Published: 12th May, 2011
by RICHARD OSLEY
CAMDEN’S Labour Party is at its most divided since winning control of the Town Hall after councillors fell out over the ousting of its deputy leader.
They have traded abusive messages, with one member telling two colleagues to “go f*ck themselves” in the days following the group’s tinderbox annual general meeting last Wednesday.
On one internet site, members quarrelled with apparently little attempt to conceal their frustration. At least three Labour councillors are understood to have used pen-names to post messages online about each other and there are appeals from within the group to calm down the tone of their argument before it escalates.
At the core of the dispute is the dismissal of Angela Mason from the cabinet of 10 councillors who have the final say on council policy and the role of deputy leader.
Her removal, by an internal vote, has been seen as a move by rebels to show their dissatisfaction at the way Labour has handled its first year back in power in Camden – and a warning shot to other senior councillors.
The leadership has been warned informally by critics that they need to spend more time listening to the views and concerns of backbenchers.
Privately, Cllr Mason’s opponents within the group say she gave a greater audience to chief officers and her removal from the deputy leadership comes after weeks – and months – of disputes over the council’s stance on the High Speed 2 rail link, the possibility of a new school south of Euston Road and Camden’s plans to build offices for staff in King’s Cross.
As the New Journal revealed last week, Cllr Mason lost the “sustainability” portfolio after being challenged for the job by Gospel Oak councillor Sean Birch at last Wednesday’s meeting.
Once that vote was lost, she was no longer holding a cabinet portfolio and could not carry on as the group’s deputy leader. This role was taken by Holborn councillor Sue Vincent.
Although rumours of what might happen at the meeting had been buzzing in council circles for several weeks, the decision to send Cllr Mason to the backbenches still came as a shock to her supporters.
Admirers felt her CV of political campaigning would count in her favour. For good or bad, Cllr Mason had formed a reputation within the group of working closely with chief officers and deputising for leader Nasim Ali.
The leader, who was not challenged for his own position, said: “Angela has done a tremendous amount of work for Camden and I thank her for all she has done.
“She did this when Camden was facing the toughest challenges it ever had with £90million of cuts to contend with, ordered by this Tory-led government.
“In the Labour Party we have a democratic vote to choose cabinet members and so it is the decision of the group. I think as a party we have to look at how we communicate within the group.
“We have been firefighting for our first year because of the cuts and had to spend more time in external briefings than internal briefings. We will make sure all members are part of our vision for the next three years.”
In other changes to the group, education chief Councillor Heather Johnson was replaced by another Gospel Oak councillor, Larraine Revah.
Outgoing Mayor Jonathan Simpson failed with several attempts to win a cabinet post, most notably his effort to oust crime safety supremo Abdul Hai. And those cabinet councillors who survived challenges from within the group only did so by one or two votes, not considered a ringing endorsement of their first year in charge of key posts.
Members went for a friendly drink after the meeting, with some toasting the democratic way the new cabinet had been formed.
But behind the scenes, a bitter divide has developed. The New Journal identified one internet user, with the pen-name “insulted backbencher”, who had told two of his colleagues to “f*ck yourself” in an online discussion on the merits of the changes.
The serving Labour councillor told the New Journal it was a sign of the stress within the group and anger at the way some members felt they had been cut out of the loop on key decisions.
The councillor agreed the words could have been more carefully chosen but said lots of councillors used fruity language during tense internal debates.
Cllr Ali said: “If somebody tells me who has been leaving these messages and it is one of our councillors then I will take action. The thing with blogs and Twitter is that people post things anonymously. If they have concerns they should say them openly and let us respond.”