1 November 1991

A night to remember

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A report from Hackney Town Hall, describing the eventful night when Councillor Medlin Lewis defected from the ruling Labour group to join the Conservative opposition. Published in the Guardian, 1 November 1991.

Hackney’s press office appeared surprised that any journalist except the obligatory reporter from the Hackney Gazette should want to attend Wednesday’s council meeting. As things turned out, there were reasons enough.

It was to be at this meeting that Ms Medlin Lewis would cross the floor to join the handful of Conservative councillors forming the main opposition in this Labour-controlled London borough. Lewis had been with the council for five years, serving variously as mayor, deputy mayor and chair of the Labour group.

But a couple of weeks ago, she had announced her defection to the Conservatives, declaring that the Labour group was run by a ‘secret clique’ of senior councillors; that the council was riddled with corruption and incompetence; and that black councillors were treated in a manner that was ‘arrogant, vicious and smacks of imperialism and colonialism’.

Lewis’s defection was attended by a flurry of publicity. The Hackney Gazette ran a picture of her posing with a revolver on its front page, suitably captioned ‘Gunning for Labour’. She also made a quick round of radio and television appearances, in which she declared the Conservatives the most credible party in Hackney.

She was welcomed with open arms not just by the small band of Tories on Hackney council, but by the chairman of the Conservative Party, Chris Patten. Recently embarrassed by the racial slurs heaped on John Taylor, a black prospective Tory candidate for Cheltenham, Patten commended her with a ‘Well done!’ and smiled as Ms Lewis told the media that the Labour Party was not the party that represented black and ethnic minority interests.

How would the Labour group respond to this apparent provocation? Labour leader John McCafferty had taken a dismissive line when interviewed on television. Medlin Lewis would, he said, be forgotten in a couple of days.

There was no explosion or uproar as Lewis entered the council chamber on Wednesday evening, stepping quickly across the symbolic stretch of orange carpet that divides the parties to take her place on the Conservative front bench. Only the faintest hiss indicated Labour displeasure.

The meeting quickly settled into the normal routine. There was the usual bluster and counter-bluster. The opposition parties harped on the terrible incompetence and corruption to be found in Hackney Council. The Labour councillors replied in the different language of office: spelling out the procedural detail, explaining the difficulties of administration, chiding their opponents for always selling Hackney short. The council officers kept their distance at the edge of the room.

The people in the public gallery started shouting with irritation. Some would slowly turn grey as the night slipped by and they realised that their pressing grievances were never going to be addressed. Councillor Medlin Lewis sat quietly through the meeting’s first hour with her eyes down, occasionally whispering to the young Tory councillor next to her. But, as it turned out, everyone had the same destination in mind: Item 8 on the agenda, which promised a report from the chief executive on the allocation of council chamber seats in the light of Medlin Lewis’s changed position.

Sub-committee reports were passed without demur. Even the Women’s Equality Committee report, which consisted mostly of a lengthy statement on what the council was doing to service the needs of ‘the largest community of lesbians in Europe after Amsterdam’, passed through without delaying quibble or even smirk from the Tory benches.

Then Item 8 arrived. Cllr Beadle, leader of the Liberal Democrats, jumped in, declaring that it was ‘a complete denial of democracy’ to cross the floor: ‘complete fraud from top to bottom’. Since Lewis had told the Voice that she wasn’t a Conservative, would she tell him who she represented?

But the noisy Mr. Beadle was quickly upstaged by Nick Tallentire, a Labour councillor who had held himself in reserve until now.

After opening sourly by assuring Lewis that her recently indicated wish to be treated differently in the council chamber would certainly be granted, he went on to describe her as if she was something rotten dredged up from one of Hackney’s foulest, most gelatinous ponds.

Mr Tallentire had a withering line in contempt, but words would not cut deep enough, and he had planned a different kind of gesture for his star turn. Striding across the council chamber he told Councillor Lewis that ‘treachery of her kind is odious and deserves the traditional price of thirty pieces of silver’. He then hurled a carefully counted fistful of five pence coins at her.

There was a stunned pause, and then uproar. Tory gallants gathered round their new councillor to see that she had survived this unseemly attack. The mayor called for order so vehemently that his chains rattled. There were claims that Mr. Tallentire was in breach of standing orders and should be removed from the chamber. But nobody could be quite certain which standing order he was in breach of. One councillor picked up the scattered coins and triumphantly inserted them into the British Legion’s Remembrance Day collection box.

Medlin Lewis sat through this onslaught, occasionally muttering furious ripostes. When the time came, she stood up and quoted ‘the greatest British prime minister of the twentieth century’ as her precedent: Winston Churchill had once crossed the floor and she was content to follow in his footsteps. As for those Labour members who remarked that her ward would never return her as a Tory, she wished they could have been with her on the 149 bus when two 80 year old men came up and congratulated her on her defection.

The accusations, meanwhile, kept piling up. Ms Lewis was a dreadful hypocrite, a publicity seeker. Her probity was questioned. How could a Christian betray the people who voted for her? Black Labour councillors were generally more careful.

They dismissed Lewis’s defection as ‘naïve and silly’, and tried, with detailed reference to the experience of West Indian immigrants during the time of Harold MacMillan, to convince her that it was mistaken to hope that the Tories would ever serve the interest of black people. But then Shuja Shaikh stepped in as chair of the Labour group: ‘In a civilised society, there is not room for traitors,’ she cried. The Tories were ‘political rubbish’. Medlin Lewis had left because she was thwarted in personal ambition. Her line had been ‘I’m black. I am a woman. Make me mayor or else you are racist’.

It was now the Tories’ turn to attack. Cllr Philip McCullough condemned Labour’s bullying of ‘a lady of such timid frame’. But he also revealed that he and his fellows were still finding their way into their role as the natural party of black Britain. ‘The sooner the races come together, with black marrying white and white marrying black,’ he announced, ‘the sooner we’ll have unity’.

Then, with a victorious smile, he voiced the next thought that came into his head: the Labour council’s policy of equal opportunities was ‘bordering on apartheid’. The new Tory cry was: ‘Let’s have equal rights for everybody’.

This point would have been answered by the deputy leader of the council, Tommy Sheppard, who had scribbled down some large-lettered notes for a devastating riposte. But the speech never got delivered. Someone had been combing through the Standing Order book ever since the coins were thrown, and it was now clear which standing order had been contravened. Apologies were demanded: a reprimand at the very least. When neither was forthcoming, the Tories got up and walked out amid cries of lying and deceit. So Hackney’s councillors drifted home to bed.

It had, as even the hard-bitten man from the Hackney Gazette, admitted, been a ‘lively’ night. A couple of men, who had come along in the vain hope of seeing some progress on their afflicted housing estate, were standing outside on the Town Hall steps shaking their heads in resigned amazement. One of them gestured towards a poster-ridden building across the drab square and said: ‘We’ve got the Hackney Empire over there, but all the variety is in the council chamber’.

At that moment Councillor Medlin Lewis strode through the door, followed by a little retinue of her new Tory comrades, some of whom were positively clucking with disgruntlement.

‘They’re finished,’ she blazed, hoicking a contemptuous thumb back in the direction of the Labour group, whose leaders were still huddled inside. ‘I’ve got all the evidence. They’ve cut their own throats. They’ve busted their own backs. They’re down on the floor. They’re writhing around in traction, and I’m not going to put a plastercast on it. You write that down’.

So I did. It hadn’t been a good night for anyone.

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