The most preposterous example of Corbynite hubris during the recent borough election campaigns was the notion that Labour would turn the Tories out of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC). Anyone bothering to look at the massive deficits to be overcome in all but a very few Conservative wards could see that Labour was unlikely to gain more than a small handful seats at most and therefore come nowhere near overturning the 24-seat Conservative majority.
In the event, they won just one seat more than in 2014 – when they won three more than they had in 2010 – making the previously split two-seat St Helens ward entirely their own and so completing their domination of the five wards in the north of the borough. That doesn’t tell the whole story: Labour weren’t far behind the Tories at the other end of the borough in Chelsea Riverside ward and they secured a 4.3% swing in their favour across the borough as a whole compared with four years ago. It was not a bad performance. The fact remains, however, that RBKC is still firmly in Tory hands and will be for at least the next four years.
The question now is how the royal borough will be run in the long shadow of Grenfell and all that it has been held to signify. Elizabeth Campbell, who became leader last July following the resignation of Nick Paget-Brown, now has her own mandate and can resume a reform of the workings of the borough in partnership with Barry Quirk, the former chief executive of Lewisham, who stepped in as interim head of paid service at RBKC eight days after the fire and made the move permanent last September.
One problem Campbell has is that many of the newly elected Tory councillors are completely new to the job, given that only 20 of the 37 who held seats before the elections defended them. That hasn’t affected her choice of leadership team, but it does have implications for council scrutiny and the membership and leadership of the council’s various committees. There is talk that Campbell is worried about this lack of experience in her own ranks and could decide that more use should be made of know-how in Labour’s. Doing so could indeed improve the standard of governance at RBKC as well as signalling a more transparent and collegiate approach to running the borough, which might help to address the lack of trust in the council that some residents so clearly feel. Meanwhile, Quirk has been bringing new officers into the borough’s team in an attempt to strengthen service delivery.
Campbell was barracked at her first meeting as leader and ran into trouble when she disclosed that she had never been up any of the borough’s residential tower blocks – a surprising admission from someone who has been a councillor since 2006 and also been cabinet member for family and children’s services. At the time of her elevation to the leadership, another prominent local Tory described Campbell as “a bit of a Chelsea girl”. Yet politicians from other parties have spoken well of her, with one London Labour council leader detecting in her “a genuine commitment to public service”.
Fulfilling that commitment will not be any easier thanks to the politicised climate around so much council activity since Grenfell. It’s worth remembering, therefore, that populist claims that blame for the fire can be laid squarely at the door of the Tories who used to run RBKC and Tory austerity more generally are yet to be backed by solid evidence. Furthermore, the assertion, routinely repeated by some big media outlets and politicians, that “the community” warned the authorities that Grenfell was a fire risk neglects to recognise that the website of the Grenfell Action Group, frequently cited as the authoritative source of such warnings, never made a single mention of the cladding installed around the tower as part of its refurbishment before the fire, let alone any deduction that it was potentially lethal to human life. Claims were made about fire extinguishers and access routes. None were ever made about the cladding.
From huddled positions well below the parapet, people with good knowledge of RBKC affairs are whispering that almost no major decision about the future of the borough can be taken without risking highly-publicised wrath on the part of one local activist group or another, no matter what their precise connection with victims of the fire or how unfounded their allegations. Acting on legitimate residents’ concerns about Grenfell and the borough’s housing stock as a whole should be central considerations of RBKC as it strives to recover credibility. But its councillors have been elected to run the borough, not protesters. Whichever party those councillors are from, they must do their job and do it well.