Monday, July 14, 2014

Slapped in the face: A letter from my MP

The weekend was going so well, too. Despite the temptations of the sunny weather and a number of fun local events, I'd put myself in lockdown at home to work on my PhD thesis, and by mid-morning on Saturday I was pleased with progress. I was just transcribing some quotes from Harold Wilson on Privy Council briefings when chatter from outside caught my attention and I saw them- walking past my flats, a group of Labour activists led by the local MP, Clive Efford, on their way to get that 'great reception on the doorstep' politicians always insist on relating.

I gave a wry smile, and considered knocking on the window and waving, but they had already gone past. Thinking back to how many Saturdays I've spent engaged in such activity over the years, I allowed myself a pang of nostalgia, then got on with my work.

A couple of hours later, after I'd established that Wilson never would arrive at a consistent spelling of "Privy Counsellor", I heard the main door to our flats slam, and footsteps on the stairs. Then the rattle of my letterbox startled the cat, as something was shoved through and landed on the doormat. Our post is normally put through the main door, and my neighbours and I have been cautious about letting random people into the block since we were burgled a couple of years ago, so I went to investigate.

And there it was- a Labour party leaflet, formatted as a letter from Clive Efford and headed "Eltham North Special". I gave another wry smile- local parties usually know from the electoral register when they are delivering to political opponents, and it usually makes for a bit of amusing banter. A bit cheeky after defeating me, perhaps, but all's fair in politics and war. I started to read it, and a line jumped out at me. In a quote from new Councillor Linda Bird were the words:

"For too long we have had Councillors who did little for the local area. Wynn and I are going to change that."

My smile vanished, as though I'd been slapped in the face. I read it again, my heart starting to thump, and heat rising in my cheeks. Was I reading it right? Maybe it wasn't... no, it was quite clear. They mean me.

Indignation and anger began to rise- how dare they? I instinctively went back into campaign mode- typical Labour propaganda...really, if that's the best they... We need to rebut this - fire up the printer and the folding machine...   It took me a moment to realise: There won't be a rebuttal. The campaign's over. I lost. I'm not a Councillor; I'm not a candidate.  I'm just a guy standing in his hallway clutching a piece of paper, being given quizzical looks by his cat.

The main door downstairs slammed again, and I went to the window, but too late to catch sight of the deliverer. I just stared out of the window at the houses and rooftops of Eltham North... "did little for the local area"...  Traffic rumbled along the road, and people walked past on the pavement opposite... "did little for the local area"...  I couldn't stop thinking about it.  Is that really what they think?  Do they ALL think that?  Is that why I lost?  Could they be right?

I sat down again, and tried to get on with my work.  But Harold Wilson couldn't hold my attention.  I kept being distracted - "did little for the local area"  the words wouldn't stop circulating in my head.  Maybe they were right.  What HAD I done?  I looked over at a pile of Council papers gathering dust in a corner - committee documents, copies of the local masterplans, charity reports, cuttings ripped from newspapers, pages of my scrawled notes, letters... what did it all add up to?  What had it all meant?  I mean, of course I thought I was doing my best, and working hard.  My evenings had been full of committee meetings, residents meetings, visits - my weekends full of community events and endless paperwork.  I'd campaigned against parking charges on the high street and threats to build on Eltham Park, raised concerns about the conditions faced by Council tenants and leaseholders, helped vulnerable people to be rehoused... yes, I could reel off a list of such things.  But did it matter? Did anyone notice?

And what about my former colleague Dermot Poston?  First elected in 1968, he served the area for decades before standing down at the election in May.  A local legend, wise, popular and deeply involved in the community, he was awarded the MBE last year for his efforts.  Did they mean him, too? "did little for the local area"...  If half a century of dedicated public service didn't count for much, what chance did my measly nine years have?  What had it all meant? I was 24 when I was first elected - a typical cosmopolitan Londoner, who'd moved through a succession of shared houses and rented flats since university. Eltham was the place I had settled.  I put down roots - and I had bought my flat.  This flat.  It had become my neighbourhood, and I cared about it a great deal.  That had softened the blow of election defeat - I might have lost a seat, but I was still involved in my community, and had done some good for it whilst on the Council.  I'd done my bit.  Now, even that shred of reassurance was shot away.  That community, and I, was being told by our local MP and local Councillors, people representing us as I had sought to do, that I "did little for the local area".  It was infinitely worse than being defeated in the election - nearly a decade of my life was being casually and scathingly dismissed.  They'd beaten me, and now they were mocking me, in my own home.  It really hurt.  I felt like a miserable failure. Call me a drama queen, but I shed a tear or two.

Don't worry - I've pulled myself together since then.  I know it was just a throwaway line - a piece of political rhetoric made in the first flush of triumph by the winning side.  The new broom, relishing the challenge and setting about the job with enthusiasm.  I shouldn't take it personally-  that's politics, isn't it? Perhaps a bit gratuitous in the light of the result, but heh.  I know how hard I worked, and the many quiet achievements in which I can still take pride.  No leaflet can take those away.  Of course I would have liked to do more - one of the problems and frustrations in the way local democracy works is how little power ward Councillors have to make changes.  Perhaps my Labour successors will discover that for themselves in time.  Often all you have is the ability to make a noise and use the platform you have to raise concerns.

But using your platform still matters.  Words matter.  And harsh words can wound. As I blogged recently, politicians on all sides would do well to try and be a bit kinder in the words we use.  I consider myself fortunate to have been given the chance to take a step back and reflect on many things over the last couple of months.  If I occasionally lapsed into the rhetoric of unfair attack in my time, I regret it.  Politics is a battle of ideas, not personalities.  I can see now, if I didn't see it before, that negativity often demeans you more than your intended target.  In the window of the Eltham Labour HQ, which I have to pass several times a day, there is a tribute to the late Tony Benn.  Many people noted when he died that however strong his convictions, he always rejected making personal attacks on his opponents.  It isn't an easy standard to live by, but it's well worth the effort.

In that spirit, I forgive my Labour successors their moment of triumphalism.  As a resident, I want them, along with my friend and former colleague Cllr. Drury, to stand up effectively for our community.  It is far harder than it should be, and I wish them all the best with it.

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