Quisling row escalates in West Hampstead

I GUESS there’s no point of saying sorry if you don’t mean it, and a Labour Party deadline for former councillor Neil Fletcher to provide a written apology for using the word ‘quislings’ about local councillors in both the CNJ and Ham and High passed at 4pm yesterday without the demand being met. Labour party organisers have warned that a formal investigation by the Executive Committee will now begin.

In response, Fletcher is understood to have told the party enforcers that he would not be apologising as the Oxford English dictionary simply defines the word in general use as meaning traitors among other things, adding: “I give no assurances about any further articles I might write, and will as always choose my words with care and precision. If quisling fits the bill I shall continue to use it!” 

Fletcher, who is critical of the Labour council’s redevelopment plans in West Hampstead, is also said to have questioned why it appeared to him that a councillor had taken seven weeks to decide they were offended enough by his article to make a complaint against him with branch organisers.

His critics say ‘quisling’ is still directly linked to the puppet Norwegian leader who did a deal with Hitler, and Labour councillor Richard Olszewski’s internal complaint is understood to read: “My parents were from Poland and suffered directly at the hands of the Nazis; my father was imprisoned in a concentration camp and my mother was forced to work for the SS. I, therefore, find it personally deeply offensive to be referred to, even indirectly, as some sort of Nazi collaborator. There is a place for invective in politics, as people can feel strongly about their points of view and seek to express them forcefully. There is, however, a limit on what is acceptable language. I think that Neil’s use of the term “Quisling” went way beyond what is acceptable by way of political argument and disagreement.”

Triggering the frame

Sian Berry

Screen shot 2016-02-12 at 09.28.51DOES nobody else think it’s at all odd that a serious politician bidding for a serious office like the London mayoralty is invited onto one of the BBC’s flagship offerings in terms of political coverage, and the host welcomes them as a ‘woodland elf’? Yet this was Andrew Neil’s super-naff introduction for Sian Berry, the Highgate councillor running to be the Mayor for the Green Party, last night. This Week, of course, is supposed to have a lighter touch than Neil’s bulldog lunchtime interviews, but, still ‘woodland elf’ is as good as a nudging wink to us all that everything that this woman is about to say is all a bit airy-fairy, mystical.

As Neil is more or less the only option if you’re a politician and want to get airtime on the Beeb – every lunchtime, every Sunday, every Thursday evening, he’s always there being both hard-hitting and absolutely hilarious – you wonder if he has reached an untouchable stage where he can say whatever’s funny to him and if it’s all a little off-pale then, hey ho, it’s only going to be met with little more than polite smile.

It’s quite an intimidating power, to reach such a Lordmaster position where even newspaper columnists with grand reputations feel compelled to perform in increasingly daft and frankly belittling costumes. Bring me this Rafael Behr character from the Guardian and make him dress up in… hmmm… a flower power wig, and make him dance around a tepee for me, you can almost hear the demand from the This Week office, and a later cackle: What? He’s actually said ‘yes’ he’ll do it? Ha. This will be almost as good as the time we tricked Mehdi Hasan into review the week dressed as Austin Powers.

Sian did politely smile at being called a woodland elf. Her friends say she doesn’t want a fuss made of it, or anything of that ilk which may come her way over the next few weeks, because in the run-up to May’s polls it would just be a distraction and ruin other opportunities to talk about those crazy things called policies. Taking on Neil on TV and being the first to say ‘hang on right there, can you not’ would provoke a Twitter trend and a media response through Friday with a rush to cover THE WOODLAND ELF WHO ANSWERED BACK. She might be a heroine for the day, but strangely, by publicly requesting not to be called a woodland elf, the more people would have talked about her being… a woodland elf.

img_0878Triggering the frame is what the Berry camp calls this effect; the repeating of something that was stupid in the first place so often that it becomes a greater part of the public consciousness, either deliberately or unintentionally. Preferring the stupidity of the elf line to be forgotten, she may not even like this post, even though it’s meant to question why she was introduced on a top television talk show like that. Perhaps that’s understandable, for when she was cheaply described as ‘environmental viagra’ by a creepy hack the last time she ran for City Hall, it kinda stuck. Years later, the Metro, sounding like a flirtatious picker on Blind Date searching for a popeye answer, asked her this week: “You’ve been described as ‘environmental Viagra’ – where’s the best place in London to go for a date?”

On that occasion, she said ‘please don’t write that’. The paper printed her saying ‘please don’t write that’.

Labour probe into quisling comment ‘still ongoing’

THERE’S an interesting update emerging tonight in the row from a few posts back about Labour Party members in dispute with each other over a) the future of West Hampstead, and b) the use of words like ‘quisling’ in the criticism of councillors and party policy. Former councillor Neil Fletcher had confirmed last week he was asked to apologise for his choice of language in articles published by the local press last year, but had declined the invitation to do so. An official from the party tonight says his refusal did not draw a line under internal disciplinary process (the length of time the internal review into this has taken had suggested to many it had) and that the issue is ‘still ongoing’ with further action possible. Mr Fletcher has said this would all be ‘news to him’.

Unrepentant Glenda still stands by Thatcher tirade


imageANYBODY who thought they might have seen the last of former Hampstead and Kilburn MP Glenda Jackson following her retirement from the House of Commons last year has been forced to think again. She’s returned to acting, and pops up everywhere, giving one grouch-laden interview after another to explain how her two-career life panned out. Most recently, she’s been giving her thoughts alongside a photo-spread in the US magazine Entertainment Weekly. They usually include some reference to how winning an Oscar is not worth all the fuss, which is perhaps easier for an actor to say when you’ve won two.

To EW, she explains her life living in her Telegraph columnist son Dan Hodges’ basement (which is apparently good for when he need babysitting), and reflects on how much harder it is for women to succeed in both politics and the arts than it is for men. The interview should come with a health advisory for some of our local Tories, however. Glenda, we find, is completely unrepentant about her Thatcher-knocking speech in the House of Commons which made them choke with rage due to its timing days after the former Conservative prime minister had died; it was her most talked about contribution during her final term as a member of parliament, and possibly of all time.

“Anything legal I could’ve done to get the stink of Margaret Thatcher out of government, I’d have a go at,” she tells EW, before moving on to her defence of that speech: “I didn’t expect to be called upon to speak. But I sat and listened to history being rewritten and I attempted to redress the balance a little. I didn’t go after her as a person. I went after her government and I stand by what I said and I always will.”

Cecil Rhodes House to stay Cecil Rhodes House


TENANTS living in a council block in Somers Town named after controversial British imperialist Cecil Rhodes have been asked whether they want the building named after someone else. The discussion comes amid a row at Oriel College, Oxford, over whether a statue of the Rhodes, often accused of sowing the seeds of apartheid in South Africa, should be removed.

Ward councillor Roger Robinson revealed last week that the name of the Cecil Rhodes House had been up for discussion among residents. He said: “They had a meeting about it and I think the conclusion was ‘what is the point in changing it after all this time?’ If it was up to me now I wouldn’t call it that now. But I completely respect the tenants’ wishes.”

Cake me to your leader


WHILE a local leadership contest looms in Camden, another Labour local authority leader seems to have no problem with his colleagues knowing their place. Hounslow leader Steve Curran’s online diary reveals how the Labour councillors over there displayed Smithers-Burns levels of chocolate-nosed reverence last week by baking him a cake with happy birthday ‘leader’ icing. Because it’s perfectly normal, of course, to include the council hierarchy in a decorative drizzle sauce.

“Today was a big day for me, as it was my 61st birthday. After seeing to any urgent council business, I was able to enjoy a celebration meal with my family at the Foxlow restaurant in Chiswick,” writes Captain Curran, name-checking the boutique steakhouse where it’ll cost you a score for the ten-hour beef short-rib. “It was most enjoyable and to top it off, I received a birthday cake, courtesy of my fellow Labour councillors.”

If birds could vote…


[INSERT naff line about Zac Goldsmith insisting you won’t find him parroting the party line]

MAYORAL candidate Zac Goldsmith returned to Camden on Saturday to deliver a rousing soapbox speech to supporters in Belsize Square on Saturday. It’s not the first time his campaign trail has wound up in NW3 and wards which are already controlled by the Conservatives for a key weekend slot.

But for the same reason that Labour are pounding the streets in neighbourhoods which they already lead in, like Kentish Town and Somers Town, ahead of the City Hall elections in May, Zac and the Tories are out trying to reinforce support in its own strongholds. Both sides know this election is as much about getting their own vote out, as it is attracting new support. Days like this are aimed at ensuring there is no wavering or lethargy from people on their databases and clipboards marked down as likely supporters. It’s the kind of gee-up visit which the Tories may well have benefited from in Hampstead and Kilburn ahead of last year’s general election when the big name Conservative players stayed away despite the apparent marginal nature of their battle with Labour’s Tulip Siddiq.


Why didn’t you censor our members?


WHY didn’t you censor our members’ letters? It may sound like a slightly curious premise to start a complaint to the local press, but sure enough that’s what senior figures in Camden Labour’s set-up wanted from us after accusing their colleagues of using Nazi analogy against them.

First Neil Fletcher, the former Kilburn councillor who was once a high-up on the old ILEA, used the word ‘quislings’ to describe local politicians in articles in both the Camden New Journal and the Hampstead and Highgate Express, and then Terence Flanagan, questioning Camden’s performance on affordable housing, reached for the words of a Nazi propagandist to say in the letters pages: “The cynic within me suggests that Camden’s Labour councillors have adopted the tactics often attributed to Joseph Goebbels that ‘If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it’.”

Such sentiments caused distress inside the party, but it seemed odd that those who wanted to make clear how angry they were about the choice of language from these internal critics seemed more cross that the newspapers had published the letters in the first place… than the fact they had come, not from rivals from other political parties or anonymous writers, but their own membership.

They were, it should be said, not commissioned by us.

Some members were very offended, particularly those with personal stories to tell, and yet nobody in the Labour Party felt the offence was of such concern that they enforced a sanction strong enough to stop it happening again. There were months between Mr Fletcher’s first use of the word ‘quislings’ – originally taken from the name of the Norwegian puppet  leader Vidkun Quisling who did a deal with Hitler – in the New Journal and his use of it again in the Ham and High, yet on both occasions he was able to write as a party member.

His opponents were ready to hammer the local press for running them, but inside their own party the story goes that Mr Fletcher was asked to apologise, he declined to, and that was more or less it. And he’s still writing away as a voice from within the Labour membership.

There is clamming up when asked what other disciplinary measures have been taken – ‘we won’t discuss internal Labour Party matters etc etc’ – and Mr Fletcher says it would be ‘news to him’ if he was facing any suspension or expulsion threat.

Labour whip Richard Olszewski went on to call Mr Flanagan a “ranter” on Twitter, before fellow councillor Theo Blackwell wrote to both papers with his own comeback. If Cllr Blackwell sounded angry in the CNJ doing this, he ratcheted it up another notch for his contribution to the Ham and High: “Ranting Terry Flanagan likens hard-working councillors to Nazi propagandists, just as his buddy-in-anger Neil Fletcher has repeatedly baited us as ‘quislings’ about our attempt to build social housing on the site of the old council offices at West End Lane. It’s more evidence of the normalisation of such language within crank hard left circles these days.”

Crank hard left circles? Inside the Labour Party? Cllr Blackwell, who spoke up for Liz Kendall in the Labour leadership campaign won by Jeremy Corbyn last year, perhaps deliberately reveals the fault line here. Whether these very vocal critics really represent the hard left, or whether they even identify themselves as Corbynites is not known. Any thoughts about how the cranks these days may affect the selection of council candidates in the future is also a puzzle probably best left for another day. As is the whole question of the tetchy temperature in West Hampstead right now and whether the planning committee will truly be able to be seen to be making a fair verdict when 156 West End Lane is eventually decided after the divisive and public debate which has already taken place with some of their councillor colleagues.

It’s often said that if you want to check the pulse of a local newspaper, have a look at the health of its letters page. The breadth each week in the New Journal is one of the things that makes the paper a good thing. Sometimes people feel their letters have been cut too sharply but that’s just because we want to get as many voices in as possible, on as many different subjects. The most disappointed claim that criticism of the paper or its editorials is deliberately cut from public view, but there’s a whole archive of back issues at Holborn Library which show this isn’t the case.

But what about that Nazi analogy? Were the papers wrong to publish the comments in the form they were sent in? You wouldn’t just print anything, one councillor upset that they did go to press said to me this week. and they are right: No, we wouldn’t. Like we didn’t take ads from the BNP when they approached us.

The councillor, however, also pointed me to the internet theme, Godwin’s Law, in which it is suggested that once such language is deployed in an argument, then its user has as good as lost. If that rings the true, then the letters would expose a victory and defeat here, surely. The readers after all can make up their own mind about what they think of someone and their views from the language they choose, and whether the use of quislings and Goebbels is actually a sign of desperation and weakness.

My own view is that throwaway references to the war, Nazis, concentration camps and so on are used too often generally, and strangely enough often by people who are blessed with a natural eloquence. The respected polymath Jonathan Miller once suggested, for example, the market arch put up by the council at the start of Inverness Street Market in Camden Town many years ago resembled the gates of Auschwitz.

I used to live right by the overground station at Alexandra Palace and when they put up new fencing around the bridge, some unimpressed neighbour told the Ham and High in Haringey that the wire barriers looked like a concentration camp. I’ve never been to Auschwitz, but I’m guessing it’s got a different look and feel to Inverness Street Market or Ally Pally station.

I wrote a blog on all this then, finding from a quick scan of local newspapers across the country that there were people busy comparing holiday camps, housing estates, anything with an arch or a gate to concentration camps all over the country. You’d think everyone should be able to think of a better comparison or words to say they don’t like something, but there’s no doubting it has creeped into regular use. I can understand how that will be upsetting for many, but whether we are should censor it is an open debate.

In the end, in this case we come back to the point that we are talking about Labour Party members disagreeing with Labour Party members, and these correspondence were not a hate speech letter or an anonymous poison piece dropped through the door in green ink. Maybe the real frustration for those who blamed the papers this week actually lies with some of the people they will be sitting opposite at the next branch meeting.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 13.15.45teachesSADLY, our press invitation to watch former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s latest return to Haverstock School (yup, he went back again) was mislaid in the post.

He was there this week as part of educational charity Future First’s Back To School event, and it would have been very interesting to see what questions the pupils had, and how he answered them.

FF say that under the scheme “lawyers to doctors, plumbers to caterers, architects to zookeepers, will return to their former state school for assemblies and workshops designed to help prepare current students for the working world”, and that Mr Miliband was there talking about his own career path and, quote, “the skills necessary to succeed in work”. At which point some of the all too cynical readers of these pages are will no doubt scream: But he’s neeeeever had a proper job, just politics.

Alas, the New Journal‘s absence means we are not able to tell you how the man who less than a year ago was asking to be our Prime Minister at a manifesto launch in the school’s hall went down with students and staff on this occasion, and what skills necessary to succeed they picked up

Instead we can only study a handout picture provided to the press. Everybody looks very attentive.

On repeat: You’re closing day centres, yeah? But you had enough money for a new logo

harimageIT’S not just in Labour dominated Camden where a spot of internal unrest has bubbled to the surface. In Labour dominated Haringey, they may not be on the brink of a leadership contest, but the group has  suspended one of its councillors. Gideon Bull, with 15 years service as a councillor, lost the whip after speaking out at a cabinet meeting against the council’s closure of dementia care and day centres.

“I’m deeply saddened and I don’t think this punishment reflects the democratic society we live in,” he says. “There’s no point being in politics if you can’t stand up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves.”

Those who supported his suspension say if he wants to take that line, he must also explain why he voted for the Labour budget, which included the proposed closures, alongside the rest of the group. They claim Cllr Bull changed direction when he felt the heat from ward constituents on the issue, but as all councillors are getting it in the neck over spending cuts pretty much all of the time, he should stand with them rather than against them.

Which version is correct? I don’t know, but in a way it doesn’t really matter because if you pop into public meetings in Haringey, talk to people who live there or catch the odd debate, the thing you will find that so often now clouds rational discussion on how the council uses its money is an underlying obsession with last year’s £80,000 spend on a new logo

Seriously, you hear that call-back time and again over there: They are shutting down day centres but they can afford a new logo. They can’t do this but they can afford a new logo. They’re cutting that but they can afford a new logo. 

It doesn’t matter that in the grand scheme of multi-million pound council budgets, £80,000 may not be such a huge sum, and wouldn’t have been enough to save the day centres. But in spending money on something easily branded as frivolous, Haringey Council has unwittingly invited its own residents to robotically refer to it every time it makes a cut. Sensible, rational people seem to think, or at least act like, the black hole in local authority finances could all have been fixed if only Haringey Council hadn’t bought that bloody new logo.

In Camden, Labour councillors may explain their local cuts by shifting the blame onto government orders. In Haringey, they’ve surrendered this simple get-out line, because every time they blame the government, some bod will stand up at the back of the community centre and say to cheers and yelps… yeah, but you had enough money for a new logo.

The intentions behind the rebrand may have been worthy – even if to many it looks like a young child could have done better – but what a time to do it. On a local level, you could say it’s bit like Liam Byrne’s ‘no money left’ note, which the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition were able to reach for whenever they felt like they were losing the argument. But at least Byrne didn’t have to see his note plastered up on every passing bin lorry.