Monday, 14 May 2012

What did for Ann John?

From the Save Preston Library 'Wall of Shame'
As the dust settles on the Brent Council leadership changes it is worth reflecting on the reasons behind the ousting of Ann John and what it means for the future.

The libraries issue, both the closures and the redevelopment of the Willesden Green Centre, has been the most contentious aspect of Council policy. The presentation as 'transformation' rather than closure; the labelling of opponents as self-interested, unrepresentative and middle class; the ignoring of petitions; the suggestion that cheap books were readily available at Tesco; all riled local citizens and the energetic and resourceful campaigners kept the issue in the local press and crucially on the national media agenda.

Nationally, Brent Labour's library policy became an embarrassment for the Labour leadership. Brent's policy was at odds with Ed Miliband's public opposition to library closures and shadow culture minister, Dan Jarvis's championing of the public library service. Ken Livingstone, Barry Gardiner MP and Navin Shah were all local Labour politicians who distanced themselves from Brent Council's policy.

Privately back-bench Labour councillors spoke about their opposition to the closures but confessed themselves powerless and some Executive members had reservations but were bound by collective responsibility not to oppose openly.

So a combination of a personal and presentational style that alienated the public and a political control that brooked no internal opposition, backed by a close personal and political alliance with Gareth Daniel the Chief Executive that insisted there was no alternative, all contributed to Ann John's demise. Of course the libraries issue was not the only one that divided the local party. The possibility of the council entering into a partnership to open a free school in the borough and acquiescence in academy conversions reveals a similar pattern with the leadership-officer combo arguing that 'there is no alternative' being opposed by some Labour party members on political grounds.

The problem with Muhammed Butt's succession is that he has been closely identified with Ann John as her deputy leader and, although his personal style may be more open and friendly and his presentation of policy less aggressive, his actual policies may be little different. He is likely to have a more collegiate relationship with his colleagues but a lot will depend on the experience, strength and stance of the new Executive. Will they be more independent of officers and more open to debate and persuasion?

Perhaps most importantly is the question of the administration's attitude to cuts in local services. There have been differences of emphasis about the impact with the Labour Council at first arguing that their cuts had been made in such a clever way that they would not harm residents but latterly pointing to the massive cuts in local government funding, combined with central government cuts and welfare reform, that would seriously damage the quality of life of many local people.

Muhammed Butt's views on the cuts are best accessed by reading his budget speech which is available on his blog HERE

In his leadership acceptance speech Butt said that building unity across the borough would strengthen its capacity to take on the fight against Coalition cuts. The political question is about the nature of that fight. With the Labour Party enjoying some success at the polls and the Coalition increasingly unpopular, will Brent Labour be pushing for a mass campaign against the cuts and be prepared to refuse to implement them when the damage to local people is intolerable?. Will that stance be backed by Labour nationally?

I would like to be proved wrong but  am afraid that the answer to both questions is 'No'.

We may see more efforts at dialogue with residents, mollification rather than vilification of campaigners and some minor concessions perhaps on volunteer run libraries, but little change in the overall direction of council policies.


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