Friday, 12 April 2013

What Can Be Done About the Bankruptcy of Croydon Politics?

‘a lot of people are scared of Dudley Mead et al’

This quote is from an email I received commenting on my examination of the finances of Fairfield Halls on Inside Croydon: Mead is the leading Tory Councillor on the Halls Board.

This comment suggests that something is rotten in the political culture operating in Croydon. I am not the only one to think so. Susan Oliver has written a piece for Inside Croydon in which she says: ‘When the council’s budget meeting was broadcast on Croydon Radio, I could only listen for about 45 minutes. That’s all I could stomach. After that, I read the tweets and was glad there were heartier souls who could digest the vitriol and produce a newsfeed that I could swallow.’ Steven Downes, Inside Croydon’s editor has previously posted a critical piece commenting on the emergency meeting of the Council on the Libraries.

That rottenness of the political culture in Croydon is much wider and deeper than the way in which Tories and Labour behave. It also the form of deep suspicion between  different activists  about each other’s motives and links. The recent row over the West Croydon Community Forum reported by Inside Croydon is perhaps one of the worst examples of how that can play out publicly that I have heard for some time. (
‘More spin that my mum's washing machine. Read this and tell me that the’ Citizen ‘is not a Glee Club front for the council.’

was the email comment sent to me about the Croydon Citizen posting by Brian Lancaster, General Secretary of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society, explaining the success of the campaign to save the Local Studies Library and Archives from drastic cuts and the promises made by Tory Councillor Tim Pollard.

I immediately read it and came to a different conclusion, and have posted the following response:

‘This is a timely posting. It reminds Cllr Pollard that he has to deliver on his promises and that he is being watched. If he fails to deliver on the detail then there more lobbying will be needed. It is a useful reminder that campaigning can be effective; small victories can be achieved even in the midst of serious damage being done across the board to Council services and the incompetence (Library tendering) and waste of money (e.g. furniture & fittings of new HQ) that continues to happen. The Local Studies Fair on Saturday 20 April should provide a good opportunity to bring those attending up to-date with any further news on the reorganisation.’

I sent this to my email correspondent with the additional comment: ‘As a good piece of tactics; reminding people what has been promised, and letting Pollard know that he is being watched. As I said in my previous comments on Pollard’s promises, the proof will be in the detail.’

Of course there can be differences of interpretation. My email correspondent suggests that Pollard’s ‘promise is a massive denudation of the provision, presented as some sort of triumph. Pyrrhic doesn't even begin to describe it.’ My view is that ‘It may not be. And lobbying on detail can still happen. Its not the end of the process.’

My correspondent also suggested that because I  haven't been in Croydon very long, I am ‘less familiar with the operating practices of our beloved council.’ That’s right. But that means I am not burdened by the legacy of its past, and can bring different perspectives based on experience elsewhere.

Meanwhile Jonny Rose of the Croydon Tech City group has posted on Croydon Citizen his own thoughts on what he calls Croydon’s ‘chattering classes’.

‘… the various strong personalities and tribalism amongst Croydon’s martyrs threatens to undo much of the promising good work that is emerging through an inability to collaborate across agendas and ideology.

If the social, cultural and economic realm of Croydon is to improve under the current national climate, then we are all going to have to get involved and get connected. Bottom-up regeneration does not happen through bloody-minded dogmatism (FYI, martyrs), nor does it manifest ex nihilo through noncommittal fence-sitting (FYI, satyrs).

The New Croydon has no place for either martyrs or satyrs.’

Another email correspondent tells me that ‘having attended a number of council meetings and been shocked by the arrogance and blinkered behaviour of the Council members that the only way to get democracy is to get some independent or third party councillors elected. The polarity at the moment is not healthy and it is impossible to say how different things would be if Labour where in power. Or if they would be any less partisan.’

My email exchanges and the challenge posed by Jonny raise the question of how should people who have been around a long time, and those who are new to Croydon, engage politically, especially if they are neither Conservative or Labour supporters.

My experience in Wandsworth, Lambeth and elsewhere shows that the majority of the time you cannot have influence, but sometimes you can. But more importantly if you do not try you never will have any influence, and even worse things might be done. We usually do not know until much later what effect our activity has had.  If we do not challenge then the arrogance of so-called power of a Council’s ruling party political group will only increase, and Council officers can continue to ignore the concerns of the public.

So how should individuals engage?

We should take up issues that concern us, through writing and emailing Councillors, attending and asking questions at public meetings, signing petitions, and objecting to planning applications.  It is no good people saying the Councillors and Council officers do not listen. They may have a non-listening track record. But if we do not engage they certainly will not hear the alternative view points, and will assume silence means agreement.

We can contribute to debate by writing for Inside Croydon and Croydon Citizen, or posting responses to other people’s writings on these websites. Debate is healthy.

We can contribute by joining single issue campaigns, enetworks, our local residents and community associations, and  we can argue within faith and other organisations for a public stand against the things we disagree with.

We should vote in the local elections in May next year; inc. for minority parties which best represent our views, as a protest against Conservatives and Labour.  

Local organisations should stand up and oppose the things the Council is doing they do not like. They should not be afraid to do so.

Some people prefer to act as individuals. Others prefer to concentrate their efforts in particular organisations. There are strengths and weaknesses in both approaches. The danger is silo thinking, which can only be counteracted by networking and joint activity, as is the approach South Croydon Community Association has taken over trying to influence what happens at Fairfield Halls.

From the tone of the email string above and other emails and face to face discussions I have had in recent weeks, it worries me that those who agree that the political culture in Croydon is bankrupt can be very quick to leap at each other’s throats. I have been privately attacked in a group email for allegedly spreading false information regarding the nature of Laing’s persuading Croydon to re-open the Library tender process.

Of course there have always been disagreements over strategy and tactics and there have been personality clashes in organisations up and down the country. But as one activist emailed me about a particular local organisation: XXX ‘is full of very strong characters, at some stage we all annoy each other, but we are united by a desire for ONE CROYDON with transparent governance that maximises value for money and efficient Government….’

I would add ‘and that protects the most vulnerable of the residents and works to achieve greater equality, opportunity and social justice.’

Perhaps it is time for those who are suspicious of each other, or who have reservations about the way each other works, should have a Chatham House rules gathering to try and sort out real from perceived differences, and agree a joint strategy which can be pursued in different ways.

Do we need a loose alliance? e.g. Croydon for Economic and Social Justice? What do you think?

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