Claire’s Kober’s decision to step down as a Haringey councillor and step away from the snake pit of Labour politics in the borough had been coming for while. Those of her opponents who’ve greeted it with glee should enjoy their crowing while they can. The first “Corbyn Council” will have big problems on its hands when, as is almost certain, it comes into being in May, some of them even bigger than Kober has faced. Indeed, those new problems have already begun.
London local authorities, especially many Labour ones, have grown adept at fashioning success out of adversity. Eight years of cut after cut to borough budgets has obliged council leaders to adapt or atrophy, to innovate or stagnate, to improvise or decline. For them, the fragile, the disadvantaged, and that widening range of people struggling with housing costs are not abstract problems to be solved by purifying applications of ideology but real human beings whose hopes of having better lives significantly depend on their local council not only holding things together but attracting new investment, drawing in new resources and doing things in different ways. It’s either that or grumble and do little. What, then, will the Corbyn Council do?
A good first step would be for its architects and their supporters to stop kidding themselves and trying to kid everybody else. For those of us old enough to recall the 1980s, during which several boroughs were led by politicians from what we might now call the Corbyn Left, encounters with Kober’s activist nemeses and the ardent saucepan-bangers of the anti-HDV campaign have been like surreal journeys back in time.
In that political niche market, whose sales personnel claim now represents the mainstream, core characteristics are unaltered: the single-issue obsessions and feuds; the rule book pedantry; the recourse when under pressure to obfuscation, moral blackmail, intellectual bullshit, condescension and denial; the absurd self-importance of calling stopping the HDV a victory for “the resistance”; the presumptuousness of proclaiming what they’ve achieved as representing the Will Of The People.
When even the daftest puppy dog on Turnpike Lane knew that Haringey Momentum and their non-Labour allies were lobbying, leafleting and phone banking for all they were worth to turf out sitting councillors who back the HDV, local leading lights were piously insisting to anyone outside their circle that no such thing was happening. The “quality” liberal media have been complicit in all this, some say a formative influence. One defender of Kober has described them as having been “played like a fiddle”. That is exactly right.
Now that Momentum and other Kober critics have got what they want, they would be wise to lift their gaze to what is coming down the track. The next fall of the funding axe is but one of the challenges they will face. Rumours of council officers and other employees eyeing employment elsewhere and of potential private sector investors having second thoughts are only to be expected when an untested administration-in-waiting is already being written up in the Tory press as a test bed for poisonous extremism. But some of those rumours appear well-sourced. A flight of talent and capital would not make life any easier for the “grassroots” insurgents.
Neither would a fractious contest to succeed Kober as leader, which some contend has been brewing below the radar for a while. Councillors Peray Ahmet, Noah Tucker, Zena Brabazon and deputy leader Joseph Ejiofor are often mentioned. But whoever gets the job will need to be mindful that whatever virtues his or her policy programme may have, they will go unnoticed by the wider world if the administration overall is seen as self-indulgent and inept. Accusations of “gesture politics” against those Labour Left boroughs of four decades ago were harder to brush off because many of the high profile politicians in charge appeared incapable of running a bath.
Kober’s case for the HDV was and remains that the social and economic transformation of stubbornly poor parts of her borough could not come about without a major physical transformation, and that the only way to achieve that was to bring council land and property together with the financial power and expertise of a big private developer. The case can be argued either way, but what is not in doubt – certainly not in the minds of other senior local government figures – is that Kober is an individual of dynamic competence who had her ideas fully worked out.
There is no inherent reason why the next, very different, Haringey Labour council cannot also pursue a clear-minded vision in effective ways. But to do that it will need to jettison or temper ideas rooted only in doctrine that would fray on contact with reality.
The in-sourcing of services, for example, so religiously espoused in the personal manifestos of Momentum-backed councillor candidates, is not outlandish in principle at all, but needs to be approached with costs and outcomes in mind, not the mere enactment of anti-privatisation dogma. The empowerment of communities is a good objective too, but that has to mean communities as a whole, not just those within them with loud voices you agree with. Gentrification, the boo-word of the, dare I say it, Zombie Protest Left is well underway in the poor parts of Haringey as property market forces in a fast-growing city have their inevitable effects. These are not all malign. The trick is to harvest them for the common good.
Weird as it may seem, there is a comparison to be made between the coming advent of the Corbyn Council and Boris Johnson’s election as London Mayor in 2008. Johnson’s first mayoralty was seen as a foretaste of a possible Conservative national government under David Cameron. It is important to note that nothing close to what has happened in Haringey has happened anywhere else in London but, even so, the next political bosses of the Civic Centre will be studied as minutely as the contents of a petrie dish for germs of a prospective Corbyn Labour government.
Were I the Labour leader, I would make it very plain to my disciples in Crouch End, Noel Park and so on that they need to shape up for the realities of power. Johnson’s first months were chaotic, yet forgiven as integral to the charm of Brand Boris. The nation’s first Corbyn Council would not be so indulged.