The queue for my last council surgery stretched around the hall. I sighed at the sight. Not because I mind hard work, but because I'm not sure how much the council can do to help. Since my by-election in May, I've found myself spending large amounts of time answering calls from Peckham constituents who are upset with a system that feels remote and often fails to deliver in the cuts. I do all of this on an email system that makes MS-DOS look like some kind of high-tech fantasy. I sometimes find myself writing to officers not because I believe they can make a difference, but because I want residents to know that I've tried.

But there is a deeper problem here, beyond resources. For many of the people in my constituency, the council has become the only vehicle they can see to improve their position. Ringing the council's phone, bidding for housing on inflated waiting lists, seeing through complaints that take years to resolve, has become a full time occupation. There is a vicious cycle of expectation, indignation and bitter apathy from people who have lost faith in their ability to change things for themselves. As a new councillor serving as a secretary to this bureaucracy, I suddenly realised I was in danger of feeding into that.

That's why I'm trying to do things differently. It's an experiment that starts with a new opening question. "What can the council do for you?" has become "what can we do for each other?" Don't get me wrong, I am under no illusions that many people are in need of professional support and material help, but in many cases, people are capable of more than we give them credit for.

So when a single mum entered my surgery saying she was suffering from anti-social behaviour on her estate, I didn't ask her if she'd reported it to the council's overstretched helpline. I asked if she could get her neighbours together. She can't write, but she's a born leader who will make a difference. Unlike officers, residents are there 24/7 - they can keep an eye out for each other. As a group, they also become harder for the council to ignore. This is not some fluffy version of the Big Society. Anyone who knows the Friends of Warwick Gardens or the Peckham Residents Network in my ward knows that networks achieve things. Similarly the power of the residents on the Consort estate, who gave young people a safe place to party this Halloween, was better than anything the council could have organised.

Achieving change in this way can make a bigger difference, because it stops one of the biggest problems in my ward: isolation. For many elderly, disabled and workless people, interacting with the council is one of the few chances that they get to meet another human being. When that interaction is reduced to complaining about something they feel entitled to, it can be humiliating. Meeting other people and working with them to create change builds confidence in a way that some council services don't. As Maurice Glasman says in my book, if Blue Labour had a slogan, it would be "relationships are transformational".

Of course a lot of people don't have the confidence to meet their neighbours alone, but councillors can help with that. They can introduce the youth worker to the young unemployed guy on the estate who thought about running a football club but didn't know how. They can make sure that the head of the mosque knows the mum who sits on the board of the local school. They can play a part in great initiatives like the Peckham Network, supported by the Peckham Settlement, which are already encouraging residents to knock on five doors and invite their neighbours around for tea and a conversation about how to make things better.

If people think I'm anti-state they have misunderstood. Many council services are necessary and worthwhile, and I'm well aware I need a councillor allowance to do the work I do. Nor is it to slam my fellow councillors and officers in Southwark, many of whom are doing a much better job than this newbie. I'm simply saying that when you become a councillor, it's easy to think your role is just about bureaucracy and complaints.

The best politicians know that to be a good councillor, you need to be a community organiser. Labour Values is full of positive examples and Movement for Change is starting some phenomenal work around the country. Caroline Badley's work in Edgbaston and Sam Tarry's in Barking and Dagenham is famous for a reason. These people get that government shouldn't be something that is done to you - it should be something we do together.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser