Rotherham: a case study in the laws of political mob dynamics

Paul Lakin and Mahroof Hussain: a combined 28 years of loyal service to the people of Rotherham and to the Labour Party

 

I recently wrote of my terror at the prospect of a mob in full flow. On Wednesday I witnessed one first hand. It wasn’t as terrifying as a gang of religious thugs stoning to death a gay man who’d had the temerity to survive being thrown from a seven-story building, but it was frightening in its own context nonetheless. Seven decent, honourable people doing righteous public service for very little reward were hounded out of office in Rotherham, by a mob whipped up by a partial government report that has condemned the very people who had finally started to get a grip on the chaos and confusion that has hurt so many in that town.

Over the last 30 years, I suppose it’s possible I’ve met a braver politician with more integrity than Paul Lakin but I can’t recall one and I’ve shaken the hand of Nelson Mandela. If you think that’s hyperbole you’ve never had a friend who suffered sexual abuse from the age of eight and seen her shake uncontrollably at its mere recall many years later, or heard her scream out in her sleep, as I have. If you believe I don’t take sexual abuse seriously enough then stop reading now, I can’t help you and you will learn nothing here.

Paul Lakin and his team rolled up their sleeves when many others headed for the hills, and they were making good progress. Lakin was the Leader of Rotherham Borough Council from 10 September 2014 until Wednesday 4 February 2015. It was the interregnum between the Jay report and this week’s Casey report, shall we say? During those 146 days he put his heart, soul and considerable personal capital into serving the people of Rotherham who are today worse off for his absence as their council leader. Among their number are many survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.

Of course, on Lakin’s brief watch, child sexual abuse in Rotherham did not come to an end, South Yorkshire Police did not start functioning properly, and Rotherham Borough Council did not suddenly shake off all the shackles of its decades of political corruption and complacency and enter the modern age. Municipal Rotherham wasn’t rebuilt in those 146 days. But solid foundations were laid and work was proceeding apace.

On Wednesday, I witnessed the shock and palpable distress of many members and officers, liberated for less than five months from their version of the Ancien Régime, unable to comprehend that the Leader who had brought them some fresh air at last with his accessibility, honesty and integrity, was no longer in post. Tribute after tribute was paid, some publicly, many more privately. I tweeted this http://twitter.com/iMcKenzied/status/562977362510618624. Even the Rotherham MP who had been so excoriating in Parliament sent him a personal text message of kindly support. It is for shame that the laws of mob dynamics prevented her expressing those sentiments on the Floor of the House of Commons so that we could all have heard them, especially the ill-informed editor who put together yesterday’s front page of the Times, and Nigel Farage of course.

I met Paul Lakin for the first time on Friday 5 September 2014 shortly after he became acting leader of Rotherham Council following the resignation of Roger Stone. (Stone was one of only two people who refused to be interviewed by Louise Casey for her report, and whose picture, inexplicably, did not appear on the front of yesterday’s Times). A few days later, and under Lakin’s stewardship, the Chief Executive and the Director of Children’s services had both departed without the lottery win pay-offs common in some other authorities, the council had approved a new slimmed down cabinet and had voted through emergency support for victims, the largesse excesses of the previous leadership had been culled (including a moratorium on foreign travel by councillors) and an independently chaired improvement board of experienced outsiders to oversee council activity was in place.

Not long after that, an interim Chief Executive with experience of turning around failing authorities and a new Director of Children’s Services had a grip of the official reins. It was all laudably rapid.

At the full council meeting on 10 September at which Paul Lakin was elected as Leader of the Council, he made a statement accepting the council’s responsibility for the events and making a truly heart-rending apology. It is worth reading. When he had finished speaking the entire room applauded, including the UKIP packed public gallery, and the Mayor afforded all the other political leaders – UKIP, the Tories and Independents – a brief opportunity to comment.

All of them welcomed the measures outlined and the motion that put them into practical effect was later carried without a single vote against. That reveals today’s political opportunism from Nigel Farage as all the more disgusting. Earlier, until corrected, he’d said that the outgoing cabinet had been complicit in the abuse.

Of course, this all came much too late for many survivors and victims, years so in many cases, and the pace of change since September was not as fast as we would all like. But then Louise Casey taking four months to come to her conclusions probably wasn’t fast enough either. And the pace of both Casey and the Council was much faster than progress now, which, thanks to the political upheaval, was effectively stalled for a couple of weeks at least.

Eric Pickles sent in Louise Casey, no doubt expecting the worst. But by the time she arrived, some time after the events I have described took place, the Council was moving forward in fresh air and light for the first time in decades.

She took a lot of time and spent a lot of money, and “it’s been crap for years but Paul looks like he’s put it on the right road at last” wouldn’t have made very good headlines and would have blunted the edge of Pickles’ party political broadcast on Wednesday in the Commons. The man’s a pro, mind, with a brass neck that would take a South Yorkshire foundry to cast. He even managed to take others to task for using child sex abuse as a political football and keep a straight face.

The leadership were given less than a couple of hours’ notice and only about an hour or so with the actual text before Pickles stood up to deliver his Commons statement.

By then I, and others, had told Paul he had to resign. Despite everything he had done, the enormous efforts he had made, the political reality created by Eric Pickles’ statement meant there was no alternative.

To his eternal credit Paul not only accepted the situation with grace and dignity, more than I could muster on his behalf, but reminded me that he’d foreseen this back in September when I had dismissed his pessimism. That’s why he’s a better politician that I would ever have been. Hilary Benn conveyed news of the cabinet’s resignation to the House of Commons.

I have only skim read the Casey report, but it seems to me that Casey may actually understate the scale of the political mayhem before September 2014 almost as much as she traduces the progress made since.

But the laws of political dynamics are laws nonetheless. Her report was welcomed without question, as it had to be, by a political class in terror of the gathered 4th Estate, encircled for a political stoning. It was leave the circle or be pounded to a bloody pulp. That’s how these things have to work. The Maxwellisation process for at least two of those mentioned by name was a sick joke. Those criticised by Chilcot have had weeks or months to respond. In Rotherham it was about 24 hours at the end of four months of enquiry. And their line-by-line rebuttals were effectively dismissed with glib blunderbuss accusations of being “in denial”.

This latest chapter of Rotherham’s appalling recent history has set back the cause of local public service some way. The next time a local authority scandal breaks and the old guard is swept aside, I warn you not to be an untainted local councillor there, nor to have a sense of civic duty or, if you do, not to put yourself forward as part of the solution in the service of your fellow citizens, for if you do that, you will find yourself at the mercy of political fluid dynamics you cannot comprehend. The ensuing torrent will recognise neither your integrity nor your industry as the sheer force of the current sweeps you away. Foaming outrage does not separate problem from solution. It leaves only a levelled landscape.

But above all, I warn you not to be a survivor or a victim of child sex abuse when this mob flows. Do not expect that the political tsunami has your interests at heart. There are newspaper front pages and manifestos to write, public forums with leather benches to fill with the sound of fury, and decent, hard-working public servants to flush away.

Paul Lakin, Mahroof Hussain and the other members of his cabinet will become, hopefully, the transitional executive authority that will in time turn out to have insulated Rotherham’s civilised future from its dark past. I hope they are all now on holiday far away from Rotherham. After those 146 days, they deserve a break. They did not deserve their monstering at the hands of the mob, a mob in which I played my own reluctant part when I advised them that they had to resign.

Self-loathing doesn’t cover my current mood, even though I believed it was the right thing to do and I still believe I had no choice. Especially because I believed I had no choice. I know the thump of political force majeure when I feel it.

I am just sorry that it took a nasty little slur from Nigel Farage to shame me out of my cowardice and into saying something sooner; I have corrected that now.

I am very proud of my association with former Councillor Paul Lakin, even though it was for just a few days over a few months. I am proud of his work as the Leader of Rotherham Council and I am honoured to be able to count him as my friend.

Ian McKenzie was engaged to give freelance strategic communications advice to Rotherham Borough Council.

This post was first published by Labour Uncut at http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2015/02/06/rotherham-a-case-study-in-the-laws-of-political-mob-dynamics/

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