It wasn't my intention to go all Gordon Brown on the relatively small but loyal readership of this blog, but the temptation to deliver a New Year's message of sorts, especially to my own colleagues in the Independent Community Group and to other like-minded individuals, turned out to be too much.
Last night four of Hounslow's six community councillors and several other ICG members saw in the New Year at a party at Isleworth's Royal British Legion. There were about 150 people there and a really fun time was had by all. There was a lot of dancing, a lot of socialising and, when the clock struck twelve, a lot of sincere affection being exchanged all around.
Although "politics", thankfully, formed no part of the occasion I was struck once again by the real spirit of togetherness that exists these days in our community. There was, for me, an unspoken sense of purpose about the whole gathering. As always we activists were all made to feel extremely welcome by everybody there and there was for us a very tangible feeling of belonging, and of generally being at the centre of the whole experience.
Now, as the music fades and the drinks wear off, the realisation kicks in that we have now arrived at 2010, or it with us, and May 6th is standing there before us like a wall as we hurtle relentlessly towards it.
As I indicated on this blog almost a year ago the outcome of that contest is probably less clear to us than others had been on previous occasions. In 1998, 2002, 2006 the dynamic was simple - win as many seats as we can, and wait for New Labour's consistently diminishing majority to slump into deficit. Then - hopefully - coalition.
This time there are a number of possible scenarios to consider. The unlikely, but technically possible, return of an overall New Labour majority. Or, the emergence of an overall Conservative majority. In a sense both these scenarios are easy ones for us in that, other than winning the wards we contest, there is really little we can do to prevent either. Any overall majority means that we are out of office.
In Labour's case it will almost inevitably mean a return to the bad old ways as, other than for the party's probably reluctant support for our Community Empowerment motion in July 2009, there is little to suggest that the essential mindset has changed. In the case of an all-out Conservative majority I would guess we would have an administration which single-mindedly prioritised low tax, with a structure fairly much like the one we have today with the possible exception of some budget-driven reductions in personnel.
I hope I don't need to spell out, therefore, why it necessary for voters throughout Hounslow to think more cleverly and more strategically than ever before. The great irony of the current administration is that it has been stronger, and more purposeful, than previous ones in spite of the fact that it has been managed by a minority coalition. Every councillor's vote is at times important and on occasions Groups of three or even two have had a recognisable role to play in shaping events.
In May 2006 the ICG emerged as part of the coalition that assumed office in Hounslow. I still believe that to have been the correct decision for us to take. Having campaigned in our localities for change it would have been a shameful betrayal of our constituents, when offered an opportunity to help make that change, not to have done whatever we could to bring it about.
When we entered into coalition we formed a partnership with an organisation which was vastly bigger than ours, even locally in a borough-wide sense and which, although the individuals involved were new to running a local authority as we were, could call upon the vast reservoir of knowledge and expertise that existed within its own organisation in the persons of those that had been there before.
When one bears that in mind we did not play our negotiating hand too badly. We achieved political if not organisational buy-in for our Empowerment agenda. The changes we introduced in the once heavily politicised arena of our Housing operation received the total backing of our partners. We were even able to secure support for a limited programme of New Build. We have had a more or less free hand to implement a powerful community-driven agenda in the wards we represent, and where there has been resistance our numerical superiority on the local Area Committee has seen it off.
Where in my role as Leader I may have let people down is by not tying the coalition down to timescales. There has without any question been a twin-track approach to the respective programmes of the two coalition partners with the low-tax, cost-cutting agenda racing full-throttle from day one and the empowering agenda being sometimes humoured, sometimes frustrated - but always operating in first gear. Some will call me naive, but I honestly do not believe that our coalition partners were actively complicit in this. I am of the firm view that the goodwill was there, and that it was by a sin of omission rather than commission that the corporate council was allowed - at first furtively but now very blatantly - to resist the culture change that we had been mandated by our electors to make.
Our own hope is obviously that, once the votes have been counted, we will once again be in a position in which the coalition option will be available to us. Whether or not other Groups will be prepared to go into coalition with us is of course a question that only they can answer, but a successful coalition can only ever be built upon mutual respect and respect is only ever given to those who stand up for themselves and politely but firmly defend their corner.
There have been some unhelpful mumblings about this or that Group being prepared to enter into coalition with some community councillors (whom for whatever reason they deem to be malleable) but not with their colleagues. Talks with any Group which attempts this stunt will terminate very abruptly indeed.
But we ought not to get ahead of ourselves. Before we even consider what our role may be after May there are elections to be fought. We don't fear any of our opponents but neither must we take them or, more importantly, the voters for granted. We need to fight if we are to win.
From what I saw at the election meeting in Isleworth a couple of weeks back there need be no worries about our appetite for the fight, nor about our ability to win it. We are considerably bigger, stronger and more sophisticated than we were when we won six seats in 2006 and the political climate is more favourable to us. But we still have to do the work and there must be no slacking.
Happy New Year.