Our Sutton reporter, BELLE MONT, on the latest break in the ranks in what was once a LibDem single-party stateThe barely disguised tensions within the Sutton Liberal Democrats were exposed during the General Election campaign, when one of their most widely respected councillors went public with how he was “disgusted” at his treatment by his council colleagues within hours of his wife’s death, and claimed that the LibDems in Sutton act almost like a “cult”.
This, together with the latest starring appearance (and not in a good way) in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column last week over the leasing of a £1million council property at a knock-down price to a charity run by one of their own councillors, is hardly going to enhance MP Tom Brake’s chances of a “promotion” in the LibDems’ parliamentary group.
Brake, the LibDem flag-bearer in Sutton, defied the polls and the Tories to hold on to his Carshalton and Wallington seat at the General Election, with a slightly reduced majority. All indications suggest that had the Conservatives managed to pick a more credible candidate for a south London suburban seat than an Old Etonian heir presumptive to a baronecy, then Theresa Mayhem might have got one parliamentary seat closer to that overall majority she so craved.
Brake has held the seat since 1997, and his party colleagues have controlled the council with an iron-grip since 1990.
But bit by bit, the LibDem’s control is being wrested away. There have been defections and expulsions among council leader Ruth Dombey’s cabal of councillors. One senior LibDem councillor was forced to resign before they got around to pleading guilty to multiple fraud charges after fiddling the finances of a local charity for the elderly.
The LibDems have already lost half their important income from the local parliamentary seats. At the previous General Election, in 2015, Paul Scully won the Sutton and Cheam seat for the Conservatives. A sign of the FibDems’ waning influence locally was the abject campaign they put up in that seat this year: Scully’s tenure as an MP looks to be safe for a while yet.
And now, Hamish Pollock has become the latest LibDem councillor to break ranks, describing his local party as “almost a cult” and openly declaring that he voted against Brake in the General Election.
Pollock has labelled Sutton’s LibDems as a “busted flush”. His anger towards the cabal controlling the Sutton LibDem group is palpable, and was revealed in a series of heartfelt Facebook posts just before the election. All of the posts have since been deleted.Having closely aligned himself with his colleagues at Sutton Council over the years, Brake is now reaping the downside of this hand-in-glove association. In extremis, Brake stepped up to the plate to defend his mates on the council with high-profile interviews on regional radio and television over the ecological disaster at Carshalton Ponds and the botched introduction of a Veolia-run bins collection service.
Perhaps he thought he’d benefit from the “improved” profile? The TV appearances meant that it was Brake who was associated most closely with these local-level LibDem balls-ups. Meanwhile Dombey, the person ultimately responsible for the dead ducklings, smelly fish and putrid bins, has been nowhere to be seen.
Pollock’s outburst in the last fortnight has shed more light on the notorious ruthlessness of Dombey and her Sutton LibDem party machine.
“My mistake was being loyal to a LibDem party (it is almost a cult) that really only basically cares for power locally. It destroys things that get in its way. I recall being told to ‘fuck off’ in a councillor group meeting by a certain senior member of it when I dared to talk about the content of a local LibDem newspaper… such moderation!
“I think the LibDems are finished… I know how they hate being criticised. They are a busted flush.”
According to his Facebook posts, Pollock claims that he was subject to “extreme coercion” by several Sutton LibDem councillors following the sudden death of his wife in January 2007.
There was “extreme coercion made upon me by various local councillors at the time not to resign my council seat within a few days, even hours in some cases”, Pollock wrote. The gross insensitivity still rankles with Pollock, who was then the sole LibDem councillor in Carshalton Central.
The LibDems were concerned that any by-election caused by Pollock standing down, as he wished to do to concentrate on looking after his two young children and disabled parents, might see the seat lost to the Tories. You can see where their priorities really lie.
Under pressure from his colleagues, Pollock put the party interests ahead of those of his bereaved family. But it is a decision he now bitterly regrets.
The nastiness towards him from within the LibDem council group went even further.
“The attendance of dozens of Green and Tory activists at my wife’s funeral was subject to a discussion and minuted at the LibDem Executive meeting thereafter,” Pollock has revealed. “I was disgusted by the way it was turned into a party political matter, and not at my volition.”
“Coercion” is something in which the Sutton LibDems have established something of a track record.In 2013, one of their councillors, Stephen Fenwick, when a member of the planning committee, claimed he was subject to coercion by then party chairman, John Drage, to change his mind over his opposition to the Beddington incinerator.
Drage’s alleged conduct is illegal under planning law. Drage and his wife, Elaine, have been among Brake’s firmest supporters and biggest donors to his campaigns. When Brake was in trouble in the last week of the election earlier this month, he turned to the Drages, who came back to Sutton from their retirement home in the West Country to shore up his campaign.
In his various social media outbursts, Pollock also referred to the local LibDem leadership having “Stalinist” tendencies.
In 2012 and 2013, Pollock received little support from his group when he was a lone voice scrutinising planning applications to turn Wentworth Hall in Carshalton into a mosque.At the opening of the refurbished building in March 2013, Pollock was referred to by a senior member of the mosque as the man who “cost us so much money” for representing local residents’ concerns about the plans and ensuring compliance with permission.
The evidence suggests Pollock was effectively bullied.
In a video posted on YouTube, the then secretary of the mosque, Lal Hussain, a former Sutton LibDem councillor and mayor, said: “I have given most of the people the name of the person who was responsible for delaying. It was our own ward councillor. He said: ‘I’m representing these people here’. I said: ‘What about us? You have to represent us as well’.
“So we want to show him the power. Now, we will show him the power, if he wants to stand in this ward again. Now you know what to tell him if he comes through the doorstep. Pollock. That’s the name. He cost us so much money.”
Pollock has endured a series of personal challenges in the past decade. Following the death of his wife, he came out and entered into a same-sex partnership, but had to go through a traumatic court case after a homeless person he and his partner took in committed arson in their home.
Pollock’s determination to put his head above the parapet at recent, carefully stage-managed LibDem group meetings, has won him new supporters among his party colleagues. It appears that Pollock is not the only dissenting voice inside the cultish, Brake-dominated Sutton LibDems.Several LibDem councillors are known to have decided not to seek re-election in 2018, in some cases because they have tired of the constant internecine conflict within their own group.
Inside Croydon has seen confidential emails that show junior councillors are angry and frustrated with the didactic style of the cabal that runs the local party – chairman Adrian Bonner, council leader Dombey, Steve Penneck, Simon Wales and Jayne McCoy. Even environment committee chair Jill Whitehead – who has been the target of thousands of complaints about the environmental and waste collection problems – is said by the disgruntled faction to be “fed up”.
How the LibDems handle Pollock’s public revelations will be influential over their approach to the local elections next May. His colleagues expect he will not resign his seat and will instead wait to be suspended or sacked by the LibDems, and continue until the elections as an independent councillor – the third on Sutton Council, alongside incinerator renegade Nick Mattey and disaffected Tory-turned-LibDem backer Graham Whitham.
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