Caroline Russell: Life of a sole Green councillor in Labour land of Jeremy Corbyn
PUBLISHED: 17:53 04 October 2016 | UPDATED: 17:53 04 October 2016
Labour-controlled Islington Council took a lot of flak last month after shutting Fabric. As the sole opposition member, Green Cllr Caroline Russell was spared this. But, as she tells James Morris, life is difficult in the land of Labour.
You’re a Green councillor in Islington Town Hall. You’re at a council meeting, fighting for your constituents, while also trying to make a name for your party. Only problem is, there’s one of you and 47 of your Labour opponents...
It’s the life of Highbury East Cllr Caroline Russell, who was elected onto the council in the 2014 elections. So, at the halfway point in her term, the Gazette wonders if Cllr Russell is disillusioned at what some have called a “one-party state”. Or, rather more extremely, “the North Korea of London”.
Not quite. Sat in the Workers Cafe across from the town hall in Upper Street, Cllr Russell says: “To be fair, we are in the heart of Jeremy Corbyn territory. Labour in these parts is a phenomenal election fighting machine. They know how to do it and are very good at it.”
So good that Mr Corbyn, who Cllr Russell stood against in the 2015 general election, has a 21,000 majority in his Islington North consituency. So good that Labour holds 47 of the 48 Islington Council seats.
In that case, we want to know how a sole opposition councillor can possibly hold 47 counterparts to account.
“I have to do everything I can,” Cllr Russell laughs. “Because there’s not two or more of us, I’m not even formally recognised as the town hall’s leader of the opposition. So I have two roles.
“One is as a ward councillor, standing up for residents, listening to people and trying to find solutions to their problems.
“The second is to focus on issues where I can make an intervention and raise questions that no Labour councillors will raise.”
She adds: “This is most evident at council meetings. For instance, on the topic of Fabric [the Farringdon superclub closed by the council’s licensing committee over two drug deaths this summer], the Greens are pushing the police to take a public health and drug harm reduction approach. So many people have written to me calling for this.
“A couple of weeks ago, I asked whether the council would like to take this approach. Kaya [Comer-Schwartz, Islington’s community development leader] completely dodged the question. She said it was something to take up with MPs, or Assembly members like myself. That, I find, can be a real problem.
“I can have influence on them, but they do vote en bloc. They are told how to vote in advance of meetings. It must be terribly boring for them.
“But they have voted for lots of my motions. Often the Labour group amends them, but so long as they are not brutal, I will accept it.”
If scrutinising the council isn’t difficult enough, Cllr Russell is also one of 25 members on the London Assembly, which holds mayor Sadiq Khan to account. In this role, however, Cllr Russell is not alone, joined by Green, Liberal Democrat, Conservative and UKIP opposition.
Of Islington, she adds: “I suspect even Labour councillors would accept it would be better to have more opposition councillors. But of course, none of them are going to want to lose their seat.
“In my opinion, the EU vote was driven by dissatisfaction at a broken political system. That is a system where Labour have 98 per cent of councillors with 56pc of the 2014 vote under the first past the post system. The Green Party has 2pc of councillors with 19pc of the vote...”
Still, Cllr Russell, who has lived in Islington since 1986, is optimistic for the 2018 elections: “I think what happens over the next few months, with the terms of Brexit and whether Labour will unite under Jeremy Corbyn, will have a big impact on the 2018 elections.
“I would deeply love to have more Greens on this council!”
Is Islington the North Korea of London? Or does it benefit from Labour’s strong presence? Email our opinion section: firstname.lastname@example.org