Last week, I announced that I will step down as leader of Haringey Council in north London at May’s local elections. Resigning from a front-line political role, particularly one you’ve held for ten years, unleashes a range of emotions – pride, sorrow, relief, to name a few. However, I hadn’t expected to feel liberated.
Entering political office in a social media era means there hasn’t been a time in the last decade when I haven’t double- or triple-checked my tweets before posting. There have been countless times I’ve wanted to say something slightly edgy, but have relegated it to an “inside thought”, and I’m constantly checking myself not to be too spontaneous or risky for fear it might provoke outrage and repercussions.
And then, of course, there’s the need to control your responses to things that come your way – whether that’s a disappointing planning decision or intimidation from the public gallery at a council meeting. Announcing my intention to stand down brought with it an opportunity to call out some of the bad behaviour that has particularly marked my last two years in the role – the sexism, intimidation and bullying, much of it the responsibility of Labour members affiliated to Momentum. Doing so has provided a chance to speak out when some of my colleagues in Labour local government, looking to stay in their roles, feel unable to be candid.
In one interview following my announcement, I pointed out that anti-Semitism was a bigger problem for Labour than sexism. The mere mention of anti-Semitism on social media led to a volley of abusive messages from a colourful group of trolls. A reflection of the age we live in, you might think. But less expected, and of great concern, was that many of those engaging with my comments on anti-Semitism leapt to the assumption that I must be Jewish (I’m not). What a sad indictment of the times that highlighting anti-Semitism and standing alongside Jewish members is seen to be something that only fellow Jews would do.
The power of council leaders
I spent Friday travelling to Nottingham for the Labour local government conference. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in a week that had seen the National Executive Committee make an unprecedented intervention in asking my borough to halt its regeneration plans, the autonomy of local councils was a hot topic of debate. So, too, was the issue of accountability.
Last autumn, it was announced that the party’s democracy review will consider the relationship between local government representatives and local parties. At the heart of this debate is accountability. The party leadership would do well to remember that council leaders are the most accountable of all elected politicians in the country.
We are accountable to the law; to our council’s code of conduct; through our groups; and through scrutiny arrangements. We are accountable to our local media, and to our constituents when they come to see us in our surgeries or stop us in the street. Council leaders are the only politicians who can be asked questions on any area of their responsibility, every month, by any member of the public in our council chambers. So while we are always keen to consider whether we can go further and faster in building greater ties to our party and the communities we serve, this must be done on the basis of mutual understanding, not suspicion and superiority.
Less London, less Liverpool
The East Midlands Trains service to Nottingham didn’t feel like an intercity connection in any modern sense of the word. The near two-hour journey gave me time to ponder Andrew Adonis’s proposal for a “Golden Arrow” – a new high-speed route that would unite the north, the Midlands and London.
Adonis correctly argues that the contention that London gets too much investment – and this should be cut in favour of the north – is a fallacy. He points out that the “less London, more Liverpool” approach was tried in the aftermath of the Second World War when there was an effort to move jobs and businesses out of London to the north. It failed and both cities declined. Adonis believes that investment in our rail infrastructure will boost economic activity and help fix the housing crisis by bringing more homes within commuting distance of London. After last Friday’s journey, I wholeheartedly agree.
Haringey has a proud record of standing up for LGBT+ rights and I’m enjoying seeing how schools, charities and businesses are marking this in the borough for LGBT History Month. Campaigns like this offer me the chance to reflect on some of the best things about being a local council leader: celebrating our diversity, working alongside community groups and seeing a variety of organisations come together to make a difference.
We have one of the largest LGBT+ communities in London, but hate crime remains an issue. That’s why it’s only right that while we celebrate achievements we also call out hatred, working with the police and others to promote greater tolerance and further support for LGBT+ residents.
One of the biggest weeks of my political life happens to have coincided with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage; on 6 February 1918 Millicent Fawcett, the Pankhursts and other campaigners secured votes for some women, opening the way for universal suffrage a decade later. The Fawcett Society has launched #OurTimeNow – a campaign to sweep away gender inequality and make 2018 as symbolically momentous as 1918 was. I’m looking forward to the unveiling of the bronze casting of Fawcett by Turner prizewinner Gillian Wearing; the first female statue designed by the first woman sculptor to have work displayed in Parliament Square.
Claire Kober is leader of Haringey Council
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry