Russell jumps; Mike is pushed

We’re still a year out from the local elections, but the parties are starting to get their line-ups in order and there are a few changes in the offing. Some forced, some voluntary.

Russell Eagling has been one of the three ward councillors for Fortune Green since 2006. But, next year – after eight years as a Camden councillor – he will not stand again. “I have no guaranteed evenings to myself”, he told me. It’s the great challenge of councillor life – these people work hard and the younger ones like Russell, who was 29 when he was first elected, also have jobs.

Russell Eagling with fellow councillor Flick Rea at Gondar Gardens

Russell has been the whip of the Lib Dem group in Camden, which is more of an administrative role than a traditional parliamentary whip. He freely admits that rather than having a pet cause he’s interested in whatever the topic of the day is.

Russell is the partner of Ed Fordham, who stood as the Lib Dem candidate for Hampstead & Kilburn in 2010. However, both Russell and Ed stood for council seats in 2006 – Russell in Fortune Green and Ed in Hampstead Town. Russell won and Ed didn’t, which was always going to be awkward. With Ed failing to secure the seat in Westminster in 2010, Russell’s decision for 2014, also means that any residual awkwardness should come to an end.

I asked Russell what he has been most proud of during his time as a councillor. “The UCL academy [in Swiss Cottage] was the biggest thing,” he says. “It was a 2006 election manifesto commitment but people thought we weren’t serious. We had to fight hard and lots of barriers were thrown up so the admin side became very important.” Richard Osley’s article about the opening of the school sheds more light on the challenges.

What won’t he miss once he steps down? “Intractable casework,” is the prompt answer. “People sometimes come to councillors with terrible problems and you simply can’t pull the levers that would help them.”

Russell’s fellow Fortune Green councillors, Flick Rea and Nancy Jirira, are expected to stand again next year. Russell’s replacement on the Lib Dem list is likely to be decided next week when the party chooses its replacement parliamentary candidate in the wake of the Emily Frith debacle.

Russell jumped but Mike Katz was most definitely pushed.

Mike was elected as a Labour councillor for Kilburn ward in 2010 after previous election defeats in both council and general elections. His motivation, he says, “was a mix of wanting to give something back and helping make the world a better place (albeit in a small and local way).”

This year, he has already suffered the disappointment of being passed over as Labour’s parliamentary candidate when the party decided to enforce an all-women shortlist. Never mind, he must have thought, I’m still a councillor with a good chance of being re-elected next year. But strange things were afoot. Russell and Ed aren’t the only couple in local politics. Once again, Richard Osley has the inside track:

“There had been talk earlier in the year that Thomas Gardiner, often appearing restless to colleagues about the Labour group’s direction and progress, and his wife Maryam Eslamdoust, the councillor who irritated the leadership with comments about racial divisions at Camden Town Hall, might be open to an ambush. “Well, that was all in their f***ing minds”, was the blunt assessment of that idea today from one frustrated member.

The annoyance is because after the internal vote last night, Thomas and Maryam (also pictured) were re-selected and Mike, cast as a New Labour eagle in a nest of lefty voices, lost his place on the slate. Either the plan to bump them off had never existed or it had been warded off in the weeks running up to the vote.”

Mike maintained a dignified silence on the topic the next day on Twitter, but it’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t (and probably still is) seething.

Some of the comments following Richard’s article focus heavily on the politics of the matter and it’s left to Conservative councillor Chris Knight to point out that he’d “always found Mike to a decent bloke to work with”. But surely it’s the constituents who really matter?

Local resident Matt tweeted “Seemingly you get shafted if you put your constituents before party machine”, while Adrian wrote “Political shenanigans .. no sign of a meritocracy”. In my experience, Mike had always been very responsive to constituents’ concerns but it appears that popularity has nothing to do with it.

He responds robustly to the accusation that his parliamentary ambitions implied he wasn’t interested in his ward constituents:

“I’ve never been reticent about saying I want to stand as a councillor, or as an MP, because I think it’s better to be upfront with people and also I don’t think it’s something to be ashamed of! I don’t think it means I’m not committed to Camden – I only got elected to the council at my fourth attempt. If I was a fly-by-night, or didn’t care about my local area, I would have drifted off elsewhere long before 2010!”

Like Russell, Mike’s expresses pride over larger campaigns that he fought in – especially saving the Netherwood Day Centre, which was an early candidate for closure once the public spending cuts were implemented. He says, though, that he gets just as much satisfaction from smaller casework like helping local pensioners group KOVE get a bench on the Kilburn High Road. 

I asked both councillors what their one piece of advice would be for new councillors. Russell says “perservere”, which i think says a lot about the job of councillor. Mike says “never be afraid to ask”, which is good advice generally in life.

Mike’s replacement on the ballot sheet will be Douglas Beattie. Meanwhile, perhaps Mike’s wife Penny – herself a Labour activist – might want to think about running for office instead. Political couples seem to be all the rage around here.

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