‘We’re not all robots’ reply to one-party state attacks

Labour angry with the Tribune's coverage

Friday, 8th April — By Charlotte Chambers

Election

Labour councillors Tricia Clarke and Gulcin Ozdemir – and, right, the Green Party’s Caroline Russell

THERE is only one Green councillor in the Town Hall chamber, but she has managed to get the masses on the Labour benches raging over comments that a broken one-party state governed Islington.

This week, councillors from the ruling group railed against Caroline Russell for declaring that there was not enough scrutiny in the current system.

And as the blood boiled, they had a pop at the Tribune for printing her views last month.

The open clashes come with less than four weeks to go until Islington residents vote to decide who runs the borough for next four years.

Given Labour currently has all but three seats in the chamber, nobody would bet against a similar domination at the polls on May 5.

But Labour councillor Tricia Clarke said: “The narrative of the one-party state is not accurate.

“I think it’s misrepresenting the situation to present an article as if only one person is scrutinising the council, because everyone is scrutinising the council – that’s the job of a member.

“It’s in everyone’s interest that people tell the truth and don’t misrepresent the facts.”

Ahead of the final run-in to polling day Cllr Russell had warned that she had been the only opposition after the last elections. Since that 2018 boroughwide vote, one Labour councillor, former mayor Rakhia Ismail, defected to the Tories and another, Gary Poole, became an independent councillor.

Cllr Russell’s words triggered an unusually angry response, with some Labour councillors going as far as attacking the Tribune on social media for running the story.

Labour councillor Gulcin Ozdemir described the coverage as “quite offensive”, later telling the Tribune: “There’s 48 councillors who scrutinise on different committees and on the ones I sit on I take my job very seriously. I’m always trying to get to the root of the problem.

Cllr Ozdemir added: “We don’t all have the same opinion and the same voice. We all have different values and we don’t agree with everything all the time”.

Another Labour councillor, Nurullah Turah, said “everything was working” and that as a cabinet member, the leader of the council, Councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz, always asked his opinion on policies.

“That’s how she’ll come to decisions and I in turn will consult my officers. It’s a common collaborative work,” he added.

More privately, some Labour councillors’ initial response has been that other parties need to convince residents to vote for them – and that it cannot be blamed for winning elections.

Cllr Russell was in no mood, however, to row back on her comments and warned that committees were not designed to be packed with members from the same party which had such an overwhelming lead.

Without a change to proportional representation at elections and reform of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, Islington would always be “undemocratic,” she said, adding: “The odds are stacked against smaller parties in a first-past-the-post system.”

She said Labour had won 60 per cent of the vote last time but collected almost 100 per cent of the seats.

Proportional representation is a system in which parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them, while FPTP means only the votes for the winning candidate count.

Cllr Russell accused Labour councillors of being “whipped” into toeing the party line.

“It’s very unlikely that Labour councillors are going to rock the boat – I’m really struggling to think of an example when they’ve asked questions that were difficult for the council to answer,” she said.

“They’re all whipped. Maybe they ask questions that are more difficult for executive members behind the scenes, but that’s not what’s happening in the broadcasted scrutiny meetings.”

Cllr Ozdemir said: “I’ve never been whipped as a councillor and when I’m on scrutiny the whip doesn’t interfere at all with my line of questioning. I’ve felt very free and able to represent my constituents.”

She added that “you’ll see a lot of different opinions” and said: “It’s unrealistic that all 45 councillors agree on the same topics – we have conversations and reach some agreement. We’re not all robots.”

Outside of the Town Hall, the issue of whether Labour’s near total control is healthy – or not – has continued, however.

Campaigners fighting for a standalone women’s building on the Holloway prison site said decisions could have been different had there been a cross-party mix of councillors.

Niki Gibbs, from the Community Plan for Holloway (CP4H) women’s building working group, said Labour had “blinkers on” in regards to the development and said their priority was always social housing at the expense of everything else – a directive which meant councillors were “toeing the line”.

Meanwhile, Cllr Ismail, who switched sides in 2020, said Labour had tried to “shut [her] up” while she was a member whenever she put her head above the parapet on issues. She added it was “impossible” for Labour to scrutinise themselves.

But Cllr Ozdemir said all of this misrepresents how the Town Hall operates. “I don’t think the Labour Party whip would be able to whip me into line, to not be the representative I want to be,” she said.

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