INDEX April 29, 1987
Why political battles are turning into physical fights CHRISTIAN WOLMAR, Local Government Correspondent, on what's behind the recent Town Hall disruptions

AS THE PAST week alone has shown, life is becoming increasingly dangerous for London's councillors. Violence in council chambers is now such a frequent occurrence that only the most spectacular incidents are reported.

Elected members are subjected to an astonishing level of verbal, and at times, physical abuse. Flour, water, sticks, and banners have been used as missiles, and in Hackney, a blank from a starting pistol was fired at council leader Andrew Puddephatt.

On Monday night, in both Haringey and Tower Hamlets, police had to be called to eject protesters after fighting had broken out. Last Wednesday, there were similar battles in Westminster at a special policy and resources committee meeting, called, ironically, to discuss the very problem of violence in the council chamber

Moreover, it is not only demonstrators who are turning on councillors. Last month, at Hillingdon's rate-making meeting. Labour's Martin Walker and Tory Dr David Payne slugged it out, after Walker had accused the Tories of "foul play".

Internecine squabbles are also enlivening proceedings. In Islington, Labour's finance committee chairman Dave Yorath laid into housing chairman Maurice Barnes after a heated debate.

He claimed afterwards that it was a misunderstanding which he regretted. In all this turbulence, the worst event so far has been fire bomb attack and death threats on Waltham Forest's leader, Neil Gerrard, after the council's decision to increase domestic rates by 62 per cent.

The three councils involved in these events are each ruled by a different party and they have all embarked on policies that have upset large sections of their communities.

In Alliance controlled Tower Hamlets, Bangladeshis where attacking the council's decision to evict 100 homeless families from bed and breakfast accommodation. In Tory Westminster, tenants were objecting to a massive redevelopment scheme which involves moving 500 households and selling 250 council homes.

The common thread is the radical nature of the councils' decisions. There are several other contributory causes. The financial squeeze has reduced the ability of local authorities to tackle the problems of the inner city. As a result, people feel increasingly beleaguered.

Again, just as footballers are blamed for violence on the terraces, the antics of some councillors playing to the gallery merit a red card.

London councillors are increasingly young and inexperienced. Gone are the aged burghers, quietly looking after the affairs of their communities. Young turks are the order of the day and confrontation rather than discussion is their style.

While this is mainly a phenomenon of the Left, Tories in Haringey and Lambeth have extreme elements who are equally disruptive. At many committee meetings in Lambeth, Conservative Councillor John Bercow and a few colleagues make a habit of heckling from the sidelines in a style reminiscent of public schoolboys laughing at the class dunce.

The Trotskyist Left has been noticeably active at these confrontations. Paradoxically, that is a measure of their failure. Their influence in the London Labour Party is on the wane so they are returning to their old ways of fighting from outside, rather than from within the system.

Bob Lacey, a former Tory leader of Brent who is carrying out a study of violence in London's politics, identifies a further reason. "There are more hung councils or authorities where one vote can make all the difference. It is noticeable that many of the worst scenes have occurred in these."

The causes of the violence may be numerous but the single theme is powerlessness-- both of local people and of councillors. Until there is a less interventionist attitude on the part of central goverment and as more people in need compete for fewer resources, the frustration can only increase.

London Daily News April 29, 1987.