Sutton councillor calls for “all-out war” on the Tories

Croydon politics may be a red-blue duopoly but next door in Sutton, the LibDems have just completed 25 years in charge. Here, Sutton councillor LESTER HOLLOWAY outlines his progressive approach to the national government coalition and the 2014 local elections

It’s been two years since Liberal Democrats in Sutton bucked the national and London trends by storming to victory over the Conservatives.

The result made local bigwigs the toast of the town with colleagues around Britain eager to find out the secret of Sutton’s success. So what is it like now, two years on and more than halfway through the council “term”?

Before I get on to this, a bit about my own experiences.

I remain at the foothills of the local government pyramid as a backbencher but I’m not bitter about it; this is the nature of politics, and I value my politics over personal advancement. This has been my motto for 20 years, half of which was spent writing in the “black press”, including as editor of the New Nation newspaper.

As well as being active in my ward of Sutton North, and fully participating in council committees, I have joined the board of Liberal Left – an organisation that wants to pull out of the Coalition and develop dialogue with other progressives in politics. And I am also involved with a race equality task force set up by Nick Clegg to fill a policy vacuum on these issues. I write a blog for the Local Government Association, have spoken numerous times on radio and at public events.

Many people are “invited in” to become councillors, which partly explains why local government remains stubbornly undiverse. I invited myself in, having been inspired by Barack Obama’s speech, made on the campaign stump in 2008, when he spoke about giving back to society.

In Sutton, Liberals recently celebrated 25 years of political control. There are many “old hands” on the council, including Lord Tope, who was a councillor back in the 1970s. My ward colleague Ruth Dombey recently stepped up from deputy to leader, replacing Sean Brennan who had successfully completed a full decade in the hot seat. Jill Whitehead, elected in 2010, is chair of the new Environment and Neighbourhoods Committee. Graham Tope, John Drage and Kirsty Jerome are no longer on the front bench.

Lester Holloway: local politics can be about finding solutions to problems, not imposing a manifesto

It’s perhaps too early to judge what this means. What it should provide is a reinvigoration of Sutton Libdemmery, marrying the “old ways” of connecting with the public and running the council – that have been so successful for a quarter of a century – with a more modern approach needed for the immense challenges ahead.

Sutton’s demographics are changing rapidly and the overall state of the LibDems nationally means the 2014 local elections will be particularly hard. The party’s superb performance in the Worcester Park by-election will have given Liberals heart, but they will have to watch Labour – which is flickering into life again – and do more to appeal to the commuter class, especially those who have only recently settled in the borough.

I’m probably in a minority of one on this, but I think local LibDems need to distance themselves from Westminster and embark on an all-out war on the Tories, our main opponents. Sutton Tories are a pretty clueless lot, so we should not let the coalition hold us back in putting plenty of clear blue water between us and them.

After 25 years in control, there are still plenty of policy ideas coming forward – the recent Environment and Neighbourhoods Committee alone debated starting a new food waste recycling service and getting Chelsea Football Club to help reduce school absenteeism.

The challenge is to sell a new vision to local residents. Not just greener and fairer, but more radical in reducing costs to the public in these austere times. Sharing more backroom administration with neighbouring boroughs, more use of social enterprises to deliver services and facilitating collective bargaining to reduce household bills.

A genuinely futuristic approach to the internet would see the civic centre “opened up” with genuine interactivity with officers and councillors, allow instant monitoring of budgets and encourage the public to vote on spending choices on project A or B after hearing both sides of the argument. This process should be supplemented with strongly empowering Local Committees to decide what gets spent in their neighbourhood.

As we enter the second half of the four-year council term, it is time to sell a clear vision of the “New Sutton LibDems”, not just giving people more power but tapping their creativity to find solutions to problems. Setting goals for helping the poorest in society and working with agencies to make Sutton a beacon for starting new businesses and social enterprises.

And communicating this is a very human way. Not force-feeding people a “manifesto”, but bringing to life the direction of travel and what it means to them personally. But hey, what do I know, I’m just a humble backbencher!

  • Lester Holloway writes regularly on his local blog, and on general issues here. And you can follow him on Twitter: @suttongoingon
  • Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon. Not from Redhill.
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3 Responses to Sutton councillor calls for “all-out war” on the Tories

  1. Many thanks Lester for a stimulating article. I like your style!

    Your article has prompted a number of confessions and thoughts which I’d like to share.

    I welcome this insight into Sutton’s politics. Historically, I – like most Croydon residents, have paid very little attention to Sutton. However, given the Westminster constituency boundary changes, it’s no longer the case that Croydon constituencies all lie within our borough boundaries. The two new constituencies (Purley & Carshalton, Croydon Central & St Helier) will incorporate both Croydon and Sutton wards.

    Given the new cross-borough Westminster constituencies, Croydon and Sutton voters need to be aware of what both Councils are up to.

    Your article also prompts a comparison of Croydon and Sutton councils. I have a few friends in Sutton and we occasionally compare notes on how our respective councils operate. My Sutton friends have their gripes with Sutton Council. However, there does seem to be a very real cultural difference between the two councils.

    Alas, Croydon seems to be a rather haughty council that thinks it always knows best. For people in Croydon, the term “council consultation” has become a source of great mirth. Sutton Council seems to be far less obsessed with spin and PR – whereas for Croydon Council the PR effort often seems to be an end goal in its own right. Although Sutton Council makes its fair share of mistakes, it seems to be much more effective at execution than Croydon.

    Sutton wins hands down on an issue that I feel very passionately about – grassroots democracy. Sutton has nurtured community groups called “Local Committees”, which meet 6 times a year. Crucially, Sutton gives the Local Committees real money to spend on local priorities – £500k in the last financial year. Croydon Council, in complete contrast, scrapped its Neighbourhood Partnerships – its grassroots’ democracy network. Instead, Croydon replaced them with so called “question times” where voters were supposed to be able to discuss issues with senior councillors. Alas, the question times are insipid, infrequent and afflicted with Croydon’s curse of PR spin. They simply pay lip service to grassroots democracy.

    Hopefully, you will write for InsideCroydon again. Croydon residents are keen to learn about what’s happening in their immediate neighbour. Hopefully, our haughty council might even deign to nick some of Sutton’s good ideas!

  2. jonathanrose says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write, Lester!

    I won’t reiterate what Croydonsfuture has already articulated re: the purging of local residential groups in the borough of Croydon, the complete shambles that passes for “council consultation”, and general disdain for grassroots democracy but I would like to briefly opine about your own vision for Sutton, and your radical break from historic ‘best practices’.

    In Croydon, we are lumbered with a council (and broader political class) that seem to be devoid of a cohesive narrative or an inspiring vision. Married with this is Opposition(s) who seem content to critique single issues, but themselves are unable to clearly articulate grand solutions. As a result we seem to have a situation of the “blind leading the blind”.

    By contrast, your vision for Sutton is bold – particularly in its unapologetic radicalism. The Green agenda bores me, so I am glad to see you looking towards fresher expressions of ‘radicalism’ particularly:

    “Sharing more backroom administration with neighbouring boroughs, more use of social enterprises to deliver services and facilitating collective bargaining to reduce household bills…”

    All these things will put you in good stead, and although I would be surprised to see them come to fruition in by 2014, a broad commitment to them will certainly shape local govt for the next decade.

    I applaud wholeheartedly your vision for “a genuinely futuristic approach to the internet would see the civic centre “opened up”…” and innovation in general. As you may already be aware, Sutton constituent Adrian Short has been doing some excellent work in the area of Open Data and Innovation for Sutton councils. Examples of his work can be found here:

    A council that pushes digital literacy and access, will pay dividends for local democracy, social capital and inter-connectivity. There are some useful testcases of (albeit US) councils that are beginning to reap rewards of encouraging digital initiatives to local populace. I would be happy to forward them to you but as a means to whet your appetite – check this out:

    Your naked ambition for “all out war on Tories” is in part foolhardy but also hilarious, so I applaud you for your audacity and look forward to reading more in the near future 🙂

  3. A thought provoking response!

    I agree completely with both you and Lester on the need to “open up” the civic centre by using the internet. You have expert knowledge on how the internet can be harnessed to serve grassroots’ democracy. As a layman (please correct me if I’m wrong), I would hazard the opinion that much of the technology is now in place to do this. However, great internet technology is of no avail if the mindset and culture is lacking.

    In the case of Croydon Council, its haughty mindset is apparent in its wilfully opaque website. For Croydonians who want to understand what’s happening in the borough, negotiating the Council’s website is an awful experience.

    Far from having a culture of openness, Croydon Council applies the “mushroom principle”: keep them in the dark and feed them sh*t.
    Good examples of Croydon’s culture of secrecy include:
    • the refusal to disclose the financial terms of the CCURV deal with Laing re the (hugely expensive) new Council offices
    • the joy that our Council takes in frustrating even the most reasonable of freedom of information requests
    • the constant misinformation put out by the Council’s PR department. A very recent example is the “award” for refuse recycling – see Brendan Walsh’s brilliant post for InsideCroydon of 22 June.

    Alas, if Croydon Council is to harness the internet to “open up” the civic centre, there needs to be a revolution in this haughty Council’s mindset and culture.

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