What happened in Haringey

2 Feb 18

Forget Labour infighting and public-private debates, what’s at stake in Haringey is how we think, talk and make decisions about places, says Jonathan Carr-West.

The big local government story of the moment has been the resignation of Claire Kober as leader of Haringey following a long running campaign against the council’s controversial public-private partnership to develop 6,500 new homes and amidst accusations of sexism and bullying.

I don’t want to get into the internal Labour Party politics here (though there are undoubtedly issues to be addressed) because the story also raises important questions about representation, democratic decision-making and how we think about, and act in, the public realm.

Kober’s resignation came after an intervention from Labour’s National Executive Committee to halt the Haringey Development Vehicle. On the face of it, it seems problematic to have the national executive of a political party seeking to overrule the leadership of a local council. Whilst the NEC has a mandate, it is a mandate drawn from the Labour membership across the country, whilst the leadership of Haringey has a mandate drawn from the people of Haringey. Many commentators have seen this as an affront to local democracy.

That’s clearly true on one level. But it’s also a little more complicated than that. Like most places in the country Haringey rarely changes political control (it’s been Labour-controlled for nearly 50 years) and the leadership of the council – and indeed who stands to be a councillor in the first place – is determined by Labour members. So one way or another decision making in Haringey, as in most councils, is shaped more by internal party politics than by the ballot box.

That’s baked in to a representative, first past the post system and the British public have shown little appetite for electoral reform, but it’s one of the ways in which the function of our political institutions has failed to adapt to a networked world.

The role of the private sector and the council’s relationship with it has also come under scrutiny. The recent collapse of Carillion and Capita’s plunging share price have also been in the news a lot recently, placing fresh scrutiny on the relations between the role of commercial companies in the delivery of public services.

But again, the public-private question can distract us from the real structural issue. What’s important here are the complexity of the financial and contractual systems in play and the ability of our democratic institutions to understand and manage them and to create an effective public dialogue around them. Again, the public ends up feeling very disconnected from the decision-making and scrutiny process.

The opacity of the data, the complexity of the issues, the partisanship of the debate: all make it virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to adjudicate between the claims and counter claims that we see in Haringey and the space vacated by evidence is filled by ideology. This in turn leads to a coarsening of the public debate and we end up in a conversation that is both uncivic and uncivil.

What’s at stake here is the whole paradigm of how we understand places, talk about them and make decisions within them; an understanding of democracy that is about giving people voice but also about managing and balancing competing interests in pursuit of a common good. Have our institutions evolved and adapted in a way that enables them to do this?

What’s happened in Haringey this week does represent a breakdown of this vision of democracy, a fracture of civic life and a failure of institutions of all sorts to manage complexity in an inclusive way.

People have different views about the Haringey Development Vehicle and the decisions the council has made. But no one has any cause for celebration.

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