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19 August 2014

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.

By Andrew Lomas Andrew Lomas

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?”

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                 “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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