They won the ‘Battle of Belsize’ but Lib Dem leader has warning over lop-sided Town Hall

Tom Simon becomes the official leader of the opposition

Friday, 13th May — By Richard Osley


Lib Dem winners Matthew Kirk, Judy Dixey and Tom Simon

IT might have been hard for the Liberal Democrats to know whether to laugh or cry after council election results which drew both cheer and disappointment.

Either way, those familiar yellow diamonds were back on display after they won the “Battle of Belsize” by taking all three seats in a face-off with the Tories – a victory which helped them become the largest opposition group in the council chamber.

But with only four councillors returned, the new leader of the opposition Tom Simon was ready with a realistic take on the challenges ahead amid the celebrations.

For when he gets up to speak for the first time in his new role, he will be stood opposite a juggernaut of 47 Labour members.

“It was certainly a win in terms of Belsize, where we won fairly comprehensively in what we thought was going to be a really close election.On the other hand it was disappointing that outside of Belsize we only got Nancy [Jirira, in Fortune Green ward]. We had hoped to do better.

“I think when it came to polling day, there was this red tide across most of London and, in wards where we were up against Labour, that was tough.

“I think that reflected an unhappiness with the national government and a for a lot of people their political instinct is that if they don’t want the Conservatives, they vote for Labour.”

The party had hoped to take all three seats in Fortune Green and fell an agonising 38 votes short of getting party organiser Janet Grauberg elected in West Hampstead – the closest anybody came to unseating a Labour councillor last week.

“In Belsize, we were the main challengers to the Conservatives, and we were able to channel some of that anger into our boxes. But when you are up against Labour you can’t really do that very easily,” said Cllr Simon. “Clearly there is an unhappiness with national government with ‘party gate’, the lack of honesty and I think failings over the cost of living crisis which people are really feeling.”

But Cllr Simon, a novelist who lives in the Chalcots towers and one of the enduring local Lib Dems after four election victories, said the wins were not simply an anti-Tory vote.

“I do think locally people did like what we were saying around climate change, and what we’d like to do around insulating homes better, around increasing the number off electrical charger points, bike hangars, more trees, all of these things resonate with people,” he said.

Those yellow/orange diamonds were back in the counting hall

“There are plenty of people saying they want to switch to electric vehicles but they do not feel the infrastructure is in place.

“I think we all agree there is a climate emergency but the level of action that has flowed doesn’t reflect the idea of it being an emergency. There is action on climate change, but there isn’t emergency level action.”

For the past four years, the Lib Dems have operated with just three councillors, which Cllr Simon said had been hard – and that one more member would “help a bit – but we also have added responsibility as the main opposition.”

“It’s going to be a big challenge and we are going to have to be smart about the issues that we focus on and make sure that we don’t burn ourselves out,” he said.

The new group leader said that the party had showed that it could have influence even if it was a small contingent over the past council term, citing motions on no fault evictions and divestment of pension fund deposits from fossil fuel companies as examples of how it had put the pressure on.

“I think my approach as leader of the opposition will aim to be more constructive [than the Tories] and really aim for things that we can change in a positive way for Camden, rather than what we’ve had over the past four years where the opposition has been too focused on scoring political points,” said Cllr Simon.

Would he be willing to work with the three Tories left and the sole Green councillor in the coming months and years?

“Where there’s an issue that we agree on more or less, we’re up for working with people from any of the parties if it’s for the benefit of Camden,” said Cllr Simon. “I’d like to think there would be a least one or two Labour council­lors in the new intake who might be a bit more rebellious than they are expected to be. Who knows?

“There are a lot of new councillors who have not been tested yet and in time they will face the same pressures of wanting to be a good local ward representatives against doing what they’re told by the party.”

The new Lib Dems on the council are Matthew Kirk and Judy Dixey, but the party is saying farewell – in council terms, at least – to Luisa Porritt, the former MEP who stepped down from her seat in Belsize.

On two of the biggest issues affecting the ward, Cllr Simon said he supported the al-fresco dining at the Belsize “streatery” but said this did not mean residents should be left disturbed late at night.

And on the Haverstock Hill cycle lane, he said that with work now started, residents and businesses would have to wait and see how it worked out.

But Cllr Simon said the council had been at fault for a lack of consultation from the start. Away from his council work, he has found a publisher for his first book – an adventure story set in the time of King Henry II.

He is now working on a final draft and hoping to get it into bookshops.

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