A solitary political life: What it’s like to be the sole Green on a Labour council
By Caroline Russell
Now that the last traces of election day paraphernalia have been tidied away, I have the rather unusual, but exciting, challenge of being a sole opposition councillor on Islington Council or "the only Green in the village" as I gather I'm called by my 47 Labour colleague.
Like many of the other first-time councillors, I've been thrown in at the deep end: tangling with IT, deciphering which emails are for info and which are for action, meeting with residents and large numbers of council staff and working out who does what and how they can help. I dream about an empty email inbox but fear that it is an unattainable fantasy.
Councils are often seen as rather remote and many are unsure what elected councillors actually do apart from respond to grumpy emails about potholes or dog poo on pavements. I've been elected at a really tough time, when councils across the country are bearing the brunt of fierce government cuts and Islington is particularly hard hit despite increasing inequality and a growing need for services. As a Green I believe passionately in social justice and am determined to play my part in ensuring that the needs and interests of residents are protected.
As a newbie there are two main elements to get to grips with: being a ward councillor and being the sole opposition councillor in relation to the council and formal council business. Labour are perfectly friendly, but with none of the usual party group mechanisms in place I'm only too aware of my sole councillor status. I have no group office, no dedicated staff support and, while I get to sit in the opposition leader's seat in the council chamber, I get no opposition leader allowance. Without a single council colleague to share it out with, the volume of paperwork I face can be somewhat daunting.
Throughout history the idea of a lone figure trying to be heard against the chorus of an overwhelming majority and seeking to overcome all but insuperable odds has often been romanticised. But frankly as I go about my daily work the reality seems rather more prosaic – especially at 8am, pre-coffee. I know that change can begin with just one voice, but it takes a movement to ensure it happens. I think that is how I see myself – just one Green voice but part of a council that has the ability to enact positive changes.
There is rightly considerable interest in how the formal scrutiny process will work with the super-majority regime. One legacy from Green cllr Katie Dawson's time during 2006-10 is the change in our constitution which allows a sole councillor to propose motions un-seconded. However, calling in decisions requires five councillors, and, while I'm sure Labour colleagues will be scrutinising the work of the executive, whether I will ever find five to help call in a decision is another question entirely. The assumption that 47 councillors can't work as a homogenous group and are likely to split into factions seems pretty wide of the mark – they look cohesively whipped to me.
There have been moments when I've felt like I have a bit part in Yes Minister. I find I can ask officers absolutely anything and they will provide me with an answer. However, the one question they cannot answer is "what question should I be asking you?" So, I'm just two months into the role and only beginning to see the shape of the challenges ahead. I'm hearing from residents from multiple communities and hope I can help improve people's live with a safer, healthier, greener ward where drivers of poverty and inequality are tackled effectively. This is an incredible opportunity and I'm grateful to everyone who voted Green and helped get a Green voice back on Islington council.
Caroline Russell is a Green councillor in Islington.
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