A Labour councillor who defected to the Tories has launched a renewed attack on her former colleagues and has told the Citizen she feels “free” after breaking loose from the majority party at the Town Hall.
Leabridge ward councillor Linda Kelly crossed the floor at the council’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) on 18 May. In her first in-depth interview since the move, she defended herself against charges she has betrayed her constituents and said she decided to jump ship after being “punished” for speaking out on government cuts.
The Citizen has seen documents which appear to show:
1. The Hackney Labour group is “stifling” opposition by not allowing residents to bring deputations to Town Hall meetings without first receiving permission from the Labour chief whip.
2. Labour backbenchers are banned from writing letters to the local press without these first being cleared by the chief whip.
Labour supporters have seized on the fact that Cllr Kelly criticised government cuts but then joined the party spearheading them.
A Labour group spokeswoman said: “It will be interesting to see what her new Tory allies in Hackney think of her anti coalition government stance.”
Cllr Kelly accused Labour of advancing “no alternative”, adding: “If they are arguing I am betraying my voters, ask yourself, what are they doing? The cuts have been implemented. They have implemented them.”
A Hackney resident since 1959 and a Labour councillor for nine years, Linda Kelly has been accused by Labour of harbouring ill feeling towards her former colleagues because of the outcome of a recent election in which Labour councillors chose a different candidate for the role of Speaker – a post for which Cllr Kelly had made a bid.
A Labour spokeswoman said: “Leabridge ward had the lowest Tory vote in London in May 2010 (5.3 per cent), so she has no mandate to continue as a councillor in that ward. Leabridge ward still has two hard working Labour councillors and Linda should resign and fight a by-election so that residents there are given the chance to decide on who represents their interests best.”
The professional advocate and school governor denied she had left the party because of any bitterness over the outcome of the election, insisting she was “still the same councillor… Nothing has changed”.
She told the Citizen: “What I want the people of Hackney to understand is I’m not that petty and it’s not that I don’t care about them. I’m in a Tory group and it’s not a whipped vote. You can decide how you want to vote. If I decide I’m not happy with things, I am going to vote the way my conscience tells me to.
“I don’t think I’ve found nirvana in the Tory group – I don’t think you find nirvana in any group – but I believe I have a voice here and I’m going to use it.”
Leading Conservatives have scarcely been able to hide their glee at the defection of Cllr Kelly, who had the second highest vote total of any Hackney councillor in last year’s elections and who was praised by Tory group deputy leader Cllr Simche Steinberger as “one of the most hard-working councillors”. Steinberger added that he was “delighted that Cllr Kelly has joined the Conservatives”.
In a sign of their new-found mutual appreciation, the Tories swiftly whisked Cllr Kelly off to Whitehall for a meeting with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles in which the two discussed the Localism Bill – legislation which was in turn praised by Cllr Kelly, who said it could prove instrumental in future battles to preserve historic buildings like the Clapton Tram Sheds.
The thrust of Cllr Kelly’s complaint about the Labour group centres on what she claims amounts to an “authoritarian” atmosphere and lack of tolerance of political dissent in its ranks.
She said the decision not to hand her the speakership was taken to “punish” her after she signed a letter, along with five other Hackney Labour councillors, calling on the council to reject government-enforced spending reductions and “support a campaign to defeat the policies of this government through public protest, opposition and defiance”.
Cllr Kelly told the Citizen that the Labour group turned against her despite the fact that when it came to the full council meeting, she voted for the Mayor’s budget. She said: “I was punished for not toeing the line… I was not prepared to accept this, to spend another three years nodding like a toy dog in the back window of a car.”
She said: “As far as I’m concerned, I went over to the Tories because I believe I need a voice to speak up for them [my constituents]. Now if someone tells me they want to bring a deputation, I can bring a deputation. I don’t have to worry about getting permission. I am free.”
Asked about Cllr Kelly’s claims she was ‘stifled’, a spokesperson for the Hackney Labour party said: “These accusations are deliberately misleading and inaccurate. In common with most political groups of councillors, we have a set of protocols as Hackney Labour Group.
“These help to provide guidance for councillors on how to work together effectively and make sure that we are supported to represent the issues of residents in our wards. No one is ‘banned’ or prevented from particular actions – the only expectation is that individual councillors let their colleagues know what they are planning to do.”
An extract from the protocols to which the spokesperson refers is reproduced here.
The guidelines for Labour councillors: what they say
Letters to the Gazette from backbenchers – please send these to the Chief Whip first for clearance
Press Releases from backbenchers – please send these to the Chief Whip first for clearance
The Chief Whip will clear these with the Mayor and Deputy Mayor before sending to the press […]
Protocol for bringing a deputation:
Contact the relevant Cabinet member and Whips to discuss your deputation
The Whips will then send you the deputation form to fill in for more details on the deputation
In response to the news of Cllr Kelly’s move, a spokesperson for Hackney Liberal Democrats said: “So, a councillor can cross from the Labour to the Conservative party and feel perfectly at home.
“It demonstrates how alike in some ways the two parties are: authoritarian centralists who believe in tight control and in telling people what to do.
“The only difference now appears to be economic – ‘cut now’ or ‘cut later’, hardly surprising when both Blair and Brown saw themselves as Thatcher’s heirs.
“If Linda Kelly had serious criticisms of the Labour programme, as we do, then she has always been free to voice them. We look forward to hearing them now.”
Cllr Kelly’s defection to the Conservatives hardly alters the balance of power on the council, as the Labour party still holds 49 of 57 seats. Her move brings the Conservative group to a total of five. There are also three Liberal Democrats on the council.