Opinion: Camden’s cabinet use ignorance as a powerful tool to suppress and undermine political opposition at its roots.
In observing local affairs in Camden, one is frequently astonished by the astronomical levels of ignorance shown by Camden’s ruling cabinet. It is sometimes so extreme, so absurd, that one is almost convinced that the cabinet’s councillors are actually trying to appear as ignorant and disconnected from reality as possible. How could such ignorant and seemingly imbecilic individuals rise to such positions of power, we ask? How could the political system be so broken, so warped, that such people appear to be completely politically unchallenged?
I was struck recently by a perfect exemplification of this phenomenon. The Camden New Journal reported last week on the protest made by the opposition about Camden’s poor record for street cleanliness. Just over a year ago national statistics revealed Camden to have the second highest level of reported fly tips in the country, with the leader of the opposition making the apt claim that Camden’s streets are ‘paved with rubbish’. Predictably things have only become worse since that time, with complaints from Fortune Green to Seven Dials and everywhere in between being made about piles of bin bags lying uncollected for weeks or even months.
Predictably, the Prince of Ignorance Adam Harrison blocked a review of Veolia’s waste contract, and astonishingly, made the claim that the thrice-yearly review of Veolia’s performance showed ‘good overall performance’.
Now this claim is so patently absurd that I have little doubt it was concocted purely to communicate total indifference to the state of Camden’s streets and contempt of local opposition. Firstly, whatever the official review statistics say, every individual acquainted with Camden knows it has a severe filth problem. Secondly, the review statistics actually show that Veolia has never managed to meet its expectations… and sometimes has been ten times over the limit on individual tests.
There’s no doubt that Adam Harrison knew this when he sold a bare-faced lie to the council and the public. Which begs the question: why are Camden’s cabinet making such an effort to appear completely ignorant of local opposition? Why do they appear so contemptuous of any kind of protest made about any matter, political or not?
What if… that ignorance is no mistake, but is actively being used as a political strategy – a strategy designed to undermine and suppress any kind of opposition to Camden’s cabinet. And that counterintuitively, this is having an oppressive yet quite successful effect upon all of Camden’s communities.
A question we ask time and again is: how exactly do we hold these people to account? It seems as though it is an impossible task. The cabinet have hoarded power, make decisions regardless of ramifications, and ignore opposition. Complaints have no effect. Letters have no effect. Campaigns have no effect. Everything falls upon deaf ears. They are in a world of their own.
Or are they? Perhaps the cabinet are acutely aware of their shortcomings and failures, but are making the very conscious strategic decision to communicate ignorance in order to make us believe that they are politically untouchable. By ignoring complaints, petitions, and protest, it seems as though our protest has no effect, that nothing that we can do will change a thing. The communication of ignorance makes us believe that there is no point in opposition – which makes us protest less, if at all. In turn, that gives the cabinet greater powers to make the changes that they want, and causes Camden’s communities to resign themselves, to give up making a fuss, and to not consider whether their protest really could make a difference.
Perhaps you don’t believe that Camden’s cabinet, something which seems to be utterly contemptuous of public opinion, could care that much about its image. Well, you probably missed one of the CNJ’s best articles, about two years ago revealing friction over council meetings that were actively being stage-managed in order to give the cabinet a platform to boast about their achievements. Labour’s chief whip was actually writing up questions and asking Labour’s councillors to turn up to meetings and ask them, so that Cllr Danny Beales could respond with rehearsed answers.
Quoting from the Camden New Journal: ‘In one email, he said: “I know it can be extremely boring to sit at a meeting and listen to a cabinet member boasting about how good she/he has done… but it helps to create a positive narrative about the Labour administration and the unity of our group.” He had referenced the possibility of journalists reporting the meeting and it being broadcast on Camden’s website.‘
This, I think, opens an incredibly interesting window into the inner workings and clever scheming of Camden’s cabinet – a chink in their armour, if you will. The cabinet are going to quite extreme and absurd lengths to communicate particular messages, planting questions and answers hoping they will be picked up in the Camden New Journal and read by the masses.
The fact that the full council meetings – on paper the most important meetings of all – are being managed primarily to communicate particular messages to the public, shows that the cabinet value their public image very highly.
Which, in my view, means the overwhelming and sometimes absurd ignorance communicated primarily by the cabinet can be no mistake. It is surely a part of their political strategy to appear ignorant and detached.
And it does work. How much confidence do we have in Camden’s opposition to win back seats at the next election, or even topple the current administration? At best, they seem like a very quiet, muffled, even muddled set of voices that occasionally pop up in the Camden New Journal, often with quite clever quips, but it somehow seems empty and pointless. What do the opposition actually ever achieve, in a concrete sense? Do they ever bring legal challenges, form coalitions, defeat the cabinet in votes? Do they ever secure concrete victories? No, of course not. Their opposition is ignored just like ours. The deafening silence from Camden’s cabinet in response to their protest communicates exactly that point – that they are not a credible opposition.
For engaging in a real debate with someone would show that the cabinet admit a weakness, or a failure, and need to defend themselves. To ignore criticism entirely communicates the impression that that criticism is so invalid that it doesn’t even require a response.
Exactly the same strategy is employed by the current Conservative national government. No matter how incisive, how calculated and logical the criticisms levelled at Boris Johnson by Keir Starmer, the PM doesn’t even bother to give a proper answer. No, it’s not because he’s an idiot, it’s because he’s clever, and refusing to engage in debate is the most effective way to invalidate your opponent. When he ran for leader of the Conservatives and PM he used exactly the same strategy – by refusing to engage with the televised debates, he made his opponents just look silly.
The same strategy is employed by Camden’s cabinet at all levels. How many consultations have been ‘rigged’ or just completely ignored, as though they didn’t matter at all? Communities wring their hands – we’re being ignored! they say – don’t our opinions matter? After a few months or even years of protests, being continually ignored takes its toll, and communities give up making a fuss. It makes no difference either way, they say. Which of course is exactly the point. Not only does the silence of resentful communities make implementing changes easier but it further reinforces the belief that the cabinet are untouchable, unaccountable, and that nothing, no matter how concerted, can make a difference.
The Camden New Journal are also being given the same treatment. I have been following John Gulliver and Nick Harding do a thorough investigation of what they call ‘the missing millions’. A debt owed to Camden by a property developer of some millions went uncollected and was eventually lost through what seems to be essentially negligence. Mr Gulliver has written several articles on this controversy now, and in a long article unfortunately not online, he complained about the council’s ‘deafening silence’ on the matter and ‘the hope that the problem will just go away,’ while the cabinet continue refuse to engage in proper discussion but simply repeat the same phrases over and over. But even getting councillors to engage in talking at all took an incredible twelve years.
From day to day, the piles of bin bags on the streets are almost a dystopian symbol of the supreme power of Camden’s cabinet. They can literally pay Veolia hundreds of millions of our own money to shit all over our own homes, then pat them on the back for doing a good job. You can’t even walk five minutes without being reminded of how all-powerful the cabinet are.
This is also perhaps why the cabinet are so obsessed with planning and traffic matters, while shockingly negligent in less visible matters, like public finances and debt collection. Implementing traffic changes has a huge effect upon the population of an area, while tall and ugly buildings also communicate a further message of power and ignorance. Any person from any walk of life – even those living far from Camden – are directly affected by the cabinet’s schemes. While it communicates – in some sense – incompetence, it also communicates power and unaccountability. It is a trade-off balanced in favour of a long political legacy and success at the polls.
Living in the midst of all this, we eventually come to believe that there is literally nothing that can be done. It’s a safe seat, we say. There’s no opposition, we say. But of course, just like any democratic government, the cabinet can be toppled at the elections. The actual powers and accountability of our local government are exactly the same as any other in this country. Why, exactly, cannot Camden’s Labour party be defeated at the polls, come 2022? Even Labour’s most popular councillors achieve at best a mere 10% of voting power. A half-decent campaign and political platform could easily win a majority. It is only our own psychology that holds us back… the widespread belief, engineered by the ruling party, that change cannot happen in any form. That any opposition can simply be ignored, undermined, and invalidated.
Well, as Trump recently discovered, that isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes even a half-baked alternative can be elected, just because people are so fed up with the current state of affairs. In a place as dynamic and volatile as Camden, with people as small and inconsequential as the likes of our current councillors, such a thing could easily happen here too.