Comment: The abysmal behaviour of councillors tarnishes local politics

By Gareth Davies

Last week New York congressman Michael Grimm took exception to a reporter who brought up his campaign funds during a television interview. He proceeded to threaten to throw him off a balcony and "break" him in half "like a boy".

Mr Grimm has since apologised to NY1's Michael Scotto, although he doubted he was the first member of congress to "tell off a reporter".

I also received an apology from a politician recently. A councillor called me on my mobile, a month after saying we were "finished" due to a piece which included unflattering figures relating to one of his policies. He stopped short of threatening to launch me off the public gallery at Croydon town hall, but he swore, threatened to take me to the Press Complaints Commission and then tried to lodge a formal complaint with my editor.

After a few weeks of silent treatment he responded to an email asking for a comment on a different story. He gave me a quote and said he was sorry for losing his cool, adding: "Let's face it you've been a bit of a c*** recently".

I was shocked by his use of the C-word. "Alright, there's no need for that," I replied. He clarified his comment immediately. "Well, you've been a dickhead haven't you" he said.

Well, that's okay then.

As a reporter I am no stranger to being compared to a lady's special area. Heck, if a week goes by without an unflattering anatomical reference, I probably haven't done my job properly. That was, however, the first time I have been called that particular word by an elected official.

Of course, a politician acting that way in a private conversation is very different from threatening to split someone in two on camera. But it is indicative of the sort of behaviour that has become a depressingly regular occurrence in Croydon's town hall.

Last Monday a Labour councillor accused council leader Mike Fisher of swearing at him during a full council meeting. He alleges the Tory chief told him to "f*** off" during a row about where members live in relation to the areas they represent. 

There was talk of an official complaint, but the offended councillor called the paper to say he had received a personal apology. Cllr Fisher admitted making the call, but denies swearing. "I pointed out that politics at all levels is a rough and tumble business," said Cllr Fisher. "Perhaps he needs to be slightly less sensitive."

Our reporter did not hear the alleged retort, though he would have struggled to hear anything above the heckles, jeers and shouting that marred the meeting – and a dozen others before it. The obvious comparison would be a disservice to playgrounds, where there is better behaviour. And more politics.

Being generous you might credit the infantile conduct to the pressure of a looming election. That might explain why Monday's meeting was particularly futile, but the truth is council and cabinet meetings in Croydon have been pretty much the same since I joined the paper more than five years ago.

Take October 2012, for example, when six Labour councillors wrote an open letter to the then Mayor of Croydon accusing him of being "blatantly rude" and conducting meetings in a "partisan manner". The council leader called the letter "a disgrace". Nothing changed.

A few months earlier a special meeting organised to discuss the findings of an independent report into the summer 2011 riots – the most significant event in Croydon's recent history – descended into farce, with both sides bickering over who was more to blame, with the document itself barely mentioned. 

"I hoped to have a very serious and reasonable debate but unfortunately that wasn't able to happen," Cllr Fisher said as he brought the pantomime to a close.

As things stand that would make a fitting epitaph for local politics in Croydon which, two years later, is still dominated by grandstanding, point-scoring and middle aged men barking. One, a Labour councillor, sits at the back saying "disgraceful", sometimes at nothing in particular. Another appears on a perpetual mission to get himself chucked out of the building.

Last July councillors spent nearly an hour debating a Conservative motion supporting a bill going through the House of Commons calling for a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, an issue the council has no influence over.

"This week's debate was even more inane. The motion read: "The council agrees with the response to the Croydon Advertiser survey that there are too many good things about Croydon to pick just one best thing".

The response was a single line from one of 555 people who took part in a survey that had, in fact, shown the deep divisions between the north and south of the borough. The motion was a Tory middle-finger to half a dozen similarly pointless ones put forward by Labour over the last 12 months.

The subsequent 'discussion' lasted more than half an hour. The stabbings of six young people in eight days, the most high profile incidents of knife crime and youth violence since 2008, earned a fraction of councillors' time.

While much of this may come as little surprise to anyone who covers – or follows – local politics up and down the country, there is a real issue in Croydon.

Perhaps it is a product of a cabinet-style system featuring only two parties, factors which combine to allow the side with more councillors to effectively do what they like, apparently rendering genuine debate pointless, especially when members always vote with their party.

There is also the argument that local councillors simply mimic the behaviour they see in the House of Commons week in, week out.

But regardless of the reasoning, none of this does anything to increase engagement in politics.

Turnout in May will almost certainly be low, particularly in parts of the north of the borough, and the panto described above mostly plays out to an empty public gallery.

When I lost my patience and ranted on social media about this latest charade, the response from one councillor was that this lack of interest was the paper's fault. He could remember a time, twenty years ago, when the coverage was far more comprehensive, as you might expect it to have been, given the Advertiser had five or six times as many reporters. While there is always more the paper could be doing to inform people about goings on at town hall, there comes a point when writing about a meeting that was a waste of time is, well, a waste of time.

It rarely pays to have an opinion as a local journalist, at least not publicly. While I have been variably accused of being a "Tory tool" or a "Labour lackey", this is not an attack against either side in particular. Neither would I claim to be neutral. This is written less from the point of view of an increasingly frustrated journalist than someone who lives in Croydon and has come to think of it as home. Even if you have never been here, chances are you know it is a town which faces huge challenges. What you might not realise is it also has huge potential, potential it is far less likely to realise if represented by people who behave like unflattering anatomical references.

Gareth Davies is the chief reporter of the Croydon Advertiser. He was named weekly reporter and digital reporter of the year at the London and South East Media Awards in 2013. Follow him on Twitter.

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