CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Labour rebels quietly walk out as councillors vote for their own pay rise

Tories oppose 'super increase' for cabinet members

08 October, 2019 — By Richard Osley

Chief Labour whip Councillor Lazzaro Pietragnoli

CAMDEN councillors have voted in favour of giving themselves an inflation-busting pay rise, but only after a quiet exodus of dissenting Labour members from the Town Hall chamber.

The division within the ruling group was made clear by a collection of empty chairs when it came to the final vote.

Under the changes ratified last night (Monday), council leader Georgia Gould will move from an allowance of around £29,000 a year to £40,000, while cabinet members will enjoy a 54 percent rise: their pay will bounce up from £16,275 to £25,000. In most cases in local government, cabinet members combine the role with a paid day job and a private career.

Committee chairs will see a 66 percent increase so that they receive £9,000, where they were previously paid around £5,500. The chair of planning is to see a doubling of the allowance.

The basic pay for councillors, however, is being increased more modestly: each will get £451 a year more taking them above £10,000 a year for the first time.

Camden argues that it cannot continue to freeze councillor allowances if it wants to attract a more diverse field of local politicians.

While there was no dramatic walkout in protest at the proposals, some councillors, largely from the left-wing caucus within Camden’s Labour ranks, had extended toilet or refreshment breaks during the vote; others did not turn up to the meeting at all.

Empty seats in the chamber; 20 councillors did not take part in the vote on allowances

This meant the increase in allowances was approved with only half of Camden’s councillors supporting it in a recorded vote.

Twenty-seven backed the pay lift, five – all Tories – voted against, and as many as 22 councillors did not take part.

Rebels who were not there suggested that breaking the whip in the chamber and actively voting against the increases would have led to an “excuse to purge” left-wingers in a similar fashion to the way Prime Minister Boris Johnson kicked out 21 Tory MPs for not supporting him over Brexit in the House of Commons.

One source said: “Raising allowances is a shockingly bad idea and not one we, as socialists, felt we could vote for. We have already faced a backlash from Labour members in our branches over what the grassroots view as greed on the part of the powers that be in Camden.”

The empty chairs followed an email to all Labour councillors earlier in the day from Labour chief whip Lazzaro Pietragnoli urging them to support agreed party policy in favour of the rises.

One of differences of opinion behind the split, which can be traced back to private Labour group meetings over the summer, is the decision to significantly improve the pay for cabinet members and committee chairs in comparison to a much smaller rise for backbenchers.

But supporters of the increases say Camden had to act after freezing councillor pay for several years and becoming one of the lowest paying authorities in inner London. It has been argued that the council could not diversify from a prevailing white, middle class intake without making it easier for people from all backgrounds to enter local politics.

Cllr Pietragnoli admitted at last night’s meeting that it was “quite embarrasing for councillors to decide on their allowances”, but he said the council leader and cabinet members’ long hours needed to be fairly compensated for.

“We are at the moment recruiting for a policy officer for the cabinet and the leader and this person, who is not in a managerial position, is going to be working 36 hours a week for a salary of in between £40,000 and £47,000. So even if we increase the allowance of the leader, they would earn more or less the same salary as the leader of the council with all the responsibilities that this entails. I’m sure Georgia would be happy to work only 36 hours per week given that she covers that period possibly in a single weekend.”

In relation to some of the strained relations inside the Labour group on the issue, he added: “I was quite shocked to read in the Camden New Journal a few weeks ago a quip about Cllr [Danny] Beales going on holiday thanks to the increase in his allowance. I wish people making those comments could look at Cllr Beales’ diary and all the other cabinet members’ diaries before making any of those comments, and look at the meetings and all the emails and requests that they receive.”

Cllr Beales, Camden’s regeneration supremo, had tweeted his excitement at a booking in holiday to Brazil shortly after a meeting – unconnected to his travel plans – in which it was determined senior councillors would be paid more.

The Conservatives said the budget for allowances should not increase but an underspend in the finances should be “shared equally” across all councillors.

Councillor Oliver Cooper, the leader of the Camden Conservatives

Group leader Councillor Oliver Cooper said: “Since 2010, the cost of living has increased by 27 percent and yet the allowances for members on the backbenches is supposed to go up by just five percent. Given those are the positions that we want to be recruiting a more diverse population to, reducing their allowances in real terms, whilst doubling it for some of the members of the administration is not achieving the goal.”

Camden’s chart explaining some of the increases

He said councillors should remember that lots of civic roles were carried out without any pay at all, such as school governors and members of residents associations and neighbourhood forums.

“We think it would have been fairer for it to be shared equally across all the councillors,” he said. “Not to increase the budget, not to give a super increase for members of the administration, but to share it with every councillor in every ward in every community so their hard work for every resident is reflected.”

Lib Dem councillor Luisa Porritt

Liberal Democrat councillor Luisa Porritt told the meeting that the Tories were “point-scoring”.

She said: “I can understand why some feel uncomfortable with the disproportionate increases for certain roles but actually when you look at the changes that are taking place, what is being done has been done to bring those allowances more in line with what the average is in London.”

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