I watched the webcast of the all-important meeting of Borough Council on Tuesday night, where the annual budget for the London Borough of Hounslow for the financial year 2011/12 was set.
Actually I watched most of the meeting. Having planned to watch the whole thing I initially forgot about it, perhaps betraying my declining interest in some of these things, and tuned in at about 8.15. My guess is that the substantive debate would have begun about fifteen minutes or so before that time.
My first sense was one of amusement not only at how seamlessly the poachers had apparently morphed into the gamekeepers, but at how equally untroubled the former gamekeepers seemed to be in playing the role of poachers.
During the Conservative/ICG administration of 2006-2010 (the last eighteen months or so of which could more accurately have been described as the Conservative/Chief Officer administration due to the fact that unelected employees were quite shamefully permitted to engage in open warfare with the junior partner in the coalition) the Labour opposition criticised the administration for making cuts to services, and the administration would defend its savings on the grounds of necessity. Now the roles were reversed, and the Conservative opposition lobbied passionately for the retention of essential frontline services such as the Chiswick Day Centre whilst the Labour leadership flitted between making light of the closure of such facilities for the vulnerable and blaming the government for making them do it.
Some of the faces were familiar. Councillor Adrian Lee, now Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group, can be relied upon to amuse and entertain whilst delivering his damning verdict about the shortcomings of "the party opposite". Councillor Gerald McGregor always does angry and indignant very well. Some references to the shameful closure of John Aird House in Brentford during the previous Labour administration of 2002-2006 had Labour reeling for a while, and the Deputy Leader of the Council Ruth Cadbury made a brave but wholly unconvincing defence of this particularly callous decision. For all their protestations about being there for the poor and needy the record in Hounslow shows quite clearly that said poor and needy are more likely to be picked off by a Labour administration that takes advantage of their vulnerability and relative defencelessness than by any other.
But I also sensed that not only had Labour regrouped and taken back "control" of the local authority, but also that the Group had much more about it than it had during its days in opposition. It had more professionalism, more competence, and exuded more of an authority than it had done during those (for them) lean and chaotic times.
More than this, to me it exuded more of a sense of responsibility. It was visibly less arrogant than it had been during those bad old days, when it had seemed to preen itself with its belief that it was in opposition solely because the electorate had lacked the sophistication, wit and intelligence to recognise the party's higher being and its general wonderfulness.
The Mayor handled the meeting very well, and fairly too, giving the opposition every chance to engage. The Leader of the Council, Jagdish Sharma, is always gentlemanly and magnanimous in his delivery. As I have said elsewhere, I was particularly impressed by Isleworth ward councillor Ed Mayne, whose frequent contributions were made with a confidence and coolness that belied his age and inexperience as he accepted and generally fended off the challenge from some quite senior Conservatives. I don't know if it sounds perverse of me to say this in the light of the fact that he won one of "our" seats in Isleworth, but I felt a strange sense of pride in the fact that an Isleworth councillor was performing so well. It is my view that Ed may well be leading the Labour Group in the not too distant future, that is if he doesn't go onto higher things before he gets the opportunity.
Comfortable in Opposition
My endearing memory though is of how comfortable, some would say natural, the Conservatives looked in opposition. They are invariably a good opposition, always challenging and probing, some of them making their case with eloquence and finesse. I have been taken to task for saying it before but I repeat my belief that many of them would appear happier being the minority party on a council comprising only "proper" councillors than they were when having to share power with a group of interlopers from the community who had dared to gatecrash the cosy set-up that had existed before the ICG kicked its way onto the scene. In this outlook they and Labour actually have a lot in common.
In a strictly local context the Labour councillors seem to understand already that the secret to their continued success lies in engaging and trying to win around the hardcore active community that abandoned their predecessors for the ICG, not without good reason I should add, in most cases probably a decade or so ago. Meanwhile said predecessors continue to try to undermine their efforts via the local internet forums, betraying a bitterness towards Labour's new kids on the block that almost equals their bitterness towards us.
These are interesting times. I don't envy the task of the current administration as it looks to find the £42m that it still needs to chop from the budget over the next three years in order to meet the shortfall from central government funding.
Far from being the irritant that some of our politicians would seem to consider it, the community has a more important role than ever to play in ensuring that the administration resists the temptation to look to our libraries and community facilities for some of that saving. If our new crop of politicians want to work with us, rather than against us, in that endeavour then the imperative for us to want to take their seats and do the job ourselves diminishes.