“To get the message across that Hounslow falls too far short of what we all expect as councillors and residents the whole organisation is being reshaped from the top downwards - slimming down the lardy top tiers and testing Directors and Assistant Directors against their peers through competitive interviews with external as well as internal candidates. There's a new Chief Executive, one Department and three chief officers have already gone and the rest including the much mentioned Director of Environment will be leaving within a couple of months. Understanding that Hounslow has to listen to local residents, respond to the needs of the community and pull its proverbial socks up is a key requirement in every one of those interviews - hence the changing personnel…
“None of the above should dissuade residents from continuing to press for change and faster improvement - external pressure is essential. Just don't assume Hounslow is inert and unredeemable. I don't think anyone has a lower opinion of what Hounslow became, but that doesn't mean it can't be fixed…
“I think the overwhelming majority of councillors and residents are now agreed that Hounslow needed fixing and are keen to support meaningful steps to open up the council - the days for one party states and arrogant bureaucracies are gone.
“Being beaten in 2006 helped remind Labour members that most of them came into politics to make their communities stronger and better - hence a little more modesty, the willingness to work a little harder, focus on a limited number of practical priorities and to slim down, open up and transform the council. Self interest will continue to help – because doing nothing promises to see 2006 repeated.
“I recognise that Labour were appalling (it kept me out of local politics for two decades) and we are yet to be coherent on community engagement, but I don't think a bold new statement would be worth anything at the moment because there’s nothing for anyone to trust yet until we see something tangible delivered – I think Labour and the Council need to pay a lot more forward not make promises. And at the moment let's be frank, it is a struggle every day to get good stuff delivered by the Council – but perhaps surprisingly it is a challenge Labour members are now very much up for.”
These words from Theo Dennison, Labour ward councillor for Syon and former London Borough of Hounslow Cabinet member, certainly leave no room for charges of ambiguity. Even if, taking the unkindest and most cynical view, one was to dismiss his words as lacking sincerity, they still tell us that at least one person within the local Labour camp recognises the concerns felt by large sections of the community and understands that ignoring them is the surest and fastest route back to political Boot Hill.
This in itself, small and inconsequential though it may appear in isolation, is the local community equivalent of One Giant Step for Mankind. Councillor Dennison has already gone where no Labour councillor, in these parts at least, has gone before.
I keep being asked whether or not the Independent Community Group (ICG) will be fielding candidates again at the local elections in 2014. The honest truth is that this will not be my decision to make, and to be equally honest I am really pleased that that is the case. It truly is an extremely difficult decision to make, and there are so many imponderables involved that those who will be entrusted with making it will not be able to do right for doing wrong.
Of course, as the party in power, the attitude of the local Labour Party is always a massive consideration. Councillor Dennison’s comments are very much noted. So too is the fact that none of his colleagues seem in any rush to endorse them, as indeed is that, coincidentally or otherwise, they would appear to have coincided with his demotion from the Council’s Cabinet.
It is difficult to see certain long-standing councillors not a million miles from Syon embracing the idea of the primacy of community, primacy that is over the diktats of a political party to which blind and unquestioning allegiance is for some almost a religious matter.
There are also pernicious outside influences that need to be factored into the equation. Perusing his Facebook page, far too much influence would still appear to be wielded over the politics of the Hounslow party by the peculiar and obsessive man-child of Southall. I’ll not massage his ego by mentioning his name – it is not him that is important, but the way in which others relate to him and, more significantly still, to his method. His ethics are the antithesis of everything Councillor Dennison would appear to stand for, and a cursory stroll around the Web would seem to indicate that his gutter politics approach is still very much more widely favoured by Labour decision-makers in Hounslow than that of the Syon councillor.
The old ways have in any event continued to manifest themselves on occasions. Just recently the Lead Member for Environment declined to meet the Mogden Residents’ Action Group (MRAG), a community group representing many thousands of victims of Thames Water’s neglect of its legal and moral obligations over the odour emanating from its Mogden plant, unless the residents agree to meet on his terms (that is in the presence of officers who have long demonstrated their lack of support for the community’s aspirations). This “we are in charge, not you” message is wholly inconsistent and incompatible with the resident-driven model that we desire to see.
One thing the ICG needs to accept is that if it abstains from the fray in 2014, it will find it much harder to come back in 2018 if that is what needs to be done. The effective Lab/ICG dichotomy which exists at present in both Isleworth and Syon wards will have been replaced once again by a Lab/Con dichotomy, and the organised community will have an uphill struggle trying to re-establish itself as the natural opposition to Labour. New residents will have moved in, old supporters will have moved out or passed away, and we will be back to where we were prior to 1998.
Thus if we are to place our trust in Labour we would need very good reason – with all due respect, far more than just Councillor Dennison’s rather optimistic word – to believe that the local party had taken real community empowerment to the heart of its politics rather than appending it to its schedule as some reluctant afterthought which itself would appear to be hotly disputed. To put it quite simply, if they are not going for it with enthusiasm now when the spectre of the ICG returning to the electoral fold is looming, why should they do so four years hence when that “threat” is less pressing?
I find myself wondering just to what extent Councillor Dennison actually believes that his local party is embracing the spirit of community empowerment. He must, after all, know his colleagues better than I do, and I know them well enough to know just how affronted some of them will be by the very thought of being led, as opposed to followed, by the massed ranks of the unenlightened.
His protestations could be indicative of his fierce loyalty to his colleagues. My feeling is that he is in fact, rather cleverly, leading them to a place where they will be left with no option other than to declare either for or against this new and, perhaps unsurprisingly in my view, better approach to engagement. Quite where he proposes to go should they cling obstinately to type remains anyone’s guess.
Of course it is not just Labour’s position that will inform the ICG’s decision. The Community Group needs to understand just what it is that it would be returning to. For councillors who have only experienced power and not opposition a rude awakening could be in store.
The fact is that even with six ICG councillors returned in Syon and Isleworth it is highly likely that Labour will hold an overall majority at the London Borough of Hounslow post-2014. With the coalition government out of favour and the local Conservative Party showing no obvious signs of ever being capable of differentiating between wishful thinking and cold reality it is easy to see several Tory seats in the west of the borough falling to Labour. Even traditional “strongholds” such as Hounslow South and Osterley & Spring Grove do not look particularly safe. A couple of bad weeks in the opinion polls and an unspectacular local election campaign could conceivably see them eliminated outside of their W4 comfort zone. Perhaps only then will the consequences of their idiotic behaviour during the later months of the Conservative/ICG coalition become fully apparent to all their own members and supporters.
Opposition is a place that bears no comparison with office, especially when you are a community councillor. It means going through the motions at Council meetings before inevitably being voted down. It means chief executives cutting you off after three minutes of your allotted five minute speech in the Chamber. It means officers passing you in the corridors of the Civic Centre and not daring to venture a smile or often even so much as an acknowledgement lest it be spotted by an eagle-eyed politico and held against them when the next round of redundancies comes around. It means any committees or panels that by accident of circumstance your group may dominate being closed down or “reorganised” in such a way that your influence is removed. I had eight years of it before 2006, I’m not persuaded that I would want to put myself through it again.
And then of course there is the question of our relationship with other opposition parties and groups. When I was first elected as an independent in 1998 I rather enjoyed my status as a lone wolf, loathed equally by both the major parties which competed with one another to be seen as the ones who could shun me the most publicly. Politically it couldn’t have worked better if I had written the script myself – voters everywhere were able to contrast the essential sameness of both sides of the political establishment with the new, fresh and vibrant approach to local politics that the ICG represented.
Then of course came 2006, and the discovery when totting up the scores on the doors following the local election of that year that we were really not so bad after all. We entered into coalition eager to run our programme for community empowerment alongside the political programme of our Conservative partners, believing them to be at least neutral if not particularly sympathetic towards the things we wished to achieve.
Later of course we were to be disappointed, finding ourselves frustrated by chief officers while our partners either stood back and watched or actively collaborated with them behind the scenes (perm one from two), with both establishment parties meanwhile openly making common cause against us at Area Committee meetings. Then followed the debilitating news that our partners were hoping to divide the Community Group following the local elections of 2010 in the event of the numbers making it feasible to offer coalition terms only to certain of our councillors (variously considered – wrongly in my view - to be either mercenary, or easy to flatter or manipulate), and all remaining trust was lost.
Ultimately we were to be fatally caught in a pincer movement between the two major parties at those elections and none of us were returned to office in any case.
In the unlikely event of any community councillors from Isleworth and Syon holding the balance of power again following the 2014 elections we would of course find ourselves in a wholly different position to that of 2006. In such circumstances we may be reduced to playing the role of an outspoken but very small opposition to an effective two party dictatorship, just as was the case in fact on the Isleworth & Brentford Area Committee between 2002 and 2005.
When one considers the complexity of the decisions that we will be faced with in the very near future it is hopefully easy to understand why I am relieved that these decisions will be for others to take. What the ICG should be doing right now is canvassing the views of the active community and finding out precisely what it is that they want us to do.