Andrew Gilligan

Andrew Gilligan: Greenwich Council Leader Does the Chicken Run

November 17, 2009 by  

THEY called it the "chicken run." In the mid-1990s, as general election defeat loomed, top Tories started abandoning their parliamentary seats and getting themselves safer ones. Among them was this borough's very own Peter Bottomley, Tory MP for Eltham until he decided he was more likely to keep his job by moving to the rather less marginal territory of West Worthing.

It was seen as a clear signal of the Tories conceding defeat. Labour, both nationally and locally, had a lot of fun at the "chickens'" expense: Frank Dobson, the shadow environment secretary, launched what he called "Operation Chicken Watch," chortling: "The Government says the feelgood factor will win them the election, but Tory MPs don't feel good."

What goes around, comes around. Labour MPs aren't allowed to do what their Tory counterparts did in the 1990s - but there's no such rule for Labour councillors. And ahead of the local elections next May, Greenwich, once again, is at the centre of something that looks rather like a chicken run.

We can reveal that no less a person than Chris Roberts, the leader of Greenwich Council, is to leave his current ward, Peninsula (where Labour scored 45.7% at the 2006 council elections) and has just been selected in the ward of Glyndon (where the People's Party got an altogether more comfortable 59.4%.)

Peninsula ward is essentially East Greenwich and GMV - everything in SE10 east of the Naval College and north of the railway line, plus a little bit of Charlton. It's a more socially mixed, middle-class place than Glyndon, which sits between Woolwich and Plumstead town centres. Peninsula will also be heavily affected by the unpopular plans to close the park and roads for the Olympics - could that be a factor in Roberts' decision?

Denise Hyland, the council's cabinet member for the economy and skills, is also moving, from Shooters Hill - where she was only 118 votes ahead of the Tories in 2006 - to Abbey Wood, where the bottom Labour candidate was elected by a much more comfortable 357 votes ahead of their nearest rival, a Lib Dem. (Labour's share of the vote in Abbey Wood was slightly less than in Shooters Hill, but the anti-Labour vote in Abbey Wood was split between Tories and Lib Dems.)

I couldn't ask either councillor why they are moving - they haven't returned my calls - but Spencer Drury, the Tory opposition leader, says: "I think it does show they're worried, and I think they're right to be worried. I think the council have called a number of issues wrong - for instance, they've made the judgment that they want to organise cuts immediately after the elections and not tell people about them before. The response we're getting on the doorstep is excellent."

Mr Roberts' move is particularly interesting, not just because he is council leader but because his current berth, Peninsula, was not seen as a particularly marginal ward. Seven wards with Labour councillors - including four wards where the party holds all three of the council seats - registered a lower Labour share of the vote than Peninsula did.

If Labour lost all those wards, even if it kept Peninsula, it would lose control of the council. Does that mean Labour is in with a serious chance of defeat? I'm not sure; much depends on whether the opposition in each ward coalesces around one party, or whether it is split between two or three.

With the 2006 elections delivering them 36 out of the 51 seats, Greenwich remains one of Labour's safest councils in London. But Labour got a very bad fright here in last year's mayoral elections. For the first time in decades, if not in living memory, the Tories won more votes than Labour across the borough of Greenwich. In the current political climate, and with a Westminster election likely to take place on the same day as the local poll, no Labour council can be considered entirely safe. Mr Roberts certainly isn't taking any chances.

p.s. Michael Stanworth, the Labour Borough Organiser for Greenwich, has been in touch to say "I can assure you that there is nothing sinister about his move to Glyndon ward, it is just closer to where he lives."


10 Responses to “Andrew Gilligan: Greenwich Council Leader Does the Chicken Run”

  1. Jim on November 18th, 2009 12:07 am

    Gilligan really is a bore…

    Yet another incident put down to the Olympics.

    Why does give a platform to the man who likes to do nothing more than berate his own backyard?

  2. Tom on November 18th, 2009 12:35 am

    How does this berate “his own backyard”? You confuse Greenwich with Greenwich Council. They aren’t actually the same thing, y’know. Although maybe it feels like they are down in the bunker, Jim?

  3. GORN61 on November 18th, 2009 11:37 am

    Quite so, Tom.
    Jim – if you don’t find the Gilligan blog dull, why do you read it? I can’t be bothered with it most of the time.

  4. Will on November 18th, 2009 3:42 pm

    The word out there is that Peter Bottomley’s successor as MP for Eltham, Clive Efford, is also about to do a chicken run. Apparently his pictures and name have already been replaced with a generic Vote Labour posters and pictures of Gordon Brown in the local Labout office.

    Regarding the Peninsula, anybody who lives there suffers on a daily basis because of the diabolical traffic arrangements in the area and only someone with a very strong conviction for the party’s cause would vote for the people who created the mess. So no wonder Chris Roberts is moving to a safer ward.

  5. Hedley Shaw on November 19th, 2009 4:09 pm

    On a Council-wide scale the current administration doesn’t seem to keen to embrace the customer focus approach that sounds to be working well in Lewisham. However, on a local level I am always impressed with and grateful for Mary Mills hard work as a ward councillor especially with issues such as planning and traffic. I might just vote for only her if we get several votes.

  6. Mark on November 19th, 2009 10:10 pm

    The post about Clive Efford is just bizarre, some windows have been replaced, so that must mean the MP is standing down? He didn’t appear to be going anywhere the other day when he was kind enough to help me at his surgery!

  7. Kate Powling on November 20th, 2009 5:56 pm

    Can we draft Clive Efford in to Greenwich? He seems an excellent constituency MP – everytime I’m in Eltham he seems to be around.
    Quite a contrast with the Rt. Hon Nick Raynsford who I see very rarely, despite inviting him to several community events in the past few years he always seems to have a more pressing parliamentary engagement… Mind you, with an election coming up I’m sure I will see him for his 5 yearly appearance at the school gates…

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