Croydon gang culture brought to the Town Hall chamber

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Town Hall meetings have become notorious for generating more heat than light, especially on matters of greatest importance tothe borough. SUSAN OLIVER says councillors must clean up their act

Is the Croydon council chamber at the Town Hall a cockpit of incivility?

Is the Croydon council chamber at the Town Hall a cockpit of incivility?

When the council’s budget meeting was broadcast on Croydon Radio, I could only listen for about 45 minutes. That’s all I could stomach. After that, I read the tweets and was glad there were heartier souls who could digest the vitriol and produce a newsfeed that I could swallow.

I’m still trying to figure out what that meeting was all about. I know it was a meeting done in the name of democracy, but that’s like saying that a drowning is done in the name of cleanliness.

The immature and ugly behaviour of our councillors that evening cannot be excused. There was goading. There was humiliation. There was a real nasty undertone.

Why is that bad for Croydon?

First, we residents are forced to be suspicious about how much thinking or work our councillors are actually doing. To what extent are issues being analysed and discussed rationally? Or is more energy being directed into bluff and bluster?

Second, how many councillors are not participating in the discussions because they, too, can’t deal with the maliciousness? And, how much intimidation and bullying is happening behind the scenes both between and within parties? How much gang-like activity is going on?

Third, how much are meetings being used not to govern Croydon, but for political purposes? Has the council chamber become just a south London colliseum in which the two titans clash?

But my biggest worry is how Croydon’s political culture affects us residents. Why? Because people copy people. We humans are constantly teaching one another about what is acceptable, particularly when it comes to behaviour and how we treat one another. And no one is more powerful than a person in the public eye.

Whether these people are elected or not, humans who have some sort of public role – celebrities, actors, sport stars, newscasters, politicians – naturally have the ability to impact a lot of people. Partially because they have a larger audience but also because they set an example. People think, “Well, if that person does or says this, I can too”. That’s how the mind works.

Croydon councillors may not be in the national limelight but they certainly are on the main stage locally. And month-after-month, year-after-year, the general atmosphere of the council meetings must influence the borough. The sourness, the surliness, the petulance. Certainly Croydon is being shaped by the incivility of these debates.

The mind is very subtle, very clever and it is human nature to look at power and want to emulate it. Should power mean the ability to be ornery? Do we gain influence by our ability to persuade, or by ripping our opponent to shreds?

These questions are being answered by councillors by their behaviour during the council meetings. And as they do, they affect business and social behaviour and set an example for civil servants, police and other people who work with the council.

For political reasons I haven’t mentioned either political party so far. Of course, that’s the crux of the problem. Both sides blame each other for their bad behaviour. It’s become like a civil war that has become too complicated to stop. It seems that both parties have embraced an attitude of “anything goes; we just have to prove a point and gain power”.

"Battle of the Titans"? Croydon's politicians are led by Mike Fisher, left, and Tony Newman

“Battle of the Titans”? Croydon’s politicians are led by Mike Fisher, left, and Tony Newman

The problem with the “anything goes” strategy is that it teaches that force is the answer. And because they are public figures, this teaching goes far and wide. It’s like a song that catches on and people start singing it throughout the day. It legitimises aggressive tendencies both large and small. It’s used to justify emotional violence, which paves the way for physical violence.

Am I saying that the culture of the Croydon Council meetings has something to do with the amount of emotional abuse and physical violence here in the borough? Yes I am.

Of course I can’t prove it – yet. Our psychological and mental sciences aren’t sophisticated enough in 2013 to exactly pin-point how the tone and philosophy of government discourse ripple through a society like pheromones through a bee-hive. If we could actually see how it does this, we wouldn’t put up with it.

But just because we can’t scientifically prove something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take heed. In the 1800s, some scientists ridiculed the new idea that tiny creatures called “germs” caused disease. Macho doctors refused to wash their hands in an attempt to deny their own responsibility in spreading disease from one patient to another. Many patients (particularly child-bearing women) died unnecessarily, not from ignorance but from arrogance.

I think that negativity and ill-will can spread very much like germs do. All of us know that we have to be emotionally hygienic. We must restrain our anger for the sake of the greater good. Of course there will be heated discussions and the occasional lost temper – that’s understandable. But the Croydon council chamber has become a place where personal restraint seems unfashionable and even looked down upon.

Croydon residents need to be more aware of the level of mean-spiritedness in the chamber. We need to be mature enough to recognise when things are getting out of hand, even when it’s benefiting our point of view or the party to which we belong.

I realise this is a sticky wicket and that sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between belligerence and passion. But the need for self-expression shouldn’t become more important than the responsibility of one’s office. Croydon’s political elite have created a sub-culture that does not properly reflect who we want to be as a community, and the people of Croydon have every right to rectify that.

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9 Responses to Croydon gang culture brought to the Town Hall chamber

  1. I am not certain I agree with you that what happens at council meetings has an effect on what happens in the borough, most residents would have not previously known that bad behaviour was happening. Do not forget that until that Croydon Radio broadcast the only people to have witnessed that behaviour where the people in the public gallery (normally around 100 at most) and the journalists (who tended to edit out the worst parts of the bad behaviour on the part of the councillors). The public are forbidden to record the meetings.

    During the meeting I think that most councillors spoke during the debate. However, there is effective bullying within each political party because every councillor has to comply with the Party Whip. That means they are told in advance how they will vote. I suspect that most of the speeches were also written for the councillors by their respective Party Whips.

    Consequently, since virtually all the meeting was taken-up with the Council Tax debate, that meant that once we could see that enough Conservative councillors were present (I was in the Public Gallery) we then knew that the motion would be passed and that the next couple of hours of debate was a waste of time.

    The effect of all this was that the views of the voters, the people who have to pay the 1.85% increase in Council Tax, were irrelevant and were ignored. Even had the Councillors asked for our views on that rise before the meeting (and I suspect that few, if any, councillors did that) then they would have voted according to their Party Whip’s diktat.

    So if you are represented by Conservative councillors you “voted” for the increase and if you are represented by Labour councillors you “voted” against it. Interestingly, the residents of New Addington ward “voted” for both!

    The tragedy of all this is that most people are turned-off from politics and politicians. Consequently, most people do not know how or why their taxes (including the Council Tax) is rising with no apparent increase in the level of service. I can understand why people are not interested in the discussions, as indeed yourself had to switch off after 45 minutes, but we are all affected by an increase in taxation and, unlike when shopping, you cannot decide to go to a different Council in Croydon; except through the ballot box.

    Therefore, I think it is essential that the residents of Croydon should ensure that they are on the Electoral Register and then do try to vote at next year’s local elections, it can make a difference. When voting voters should consider whether only having two parties at the Town Hall is a good idea and whether having councillors from a third (or even a fourth party) might help to restore true democracy to how the town is run.

    Of course UKIP have a national policy that local councillors do not have a Party Whip and will vote individually according to how they can best represent the interests of the residents and businesses in their ward rather than the Party’s interests.

  2. It’s not only this borough.

    One of the things that turned me off active involvement in party politics (in another London Borough) was the constant need to pretend that your opponents are incompetent, or malicious, or both – when you knew perfectly well that they were ordinary people trying to do what they believed to be best. I’m not saying all the parties should agree – far from it – but the constant impugning of opponents motives and abilities is one of the things that drags down politicians’ reputation in the eyes of the public.

  3. Bernard – Wow. Thanks for that – that kind of unnecessary “politicking” is exactly what I’m talking about. You also have to wonder what kind of harm it’s doing on a personal level too.

    Peter – Thank you for your long comment. I have a couple questions that I will email you about. The only thing I’d like to challenge is your idea that only people present at the Council meetings could be affected by negativity in the chamber. I agree that’s the perception – that’s the reason why councillors keep doing it, is that they think it’s not affecting anyone. If only that were the case!

    It wasn’t too long ago that smoking wasn’t considered a health risk so laws were lax about it. There was nothing to protect people from second-hand smoke, cigarette advertising, etc. Why? Because of ignorance. As the science caught up to the fact that smoking caused cancer, etc, laws were changed and people thought and acted differently about smoking.

    Our sciences around the body and the physical world are much more advanced than those involving how we affect each other mentally. Because of this, we are ignorant of the effects of emotional violence, particularly when it’s done by a powerful organisation such as a local government.

    There is a common-sense attitude about anger that says that it needs to be healed first and foremost and not to be used as a way to getting things done. All of the religious and spiritual traditions warn us against the dangers of hostility – is it because they are pointing to a technology we haven’t discovered yet? I think so.

    I believe local politicians are choosing to ignore all of the admonitions against attack and, by doing so, are causing a lot of harm.

    We have a domestic violence problem here in Croydon. We were also subject to riots not too long ago. It is for the innocent victims of these two phenomena that I bring this line of enquiry up.

  4. Management Science has shown throughout history that leaders set the tone and the culture of any organisation or society. Therefore, like it or not leaders have to behave properly.

  5. Is it possible that our local politicians take their cues from the childish behaviour in the House of Commons?

    They are able to watch hours of their political heroes and villains debating the issues of the day. Moments of so-called high drama in the House of Commons are usually accompanied by rowdiness and pleas from the Speaker for ‘order’.

    Prime Minister’s Questions are the biggest farce, with opposition members feigning outrage, while toadying Tories ask the PM ‘helpful’ questions, many dreamed up by party whips.

    We are assured by those with a vested interest that all this rumbustiousness is merely a means of testing the arguments. Oh, really!

    With such a delinquent role model is it really surprising that councillors – many of whom see the House of Commons as their next career move – want to practice their synthetic aggression.

    The so-called debate is always guaranteed to shed more heat than light, with both sides quoting statistics – often from the same sources – that they have carefully massaged to suit their own arguments.

    Trust in politicians, national and local, is at an all time low, but those elected to represent us ignore our concerns in favour of maintaining the status quo.

    If Britain really possesses ‘the mother of Parliaments’ we must take the children into care immediately.

  6. I want to take issue with Peter Staveley on the point that UKIP members would always vote in the best interests of those in their wards and not as a bloc.

    I read that as further proof that UKIP is a pressure group rather than a political party – a disparate bunch of people who can’t agree about anything except their fear of an outward-looking Britain taking a positive role in the European Union.

    In our national and local assemblies it is galling to see and hear members of major parties braying like donkeys in support of their own side and hooting at those who think differently.

    But a degree of organisation is necessary if we are to get any business done.

    The major parties produce a manifesto prior to an election. It is the electorate’s responsibility to read this written undertaking from each party and accept it as a resume of what that party will do in the coming session, subject always to what Harold Macmillan called ‘events, dear boy’.

    Electors should vote accordingly, which may mean changing allegiance from election to election. I suspect very few of the derisory numbers of people who turn out to vote in council elections ever see a manifesto, let alone read one.

    Instead, they vote as they always have, which makes the major parties complacent and contemptuous of those they claim to serve.

  7. Yup. Classic copying.

    We emulate those in power and those we look up to. Local politicians think it’s okay because the MPs do it and MPs do it because the culture of Parliament is not questioned – it has been in the making for hundreds of years and it’s not politically expedient for anyone to change it. They also don’t see or acknowledge the damage that is being done.

    Personally, I believe football hooliganism is the result of fans copying Parliamentarians’ behaviour. Who knows what else?

    • A bit glib by your usual standards, Susan: the football hooliganism problems pre-date by far any broadcasting, on radio or TV, of parliament. We might blame MPs and our councillors for many societal ills, but I don’t think we could ever make that one stick.

  8. Perhaps our political representatives both National and Local may care to consider the following little adage upon their deliberations: ‘Divide and Rule, a sound motto. Unite and lead, a better one.’

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