Machine politics alive and well at Greenwich council

Save Our ShopsPlease note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.

Last night’s Greenwich council meeting started, appropriately enough, with the Mayor Angela Cornforth announcing that she had turned down a request for the meeting to be filmed.  This comes despite government guidance to the contrary, and despite the main issue on the agenda – the council’s new Pavement Tax on local traders – being one that has probably generated more controversy and public interest than any other in the last year.

After sitting through the meeting that followed in the public gallery, it is little wonder why the Royal Borough’s Labour Mayor – also in the running to be Labour’s new prospective MP for Greenwich & Woolwich – did not want the ruling Labour group’s actions to be filmed yesterday evening.

Despite an effective protest by small traders outside the Town Hall prior to the meeting, their presence in great numbers in the gallery, a 1400+ signature petition, public questions calling for a rethink and a very reasonable motion from the Conservative opposition calling for the Pavement Tax to be scrapped, Labour councillors voted unanimously to oppose its withdrawal.

Most galling of all was an intervention by Labour’s Cllr David Grant, who in a rambling and hostile speech branded traders’ campaign against the Street Trading Licensing Scheme “ridiculous” and a “bandwagon”.  He went on to call the tax being imposed on local traders to continue utilising their pavements – of up to £1,000 – a “modest charge”.  To say there was incredulity amongst the small business owners with whom I was sitting would be an understatement.

I’ve given my arguments against the Pavement Tax on this blog before, which I won’t repeat here.  The view of Labour councillors – many of whom have told traders privately that they want to see it scrapped – was made clear last night in their unanimous vote to keep the tax in place.

Opposition councillors representing traders in the Royal Standard, Eltham, New Eltham, Fiveways, the Coldharbour, Mottingham and other shopping parades in the south of the borough spoke out on their behalf, and voted with their consciences to withdraw the new tax, which is causing real damage to our local economy.  The Mend The Mound campaign that I and my colleagues in Coldharbour & New Eltham ward launched last weekend was highlighted in the chamber as an example of how Conservatives are supporting small businesses in the borough.  By contrast, traders in East and West Greenwich – who have campaigned particularly vociferously against the Pavement Tax – and those in Woolwich were left feeling badly let down by their ward councillors who voted to keep it despite, in some cases, private indications to the contrary.

However, this was far from the last deeply unedifying spectacle of the evening.  Followers of Greenwich politics will have read about the ongoing controversy about what Ed Miliband would call “machine politics” in the local Labour Party.  All of this comes at a time when Labour MP hopefuls are battling it out to become their party’s new candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich – and they have been quick to pile in to demand investigations, change and all the rest of it.

One such MP hopeful, Matt Pennycook, was in the council chamber last night in his capacity as a councillor for Greenwich West.  According to the Independent, he is one of the front runners. It’s perhaps because of brave statements like this that he’s doing so well in his campaign;

When challenged last night to explain his remarks, he sat silently in his seat.  When it came to a vote on two entirely reasonable, non-partisan motions to improve democracy and loosen the grip of “machine politics” on Greenwich council, he stuck his hand up when he was told to and voted, with all the rest of them, for the status quo.  We can only assume that the culture that he has been quick to rail against in 140 characters is clearly so bad that he felt he couldn’t speak up for himself or the change he thinks is needed.

It was awkward to watch, to say the least, and on a human level you might be forgiven for feeling a (brief) prang of sympathy for him – until you remember that this is someone aspiring to represent half this borough in Parliament.  If he can’t stand up for himself in Woolwich Town Hall, how is he going to stand up for Greenwich & Woolwich on the green benches?  Greenwich & Woolwich needs more from its MP than a Twitter feed.

Finally, another brick in the crumbling wall of Greenwich democracy was kicked away at the end of the meeting when the final anti-machine politics motion – calling for a secret ballot in future Leadership elections – was stricken out unilaterally by the Mayor.  I won’t pretend to have fully followed the detailed constitutional debate that ensued – listen to Nigel Fletcher’s remarks for more – but the gist is worrying: the Mayor has established a dangerous precedent and Nigel had every right to challenge her.

It’s not the first time I’ve said this, but if any candidate finds themselves in need of a bit of motivation to knock on more doors, deliver more leaflets and brave the wintry weather to make their case to the voters, they could do worse than putting aside three hours to sit in the gallery for one of these utterly depressing meetings.  No wonder the Labour Party doesn’t want them recorded.