The Sunday Times
9th February 2015
by Camilla Cavendish
Labour closes its eyes and pinches its nose in its rotten boroughs
I ONCE WATCHED, STUNNED, AS A SMILING DEVELOPER HANDED A BROWN ENVELOPE TO A COUNCILLOR IN THE BRIXTON COUNCIL CHAMBER
Tower Hamlets. Rotherham. Doncaster. Birmingham. Most of us thought rotten boroughs had vanished in the 1990s, along with Ted Knight in Lambeth, Shirley Porter in Westminster and Militant Tendency in Liverpool. But they seem to be making a comeback. With some corners of this land beginning to resemble 1960s Chicago, MPs who enjoy making grand speeches about “devolution” would do well to think about what can happen when the political elite loses sight of the reality of some local politics.
Last week’s resignation of Rotherham council’s cabinet comes more than two years after the exposure of its failure to protect as many as 1,400 young white girls from their systematic grooming and rape by men of largely Pakistani origin. This was not an honourable resignation, a recognition of the councillors’ part in an appalling human tragedy. It was forced on them by the government, which has rightly lost patience with people in powerful positions who are still, according to the new report by Louise Casey, “in denial”.
That’s a nice way of putting it. When Rotherham’s Labour council was told by its youth service what was happening, it shut down the youth service. It was warned by school heads that taxi drivers were ferrying very young girls to have sex. Rather than ban drivers, some of whom worked for the council’s home-school scheme, it stymied every attempt to tighten up taxi licensing.
The grim tale of petty rivalries, “misplaced political correctness” and collusion told by Casey, and Professor Alexis Jay before her, has strong echoes of the inquiries into the so-called “Trojan Horse” scandal in Birmingham, where the council ignored warnings that schools were being infiltrated by extremist governors. Rather than stop the bullying of head teachers who refused to impose Islamic values on schools, officers painstakingly penned 28 legal “compromise agreements” — payoffs with gagging clauses — to get rid of staff whom Muslim governors did not like. Officers have since claimed they did not spot a pattern. Frankly, “denial” seems too soft a word.
The malpractices of the 1980s were chiefly financial: taking backhanders from developers, or inflating bills for council work. An internal audit report into Lambeth in the early 1990s found that the council’s 3,000-strong maintenance department had billed millions of pounds of fictitious work and forced council tenants to have “repairs” to gas fires and appliances that were working fine.
I worked with Lambeth, Southwark and other councils in the mid-1990s when I ran a series of regeneration projects. I once watched, stunned, as a smiling developer handed a brown envelope to a local councillor in the Brixton council chamber, late at night after councillors had dismissed my plea to reject a particular planning application. To this day I don’t know what was in the envelope, but the gesture was clear: stuff the voters, we’ll look after you.
Yet that is all beginning to look like a golden age compared with some of today’s machinations. In Tower Hamlets, the mayor, Lutfur Rahman, stands accused of intimidation, misusing public grants, smearing his Labour opponent as a racist “infidel” and stealing votes — all of which he denies. Four local residents have brought a case against him alleging systematic voter fraud, which is being heard by Richard Mawrey, who exposed the Birmingham postal voting scandal.
Good leadership can put things right. Rochdale, just over the Pennines from Rotherham, faced similar problems of sexual grooming. But three years ago the Labour council appointed a new chief executive who confronted the problem and sacked staff, making clear that failure had consequences.
In Rotherham, poor leadership became entrenched. The council was an unaccountable, one-party state. In neighbouring Labour-run Doncaster, after two boys were horrifically tortured by two brothers in 2009 following repeated errors by a social services department that was broken, one social worker described the council to me as “a one-party state left to rot”. These councils escaped challenge: unlike Lambeth, which made significant progress after it went to no overall control in the 1994 elections and appointed a dynamic chief executive.
Quietly but decisively, the coalition government has started to take over some of these failing institutions. In Doncaster and Slough, it has handed child-protection functions to independent trusts, rather as the Blair government successfully relieved Hackney council of its schools. In Rotherham, Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, is appointing government commissioners to run the council until new elections next year.
This is a massive intervention in democratic institutions. But there has been no outcry. For local democracy is getting thinner and thinner. Fewer and fewer people vote in local elections, especially if the outcome is a foregone conclusion. And fewer and fewer MPs sit on local councils. In 1960 about a quarter of British MPs were also local councillors; now it is fewer than 1%. This is at odds with France, Finland and Spain, where most national politicians sit on their local authority. This gives them both a greater stake and more say. Working in Lambeth, I saw how hard the indefatigable MP Kate Hoey had to work sometimes to exert leverage over the council on behalf of voters.
The disconnect between local and national politics has made councils defensive and MPs reluctant to interfere — especially if MPs are reliant on ethnic votes. Four years ago, Jack Straw warned that some men of Pakistani descent viewed “vulnerable young white girls” in some parts of the country as “easy meat”. The MP Keith Vaz attacked him, for “stereotyping”. Birmingham Labour MPs attacked the coalition for appointing an outsider, Peter Clarke, to investigate the Trojan Horse scandal, when their priority should have been to get the truth.
It is Labour’s misfortune that it happens to have a greater presence in areas of high deprivation, compounded by immigration pressures. In Tower Hamlets it expelled Rahman five years ago for his close links to an extremist Muslim group, only to watch him be elected mayor.
These problems go deeper than any one party. But Labour needs the courage to take on its demons as Neil Kinnock did when he attacked Trotskyite infiltrators in Liverpool responsible for “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”.
Louise Casey states that “Rotherham council is a place where difficult problems are not always tackled as they should be. Without accepting what happened and its role in it, it will be unable to move on and change.”
I would be less restrained. I would suggest that wilful, active denial on the scale we saw in Rotherham is a crime. And that there needs to be an urgent debate in the Labour party about whether it, too, is in denial.