Notes from Notting Hill: a Labour councillor's view of one of London's wealthiest boroughs. Photo: Getty
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Notting Hill notebook: a Labour councillor doing politics in the Royal Borough

Andrew Lomas is new to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a Labour councillor. Here are his first impressions of canvassing in one of London's wealthiest areas.

Save money, buy a Bentley

Kensington and Chelsea has the reputation of being a playground for the wealthy global elite. As a new Labour councillor in the borough, it sometimes seems that the ruling Tories enjoy playing up to the image: this is, after all, a council that funds the only municipal opera company in the country and saw its (now former) leader justify his extensive use of the Mayoral Bentley on the grounds it saved on taxi fares. There is also no reticence from the Mayor about cracking open the bubbly when the occasion merits it, something that this particular Bollinger Bolshevik can only applaud. That said, decanting new members to the Mayor’s parlour for champagne in the aftermath of May's local elections – directly after an induction talk from the council's legal officers warning about the pitfalls of accepting free hospitality – was not entirely without irony.

Getting elected, getting the beers in

Getting out the vote on election day can be a slog and sometimes fate intervenes to tell you to have a break. So it was this year: mid-afternoon approaching, I started down a new street.

First Door:           Can I speak to your wife?”

                 “She died six months ago…”

                 “Oh God, I am so sorry”

Undeterred, I pressed on.

Second Door:      Rings doorbell, baby starts crying, door opens

                “Are you kidding me? I just got her off to sleep, what do you want?”

Avoiding the temptation to say I was the Conservative candidate, I apologised profusely and scurried away.

A few steps from the third door, I looked down at my clipboard to see a previous canvasser had written “BIG DOG” in red biro as a warning. This was quickly confirmed by basso profundo notes barking out a message that seemed to say, “go have a pint and a sit down.” Five minutes later, I was sitting in the Earl of Lonsdale contemplating the supreme wisdom of man’s best friend.

Maiden speeches and multi-millionaires

In Foote’s Nocturnal Revels, a brothel-keeper remarks that a maidenhead was “as easily made as a pudding.” If only maiden speeches were as easily made. However, the planning system – while not exactly providing a rich seam of comic potential – did provide the opportunity to break my duck and speak against plans to allow a hospital wing to be turned into luxury flats. Such a position was apparently controversial: indeed, readers may not be aware that there is a grave shortage of luxury properties in Kensington and Chelsea for dodgy foreigners to launder hot money much-needed inward investment. That one proposed alternative use would create a wing for cancer patients only added to the controversy. Who will speak up for the poor, oppressed oligarchs being denied the chance to own a multi-million pound pad of their own?

That said, rather than rush to make a maiden speech I could have instead followed the example of one of Foote’s companions. George Augustus Selwyn was famous for a 44-year parliamentary career in which he managed to avoid making a single speech. (Selwyn was also a cross-dressing bisexual who dabbled in necrophilia. Visiting a dying Henry Fox, he was refused admission. When Fox learned of this he joked: “If Mr. Selwyn calls again, show him up. If I am alive, I shall be glad to see him, and if I am dead, I am sure he will be delighted to see me!” On second thoughts then, perhaps not an ideal role model...)

Irritable Vowel Syndrome

On the subject of maiden speeches, there was a degree of sympathy for the new Conservative councillor for Earl’s Court Fenella Aouane following an otherwise solid debut. While most members were quick to congratulate Cllr Aouane’s effort, there was unfortunately less consensus from those gathered on how one actually pronounces “Aouane”.

Andrew Lomas is a Labour councillor for Kensington and Chelsea (Colville Ward). He tweets @andrewlomas

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit