There is something enticingly Koestlerian about meeting political exiles in small cafes to discuss the place of dissent. It’s a romantic image, albeit one inevitably disenchanted by reality. But I can claim my Rubashov moment, even if my dissident is a Green Party candidate for the local council, and the one-party state is Labour’s Islington.
Benali Hamdache does not suit the role of Trotsky in my Cold War narrative. At 28, he has some decades to go before he attains the old firebrand’s cranky allure. He’s standing for Islington South & Finsbury, having been a Green Party member for 5 years. His political activity encompasses public policy concerns – workplace discrimination, payday loans – more conventional than revolutionary. He worked for Britain Stronger in Europe managing some 45,000 volunteers, yet failed, in his Kronstadt moment, to crush the British uprising. (Though he certainly acted in defence of his Soviet.)
He has some of the zeal but little of the anger, none of the grizzle, and his head is adorned by no ice-pick. And he paints himself, and casts the Greens, not as an enemy of The Party but as an honest friend.
“Four years ago we had a really unusual result. A Labour supermajority on the council; 47 Labour members and one Green,” he says. “So for the last four years we’ve had the job of holding the council to account; the weight of democracy on our backs.”
He chuckles at that, but it hasn’t always been easy. Last year, in breach of the rules, the Labour-dominated Islington Council had the office of the Council’s chief executive, which is supposed to be neutral, organise an emergency budget meeting from which the sole opposition councillor, the Greens’ Caroline Russell, was ‘uninvited’.
“Council staff organising a Labour meeting! If that’s not a blurring of resources, of propriety, then I don’t know what is. Can you imagine if there’d been no opposition on that council? We’d never have found out, and it would have happened again.”
For all that, the Greens and Labour are not natural enemies. Indeed, Hamdache doesn’t like me referring to the present discord as a quarrel. “We have a lot of sympathy [with Islington Labour],” he says. “They’ve had to make some really difficult decisions. The government’s cuts to the council are intolerable, unfair.”
“But there have been occasions where we’ve felt that Labour have made the wrong decisions,” he continues.
“For example, the IMAX benefits team,” he says. “Their job was to help people claim all the benefits they’re entitled to, helping them wade through the bureaucracy. Islington had one of the highest rates in the country of people getting the benefits that were due to them. But the team was made redundant.”
Islington Labour has since refuted the claim that the IMAX benefits team was made redundant.
“We thought they should be kept; it wasn’t worth risking the lives of vulnerable people. Savings could’ve been made elsewhere.”
Hamdache belongs to what people might call the Eco-Socialist wing of the Green Party. It’s the line taken by the party’s co-leaders, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, and the one with which the party is most readily associated.
As such, his answers almost always invoke social justice issues, whether they involve the party’s work on housing estates (“In Highbury there are about three estates whose cyclical repairs are two or three years late; people shouldn’t have to be living in sub-prime conditions”) or its campaigning on environmental issues, particularly recycling. “Recycling is cheaper than landfill. The more we recycle the more money we free up to spend on front-line services. And air pollution’s a huge social justice issue; we live in a borough where only about a third of people own cars, and they’re by-and-large the wealthy ones.
“The borough’s working class are more likely to live on busy main roads, and less able to avoid the impact of air pollution.”
These are familiar lines, which I’m quite sure I’ve heard from the Labour Party. Given the substantial convergence on matters of policy, why bother fighting Labour at all? Why not pool resources in the fight against the Tories? Why not take up the suggestion made recently by Owen Jones, and affiliate to Labour?
“There are substantive issues where we disagree with Labour,” he insists. “For example, what the council’s doing on cycling.” I suggest that’s a good example of Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’. But here Hamdache, who has hitherto been bright and gentle and enthusiastic, does show a bit of steel.
“If Labour want to spend their time trying to secure a one-party state in Islington, that’s their priority. Personally, I’d be trying to get the Tories out in Barnet, Wandsworth, Westminster. As for affiliating with Labour, if the Greens stood down in Islington we would become a one-party state.
“[Look at] Lambeth, where the Labour council is closing libraries and demolishing estates; Southwark, where we’re seeing almost the mass deportation of the working class; Haringey, where the Haringey Development Vehicle was a terrible scheme. There are scores of Labour councils up and down the country that are not living up to Jeremy Corbyn’s values. Only a Green opposition can hold them to account.”
Does that not leave the Greens in the odd position of opposing the Labour Party in order to support the Labour leader?
“That’s irrelevant,” he replies. “It’s about Green values which have been at the heart of our manifesto for a very long time, the same values that were in our manifestos in 2010, 2005, that weren’t in Labour manifestos for many more years.
“Multi-party democracy is better for voters. Can you imagine if the council chamber, instead of being a place to debate policy, just becomes an internal Labour meeting where policy is set? If the only way to influence policy is by becoming a Labour member, that’s not healthy.”
There is little to disagree with here. Indeed, as if to affirm his point, Islington Labour, at the time of publication, offered no response to any request for comment.
“Look at Newham, which has been a one-party state for the last eight years. You’ve got the old West Ham stadium being turned into luxury housing, you’ve got the Carpenter Estate left empty while people are homeless in Newham; there’s no public accountability on these issues and having a Green presence in Newham would be hugely powerful, just like it has been in Islington and Lambeth.”
How well does he expect to do?
“We’ll get more Green councillors elected,” he says. And he’s confident. “Even two councillors would make a huge difference. At the moment Caroline [Russell] isn’t classed as a group, because a group needs a leader and a whip. Apparently she can’t be trusted to whip herself. Being a group gives you more recognition on the council. 6 Councillors means you’re entitled to council support. Either one of those targets would be great to hit.”
And does he have a message for the Labour Party?
“We’re sympathetic. The Tory government has deliberately targeted metropolitan councils for deeper cuts. Labour has had to make difficult decisions. But there’ve been too many instances where they’ve not consulted, where they’ve jumped in head first, whether that’s scrapping the IMAX team or ignoring residents living in damp, dilapidated housing. This council has adopted some of our motions, like adopting LGBT history into the curriculum year-round, calling for a re-think of Prevent; but I think it would be better for the future of the council to have a Green opposition. We’ll celebrate Labour when they get it right. But when they get it wrong, we won’t be afraid to point it out.”
Once again, it is important to note that Islington Labour has stated the IMAX team has not been scrapped.
And, with that, he leaves me to my coffee, strolling with purpose away into the evening.
“Time,” wrote Auden, “will say nothing but I told you so.” Whether Mr Hamdache and the Green Party can achieve Glasnost, and Perestroika thereafter, or whether the slate of Green Party candidates will come to resemble Solzhenitsyn’s list of the damned, time will tell soon enough.