There have been murmurings of a high-profile challenge to Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts for a few months now. These things are always hard to report, though, because local Labour parties are, essentially, secret societies. Any talking out of school risks ruthless punishment. They don’t like their dirty washing being done in public, and prefer to keep the bloodshed behind closed doors.
So it was a bit of a surprise to see the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler trumpet the story of John Fahy’s attempt to topple the Dear Leader earlier this week – because the loyalty-above-all else code of local Labour groups means these things are very hard to stand up. There’s certainly no suggestion that the story came from Fahy (it’s just as likely to have come from the Roberts camp, or from elsewhere) but to have got the challenger to admit in public he was standing was an achievement.
What’s more, it’s better the story emerged via a traditional outlet rather than on some upstart blog, because it’s a reminder that Greenwich Council’s obsessive secrecy and control-freak tendencies aren’t just niche concerns. The way this borough is run should concern us all.
Naturally, of course, there’s fury within Greenwich Council’s Labour group that the story’s leaked out at all. Hey, who runs the council is their business, not ours, after all. We’re only the voters who pay their wages.
But Fahy’s candidness with the News Shopper is an element of a central plank of his pitch to Labour councillors – that the council needs to up its game in communicating with people, and that it needs a new and more open form of leadership.
To most people in Greenwich borough – and even outside – there is little to disagree with there. Even within the Greenwich and Eltham Labour parties, there is a sense that things have gone badly wrong. Particularly within the Greenwich party, Roberts is pretty much loathed. This “Dear Leader” stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere, you know. The next time someone approaches you with a red rosette on, and there might be a few of them over the next few weeks, ask them what they think of him, and see how they try to change the subject.
Rank-and-file members yearn for senior figures such as Nick Raynsford or London Assembly member Len Duvall (Roberts’ much-respected predecessor as leader) to intervene, and are frustrated that little has happened.
But inside the bubble that is Greenwich Council’s Labour group, things are different. Why is this?
For a start, you have to look a the man himself. Chris Roberts is a terrific politician. An enigmatic figure, he pretty much lives and breathes his job as council leader. In many ways, he’s much like Gordon Brown – politically, he’s deeply ambitious and has an emotional connection to his cause. But he’s also notorious for a ferocious temper and few know him on a one-to-one level. Indeed, the council chamber contains a few one-time allies he’s fallen out with.
He’s capable of some barnstorming speeches. You’d vote for him if you heard him speak. And let’s be clear – Greenwich borough is a better place for having had him as its leader. He has helped push forward big-ticket regeneration and transport projects, and helped secure a starring role for the borough in the Olympics. A lot of this work started under Len Duvall, but much of the borough has changed dramatically over the 12 years Roberts has been in charge. The greatest prize, the transformation of Woolwich, is yet to come – if it can be pulled off. That’s still a big “if”, though.
Unlike neighbouring big beast Sir Steve Bullock in Lewisham, he’s managed to negotiate the minefield of council cutbacks without too much of an outcry. This is partly down to the lack of meaningful opposition in the borough, but so far Greenwich has been spared many of the more obvious cuts others are facing. Indeed, a council once notorious for high council tax is now one of London’s lowest chargers.
But look beneath the big picture, and the council has struggled with basic services – possibly a result of keeping the council tax so low. The streets are dirty and look battered with cheap, ugly street furniture. Its services are generally mediocre and its culture is inward-looking. Its communications are more about managing reputation than passing on useful information. Worse still, the council has gained a reputation for simply not listening to people. This year’s “consultation” event, the Great Get Together, has been cancelled to pay for last month’s royal borough events.
The cracks are starting to show, and the goodwill from Roberts’ undoubted successes is starting to run out. With a less benign national political picture, has he run out of tricks?
I went to an unofficial meeting last week about the Charlton riverside masterplan. It was a prime example of what’s wrong with the council – a big and far-reaching plan being bludgeoned through with little consultation and hardly any involvement from real people. The mood was sceptical at best, hostile at worst. The most baffled looks were on the faces of senior figures in the local Labour party, ward chairs who devote their spare time to lubricating the progress of the likes of Chris Roberts – but suddenly facing the consequences of the style of leadership they’d helped to create.
So, if the local Labour party dislikes Chris Roberts, why do the councillors they select stick with him? Well, you have to look at the councillors.
Most Greenwich councillors have been there for a good few years now. They’re not exactly a fizzing hotbed of talent and new ideas. Unlike, say, Lambeth, there’s very few young faces in the Labour group – only four out of 40 are under 30 years old, and not that many in their 30s either.
Of the remainder, these are often people who socialise in the same circles, and are content to keep things going as they are because they hear very little criticism of what the council is doing. In any case, criticism is discouraged – even raising legitimate questions about council practices can lead to disciplinary action. Keep your head down, keep quiet, keep calm and carry on.
But even Greenwich Labour councillors are starting to notice that not all is right. Younger councillors are frustrated at the lack of debate, with even the most outwardly loyal unhappy at having to swallow their principles to do the leader’s bidding. Meanwhile, there’s been the genuinely uncomfortable sight of veteran councillor Jim Gillman, a community figurehead for many years, spending his time as mayor doing little more than acting as the leader’s stooge.
So there is a clamour for change. But what would John Fahy offer? Well, he’s a real old bruiser of a politician, experienced and respected. He’s certainly guilty of the same complacency as Chris Roberts – witness the cock-up of hiving off the libraries – but at least comes onto sites like this to explain himself and relishes a good old fight. In a borough where there’s very little debate about anything, that’s like water in the desert.
Ironically, a vote for the older man is likely to see younger talent pushed through – with many of the council’s old guard owing their careers to Roberts, it’s likely a change of leader will also see a change of faces at the top of the council, and a wholesale change for the next election. Greenwich may be one of London’s safer Labour councils, but it lacks a sense of direction – or at least one that’s obvious in public.
Ambitious councillors might be tempted by an offer of a job chairing some review committee or other – but in the long term, if Roberts wins Monday’s vote among Labour councillors, the council will just continue to stagnate under an even more poisonous atmosphere.
What would be Chris Roberts’ next move? He could walk into a job at a regeneration agency tomorrow. Berkeley Homes would probably snap him up tomorrow. Whatever happens on Monday, he’ll be alright.
One Greenwich councillor once said to me that whatever the council did, I’d criticise it. This is cobblers – much of the coverage here is borne out of frustration at just how little the council’s current leadership is just interested in dealing with local people honestly and fairly.
On Monday, that councillor, and his colleagues, can take one giant step towards mending those bridges. Will they be brave enough to do it?