Today I (technically) start my fourth term as a Wandsworth Councillor after a long and hard election.

It’s been an interesting campaign. There’s no shortage of commentary about the national campaign, so I will add little to it, suffice to say I’m pleased to see Justine re-elected in Putney and Jane elected in Battersea. Obviously it’s disappointing that we didn’t get the clean sweep and Sadiq Khan held on in Tooting. I only wish he and his supporters could have exhibited the grace in victory shown in the Putney and Battersea results declared before his, but I think I always knew that would be too much to ask.

But moving onto the local results, I can’t help but think how good they were for the Conservatives and wonder how disappointed the Labour Party must be think weekend. The combined general and local election poll was a great opportunity for them to increase their representation on the council but now they must bitterly reflect that it was an opportunity missed.

Tooting
Most of their gains came in Tooting, getting one seat that had been held by the Conservatives in Furzedown and two in Tooting ward. Fuzedown has always been an ‘odd’ ward, regularly returning a split and this is the first time in my memory that all three councillors have been from the same party. Tooting was always seen as a Labour safe seat and it was an upset when we took two seats there, defeating the then Labour leader Stuart King (who must also be disappointed with the night’s results for other reasons). This time our candidates in both wards put up a hard fight, but it wasn’t enough.

However, Labour failed to make any in-roads into any of the other wards, most notably Bedford, where they must have been hopeful of a Labour gain, but found themselves 350 votes short of taking a seat and over 1,300 short of all three.

Putney
Labour’s only other gain of the evening was in Roehampton. This was a ward we won in 1998 (totally against the odds, the Conservative candidates were so sure of defeat they’d gone for a curry instead of to the count) and have managed to hold ever since. But despite another fierce Labour campaign they only managed to gain one seat, instead of all three. And they totally failed to make an impression in West Hill, the other Putney ward they had been targeting.

Battersea
In Battersea no seats changed hands, Labour held onto Latchmere, but failed to take their target seat of Queenstown. I think this must be one of the few constituencies in London were all council seats were successfully defended, no mean feat and a credit to all the candidates and activists involved.

The net result is a gain of four seats for Labour, giving them 13 councillors to our 47. But given that they must have been expecting at least 15-21 seats doing worse can’t be a good feeling for them.

The challenge for them now is making sure they use what they have effectively. I do not think they were a strong team over the past four years, and were heavily reliant on their leader, Tony Belton (for whom I have a great deal of respect). Time will tell if this will change.

I recognise that reports of meetings I attended are dull. Frankly, they are dull for me. Last night’s full council was a classic example of why.

I have a lot of time for the Labour Party in Wandsworth, I think they have provided some good opposition to the council, but actually, that’s mainly come from their leader, Tony Belton. Without him, I don’t think there’s any doubt they would not be much of a force. Last night’s debates largely proved this.

At the previous council meeting (which was only to set the council tax) their arguments were “Yeah, Lord Ashcroft”. Nothing to do with the council, and nothing to do with council tax setting. Last night, they developed a new line of attack: “Yeah, Mark Clarke.”

Rather than debating council policy they spent more time trying to attack a Conservative Parliamentary candidate than anything else. A sign, perhaps, that they are worried about the Tooting seat?

We did try and debate Tooting. Sadly Rex Osborn, a Tooting councillor, could offer nothing better than saying everything good in Tooting was because of the residents and businesses, and everything bad because of the council. Our problem, it seems, was that we are too heavy handed with enforcement, except when we aren’t because then we should be heavier. And we don’t have any vision, because if we did, we’d be encouraging more people to go to the bingo hall. And we’re not clairvoyant, because he had photos of problems which we subsequently had to clear up.

And that was the corker. Like a Liberal Democrat on Glum Councillors he had a series of photos where rubbish had been dumped or the pavement blocked, which the council had to clear up. The complaint was not that the council didn’t clear the problems, but that the problems existed in the first place – and here he conveniently forgot the residents and businesses good, council bad line. Perhaps hoping we’d all think the council has been dumping mattresses or re-arranging shop displays.

I’ve repeatedly said that the real strength of Tooting Together is the together element. We clearly rely on residents and businesses to keep pavements clear and not to litter or flytip – but when the minority (and it is a small minority) step out of line we will act quickly to rectify the situation. To try and spin the whole thing in the way Labour did shows they are out of ideas at exactly the time they need them.

If that is the best Labour have to offer, it can hardly be a surprise that they are worried about losing to the Conservatives, and maybe even to the pothole pointers of the Liberal Democrats.

It’s been another week I’ve ended out of Wandsworth. This week the child in me has been excited by a trip on a sleeper train in which my knowledge of sleepers, derived entirely from Agatha Christie and Hart to Hart (a show surely due a remake) was confounded as no-one was murdered). If that wasn’t enough, it was topped by a tour around an airport – and not just the passenger side, but the driving around the runways side.

But, of course, Wandsworth is the purpose of my blog, and Wandsworth will be the purpose of the remainder of this post.

Mastermind
The YouTube of the Mastermind round on Wandsworth has to be the highlight of my week. Having felt a little saddened by my score, the honesty of others has made me feel a lot better about it. Indeed, one councillor, who shall remain nameless, confessed he only got four. Smugness isn’t pleasant, but I just can’t help it.

Regeneration and Community Safety
The Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday night was the major meeting I attended as a councillor this week. It wasn’t, if I’m honest, a meeting to set the world on fire. Unfortunately Tony Belton, the Labour leader couldn’t attend the meeting, and his absence brings home what an excellent opposition councillor he is – despite leading a small group, he makes sure we keep on our toes. Proof that size is not everything!

Much of the agenda was fairly uncontroversial, although some concerns were raised by the opposition councillor present, I think Labour voted with the Conservatives on all but one paper. The sole paper being on action taken to control street drinkers in Roehampton. The council has taken some very targeted action to help street drinkers where possible, but empowering the police to act where the drinkers aren’t responsive to the help offered.

This seems to have had the desired effect, although the situation needs to be monitored. However the Labour group wanted to call this an Alcohol Exclusion Zone (which it is not, since that has a strict legal definition) and therefore voted against. A slightly odd vote, I thought, since the problem has been tackled, but clearly image and spin still remain more important to Labour than substance.

Neighbourhood Watch
Much of the rest of my time has been taken up with various community safety meetings. One of the most pleasing with a researcher who was looking into how Neighbourhood Watch worked in various boroughs, and was examining Wandsworth as an exciting example of how it could be developed.

I’ve long held a deep respect for the Community Safety team (as well as all the other council officers!) for their dedication to their work, but it’s also good to see that work recognised elsewhere and be able to give credit to them to external bodies.

Best political compliments

My earlier post about chugging made me think that I have been attracting a few insults lately. I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. As Wilde said “the only thing worse than being talked about it not being talked about.”

It certainly makes me wonder what it is over the past year or so that means I’ve collected so many more. Perhaps I just wasn’t that interesting before, or maybe it’s a degree of forgetfulness. The only one I remember prior to 2008 was Tony Belton calling me “incendiary and ambitious” in a letter to the Wandsworth Borough News when I was Health Chairman on the council (sometime between 2003 and 2006). And I’m not sure if that was an insult or not, I remember it more because I thought it made me sound like Johnny Storm than because I took offence.

You might think it’s odd that I care about such a thing, but I know there are people who do not agree with me on most, if not all, things. After all, you only need check the 2006 Wandsworth election results to see there were probably 1,500 or so or so who liked the other candidates more and around 7,000 who just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to vote either for or against me. Once you accept that you are not, and cannot be, universally popular the insult is nothing more than another dimension to that. I accept it in exactly the same way as I accept people’s democratic right to vote for other candidates.

So, while it is perverse, I rather like that Tony Belton called me “Stalinist” during a committee meeting recently. And was tickled to hear that another Labour candidate suggested to a colleague that I was a “combination of the worst parts of Shirley Porter and Ceauşescu.” That sort of comment shows real imagination and a knowledge of both local government and international history. It invites people to decide exactly which is the worst part of either of them and I become a sort of Room 101 politician made from a buffet of negative political characteristics.

And while it wasn’t as imaginative, to be at a conference (on improving confidence in the police) and hear from someone that “abhors every word James Cousins utters” shows that, at least, they have heard of me. Although the unintended flattery was lost when I found myself sat next to the person who said it and not only have to introduce myself but also explain who I was.

So why do I appreciate the insults more than the plaudits? A Google for “best political insults” produces 10,500 results. Searching for “best political compliments” returns a meagre 2! Clearly something in our psyche that prefers to use, or perhaps to hear, the negatives of opponents rather than the positives of our side.

It is, perhaps, the return of politics. Since 1990 politics seem to have been far more about who would be the best (or at least, less sleazy) managers of the country. It seems the best bon mots come from times when there was a real political divide and debate about the country. So, for example, while you can find lots about Thatcher, Major gets off quite lightly with a general satire of him as a grey man. My particular favourite comes from a time when two huge characters dominated the political stage, and Disraeli commented of Gladstone: “He has not one single redeeming defect.”

Now we are in the longest recession ever and facing a massive public debt crisis perhaps the lines between parties are becoming clearer. Maybe those involved in politics feel the need, or feel freer, to try to encapsulate the differences. And perhaps, because they highlight the differences if I were I to have a selection of plaudits on the blog – as some do – I’d include those above, in fact, I’d probably just use them and nothing else.

A series of events over the past few weeks have left me realising quite how dangerous it is to hold opinions – to the extent I’m thinking of giving them up.

In recent weeks I’ve had two episodes in which my opinion has elicited a surprising response. First when I suggested in my weekly wrap-up a couple of weeks ago that Tony Belton was a little too political in comments he made during a long service celebration at the council. Then when I made a comparison between the diagonal crossing at Balham and the “country’s first” at Oxford Circus.

Far more high profile have been the the response to Jan Moir’s article on the death of Stephen Gately, the BNP appearing on Question Time and the furore over Stephen Fry taking offence at a comment made about him on Twitter.

The simple fact is that all these involve someone’s opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. We all have a fundamental right to have opinions. And we all have a fundamental right to disagree with the opinions of others. What worries me is not the opinions expressed (however much I may disagree with them) but the response to them.

I commented in my post on Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time that “mob rule isn’t suddenly justifiable because the cause is right.” A comment I stand by.

Returning to my experiences, after my comments about Tony Belton I received an email which disagreed with my interpretation. I responded that it was a personal and political blog and, as you would expect, it was my perception. While that perception was shared by everyone I spoke with that night, I’m not so vain as to think it is the only perception one might have. My offer and suggestion of commenting on the post was rejected (well, ignored) and the complaint restated. I was also offered the warning that unless my blog was more balanced it “will soon be totally ignored.”

Well, I could live with that – there are plenty of other things with which to fill my life. But it’s a shocking state of affairs that I am expected to be balanced, as if I have some sort of equivalent to the BBC Charter and don’t stand for election under a party label.

When it came to Oxford Circus I was taken aback at Westminster’s response to the comments about Balham. I don’t think I would ever seriously compare the two crossings and it was tongue-in-cheek (as was my apology). I’m not sure if there’s an element of insecurity or unnecessary defensiveness on Westminster’s part, but I’m fairly certain their press team are lacking a sense of proportion or a sense of humour.

The simple fact is that I will display bias. You should expect that. I am a Conservative so I am far more likely to agree with them and disagree with any other party. I am a Wandsworth councillor and, naturally, everything in Wandsworth is better than anything anywhere else. Even within Wandsworth I would contend that it’s better in Battersea than the other bits of the borough. These opinions won’t always have an evidence base, they just reflect me and my position in the world. No human can ever be totally balanced and impartial, however much they strive towards that goal. With me, I would contend, at least it’s fairly transparent where my bias lies.

Equally, we shouldn’t be expecting balance from the likes of Jan Moir or Nick Griffin. But what I would expect is a sense of balance and proportion from the right-minded people who disagree with their bigotry.

I would have much preferred the BNP Question Time to be a discussion on policy, but can’t pretend to have shed any tears for Nick Griffin’s treatment. One could, at least, reason that while the ganging up was unpleasant, at least public opinion can be relied on to be right. Or can it?

The Stephen Fry episode suggests it can’t. The alleged assailant merely stated an opinion that despite his high regard for Fry he found his tweets boring. And they can be, just as mine often are. Just as anyone is boring unless the the person reading or hearing them has an interest. Boredom is rarely an issue with the person being boring – because it is a certainty that someone else would find it interesting – but with the person being bored.

Unfortunately, this caught Fry at a low ebb, and his response made news in both the online and offline media while the unfortunate opinion holder had to withstand a torrent of abuse for a perfectly valid opinion with people like Alan Davies suggesting an “Essex style” mob to persecute him for daring to call Stephen Fry’s tweeting boring.

This worries me since ideas, opinion and the expression of those are essential to progress. Many, if not most, scientific and social breakthroughs were, originally, totally contrary to the accepted order at the time. If we create a society in which people are afraid to air new ideas and opinions then maybe we should give up on progress. And maybe we should accept that people who think like the Griffins and Moirs of this world should be driven underground where their poison will do far more damage to society than it ever could out in the open where it can be held up, examined and defeated.

It is, perhaps, an extension of the Diana-isation of grief. It seems as if we can no longer hold an emotion on our own unless it is shared tribally. If we are disgusted by the beliefs of Nick Griffin and Jan Moir we should also be disgusted by the baying mobs that formed to attack them rather than attack their ideas.

The internet should be a wonderful tool for the sharing of knowledge and ideas, and the discussion and debate that leads to progress. Sadly, it might just prove that the internet is just giving us the tools to easily collectivise (and perhaps legitimise) our intolerance of what we perceive to be outside a shared norm.

Battersea Park treeSo, for this week’s collection of odds and ends. This week’s photo doesn’t really have any artistic merit – composition and exposure could be better – but it is from Battersea Park where autumn is making itself known. The park really is beautiful at this time of year, and almost magical if you see the early morning mist, and that attracts me to the photo.

Cycling
I’ve become an unlikely cycling enthusiast this week, surprising even myself by my desire to use the bike following last week’s training. It has, so far, been an interesting experience and one that really validates the purpose of the scheme – empathy is all well and good, but putting yourself in the position is much better. I intend to write a little about it as time progresses. But it also makes me think I need to look out for more opportunities to try new things for myself.

Keeping to the cycling theme I managed to cycle to two of my three trips to the Town Hall this week! The first was:

Local Strategic Partnership
The Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) is the partnership of partnerships in Wandsworth. It has members from the council, police, health service, business and voluntary sectors and it responsible for the high level direction Wandsworth takes.

I was first made a member in 2006 (after a short period as a deputy member) and will not deny that it was not my favourite meeting. However, shortly after I joined the membership was changed and the meetings became far more productive and far more harmonious. I hope that will show in the Corporate Area Assessment report when published.

Full council
The second cycling meeting. And not a terribly interesting one. Most of the evening was consensual. The only real debate was over aircraft noise and Heathrow expansion (something the council has long campaigned against). Even there the Labour Party agreed with us, but then somehow voted against. So they support campaigns against airport expansion, but don’t. I confess I don’t understand the logic, but as long as they can justify it to the electorate I suppose that’s what matters.

Nine Elms Opportunity Board
Tuesday saw the first meeting of the Nine Elms Opportunity Board (with the great acronym NEOB). Actually the body has existed for a long time under the name Power Station Opportunity Board but has recently been expanded to include more of the major developers from the Nine Elms area. NEOB’s role is to make sure we get all we can out of the area, not only in terms of development, but also in opportunities for local residents.

It is an incredibly exciting time for the area, which is central London’s largest opportunity zone and things are, hopefully, finally starting to move. The US Embassy’s decision may have been a major coup, but New Covent Garden Market are starting consulting on their redevelopment and the Power Station put in their planning application (which fill two large chests) last week. I can’t wait to see how things develop.

Maurice Heaster
And finally last night saw a celebration of Maurice Heaster’s forty years on Wandsworth Council. Although being a councillor, and especially a Cabinet Member, is increasingly becoming a ‘paid job’, for over thirty of those forty years Maurice was effectively a volunteer so it really is no mean achievement to have dedicated so much of one’s life to the council and community.

It was a really good celebration of everything he has done, both on the council and outside and a pleasure to attend. It was particularly pleasing to see both parties there (even if Tony Belton was, for many people, far too pointedly political in some of his comments) recognising that, despite differences, public service is still something to celebrate.

Union Jack at WandsworthThe Union Jack now flies over Wandsworth Town Hall every day.  Not the greatest picture, but I’m rather pleased with the result from a phone camera.

The council had previously taken a ‘high days and holidays’ approach to flag flying, but recently changed this to keeping the Union Jack flying every day and to be replaced with special flags as required (e.g. the Armed Forces Day flag, or the council flag on full council days).  I’m pleased with the decision.  Flag flying is a small thing, but makes an enormous difference – there’s certainly something uplifting about seeing the two flags flying when you are coming down East Hill.

Meeting the Chamber of Commerce
The Leader and I had one of our regular meetings with the Chamber of Commerce this week. The meetings serve a ‘keeping in touch’ purpose as much an anything, and allow both sides to raise issues, concerns or just share information. Of course, one of the key topics over recent months has been the recession and the impact it is having. While the mood hasn’t changed dramatically I think it can now be best described as a ‘weary optimism’ – there’s still a feeling that it’s hard, and will continue to be hard, but a sense that we can weather the storm fairly well – along with the knowledge that there are a lot of bright lights on the horizon in Wandsworth.

Regeneration and Community Safety OSC
I attended the Regeneration and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee last night. I have to say these meetings are usually fun, but last night’s was a little flat. While the items on the agenda were all interesting and useful, they weren’t the type to spark off some of the debates and discussions that can make council meetings incredibly interesting.

Perhaps the closest we came to a disagreement was over the US Embassy. Tony Belton (who is also the Labour leader) suggested the embassy’s move to Wandsworth might not be unalloyed good news. His argument was that the security cordon might leave an isolated and sterile building, while little or no employment would be created because staff would move from Grosvenor Square. While he was putting a potential point of view – I think he was acting more as a devil’s advocate than putting across his own views – I would not claim the arguments are entirely without merit, but there are huge positives to the embassy move.

Employment benefits may not be immediate, but embassies everywhere employ a lot of local staff – and as current US Embassy staff retire and resign they will need to be replaced. There are also indirect benefits, from the businesses that will develop nearby to serve the staff there (cafes and even shops) to the people who will now move to Wandsworth in order to be closer to the embassy. Perhaps more important is how it will serve as a catalyst to kick start the development of the area.

You can’t put a value on is the kudos such a development brings. While a large parcel of industrial land in Battersea may be attractive, I think that providing the home to one of the United States premier embassies, makes makes it even more attractive – it proves that it is a viable destination and base for investment, and highlights the area’s potential as an international centre. While it might bring some disadvantages, I think these will be massively outweighed by the advantages.

If I have wittered on enough about surgeries the South London Press have prompted me to witter on even more by publishing a story sparked off from the original blog post.

They don’t seem to have it on their website, but it essentially restates my belief that they are a waste of time – under a picture of the library, me, Labour leader Tony Belton and Samuel L. Jackson (yes, Samuel L. Jackson, I’d told the journalist I whiled away a few minutes reading a children’s biography of him).

Cllr Belton was on there as they approached him for a quote – and I think there’s some movement here – he admitted that few people attended, but continued, “I wouldn’t say to scrap them as it’s only right that people who feel strongly about something can come and lobby their councillor. The trouble is, they don’t.”

Argh. So close. That’s the crucial point. I’m not suggesting for a second that we remove the opportunities for people to see their councillors, but I just don’t see any point providing opportunities that people aren’t taking. It is that adherence to a system that was put in place for good reasons, but has stopped working, of which I want to be rid.

Meanwhile, another blog I read The Local Government Officer posted some of their thoughts on what have killed off surgeries.

I need to respond properly, because there are some interesting points raised in the post. But one I would pick up on is the idea, put forward by Tony Banks, that social workers are MPs. I know from my experience in Wandsworth that MPs do get people along to their surgeries. I also know that a lot of their casework revolves around council issues; housing, social services and education are probably the big ones. In Wandsworth the best elected representative to take up those sorts of issues are councillors (indeed on occasion Martin Linton has even forwarded casework to me) but people – for whatever reason – choose to visit their MP, I assume mainly because MPs have a far higher profile than most councillors.

And maybe I’m taking the wrong angle on it. It isn’t a case of changing the way we provide a service, but instead trying to educate residents on where responsibility for particular services lie – so they know exactly who to approach when they have a problem.

As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

Wandsworth council chamber, Mayor's chair and crestLabour did not cover themselves in glory at last night’s meeting.

You would expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?  But actually I’m rather disappointed in them.  I expected a coherent set of arguments and reasoned alternative budget from them.  Instead, it seemed every time one of them stood up to speak we got a slightly different line, and that is slightly worrying – for one because it’s always good to have a strong opposition.

“Raise tax, no, lower it, no, raise it.”
The council presented a strong budget.  We are keeping the council tax at the same level as last year, because of savings we have made we are still able to increase spending and put some money into contingency.  Perfectly sensible given that a lot of people are expecting a prolonged recession and worse times to come.  But, of course, you can argue if that’s the right thing.  If you think the recession is going to be short and shallow you might think extra spending or a cut in tax preferable.

It was clear the Labour party hadn’t decided what they thought was best.  Their formal amendment suggested putting nothing into contingency, creating about 50 jobs for a year (by my count, Tony Belton, their leader, put it at 30) and reviewing charging levels for various services.  But during the course of the evening some of the members suggested the contingency could be used to cut council tax, some suggested that taxes should be higher so spending could increase, one – during the course of his contribution – suggested we should both lower and raise council tax.  They may have put a formal amendment to council, but it seemed they’d not agreed it amongst themselves.

Big state to the rescue?
But it was also clear they were convinced that a big state could solve all problems.  One of their Tooting councillors complained bitterly that the council were, only now, cleaning up Tooting’s alleyways and attempted to give credit for this to Sadiq Khan.  Yes, we are cleaning up the alleyways as part of Tooting Together, but these are private alleyways, owned by the businesses that are frequently dumping the rubbish on them.  We are stepping in and cleaning up because the owners have not taken responsibility – but somehow the council is the bad guy on this one.

And dog fouling raised its ugly head.  It seems Labour believe the council doesn’t have the country’s largest dog control unit in the country, but actually have the country’s biggest state-owned pack of hounds, specially trained to go and foul our pavements.  Again, a fundamental belief that problems are not shared by the community but there to be solved by the state.  The idea that somehow a dog fouling the pavement is the council’s fault rather than the owner’s or even the dog’s is risible, but somehow this was trotted out as an argument against the council’s budget.

To be honest, the most coherent solution put forward was by Tony Belton: it’s like the 1930s, he reasoned, and that wasn’t solved by Keynes, but by 10 years of depression and a world war. So this is Brown’s plan B! I haven’t been able to divine any other plan from Labour either locally or nationally, and I might rest easier if I knew they had some ideas rather than the current floundering.

It’s up to all of us
Implicit in the council’s budget, and in the council’s recession response, is that we help people to help themselves.  Perhaps we do not push that enough, and Malcolm Grimston made a thoughtful contribution to evening (probably the most thoughtful speech of the night) highlighting that, actually, many the solution to many problems lies not with the council or government, but very simple actions by ordinary people.  Of course it’s right for the council to help, and it was shameful for the Labour party to vote against our recession support, but we need to be aware that we all can play a part.

It might yet prove that one of the benefits of recession and environmental crisis is that we all come out of it a bit more thoughtful of our impact on our communities.