Be mean and nasty

Jenny Diski

  • Nothing like a Dame: The Scandals of Shirley Porter by Andrew Hosken
    Granta, 372 pp, £20.00, March 2006, ISBN 1 86207 809 2

What is the only place in England the joke went, where you can buy three cemeteries and a pint of beer and still have change from a pound? Answer: the London Borough of Westminster. Boom boom. This makes the price of a pint of beer in 1986 slightly less than 85p. The cemeteries, in Hanwell, East Finchley and Mill Hill, whose upkeep was the responsibility of the Highways and Works Committee of Westminster City Council, were sold by the council for 5p each. Aside from thousands of dead bodies, they included three lodge houses, a plant nursery suitable for housing development, 12 acres of grazing land equally suitable for building on, a foreman’s flat and a car park. To be fair, these extra features were not part of the 15p price for the three cemeteries: they cost another 65p in total. The cemeteries themselves were not great assets – indeed, the cost of their upkeep (£400,000 a year) was what prompted the sale in the first place – but they did contain among many others the interred remains of Billy Fury; a thousand Dutch servicemen killed in the war; PC Keith Blakelock, who had died in the Broadwater Farm riot the previous year; a former Tory chancellor of the exchequer, Austen Chamberlain; and Mrs Eileen Sheppard’s husband, Harold, who had been buried there at a cost of £1200 22 months earlier. When the grass began to grow wild and the headstones to crack and topple as a result of neglect by the new owners, more than eight hundred distraught relatives marched on City Hall, and the newspapers had a field day. The leader of Westminster City Council stood firm at first, telling the relatives that they were ‘peddling cheap emotions for the cameras’, but eventually agreed to buy the cemeteries back when the bad publicity refused to go away. It took five years for them to be retrieved: they were bought back for 15p in 1992. However, the development land, the properties and a crematorium have remained in private hands. The affair had cost the residents of Westminster £4.25 million. Less, I suppose, the interest on 15p.

Until this idiocy was revealed, Westminster City Council and its leader, Shirley Porter, had been the darling of the Tory Party; a showcase example of how local government could benefit from an efficient, cost-cutting, commercially-minded, unsentimental head, just as the nation had been doing since 1979. Porter was Margaret Thatcher’s mini-me; they were even both the daughters of grocers, though Jack Cohen’s Tesco proved to be a more lasting success than Alderman Roberts’s shop in Grantham. Porter rode high in public and party esteem thanks to a passionately media-friendly campaign to clear the streets of litter, and then by keeping Westminster rates unreasonably low by axing libraries, privatising and scrapping services and taking on the unions. She was never popular among those who worked under her. ‘Redundancy,’ she told the council officers when she took over as leader in 1983, ‘is an unpleasant fact of life.’ Andrew Hosken, a Radio 4 reporter who investigated the Porter scandals for the Today programme, suggests that the daughter of a multi-millionaire knew less than nothing about redundancy, but perhaps that’s not entirely right. Being rich has never precluded anyone from being unnecessary, and if your father and the source of your wealth won’t let you into the boardroom, and it doesn’t cross your mind to give up all your company shares and see if you can make your own way in the world, you might well know something of what it feels like to be redundant. Jack Cohen gave his daughter’s husband, Leslie, a seat on the board of Tesco, but not Shirley – because he was firmly of the opinion that women belonged in the home. In 1985, after her father was dead, Porter tried again for a seat on the board, citing her experience in running the council as proof that she could manage the affairs of Tesco. ‘Look, Shirley,’ Ian MacLaurin told her, ‘you’ll just have to accept that as long as I am chairman of Tesco, you’ll never get a place on the board.’ Perhaps not just because she was a woman but because, as a council member said, ‘she lacked spontaneity and mental agility, and possibly humour.’ MacLaurin said later that his only regret in blocking her was that it allowed her to give her full attention to destroying Westminster City Council.

Porter’s money had been made by someone else and spending it could take up only so much of her time. For some this might mean a lifetime of pointlessness. Others might train for a career of their own or choose to offer their services freely to the community. After she had been a home-decorating housewife, and the children had grown up, Porter appeared to choose the latter option. She claimed that the shock of finding herself a mother-in-law led her into prison visiting, and then she became a magistrate. Local government was the logical next step. But finding something useful to do with her time and being of service wasn’t at the heart of what was going on in her progress to a Tory seat on Westminster Council. Her real aim – in which she succeeded for a remarkably long time – was to make the community serve her frustrated need to prove she could run a big organisation. The time was perfectly right for this. Thatcher had declared that society didn’t exist. Why would anyone who idolised her as Porter did think of society as anything other than something to exploit?

Like her mentor, Porter had no time for tradition, and very few local governments were as stilted by tradition as Westminster. When the new city solicitor, Terry Neville, took over in 1981, his secretary asked him if he would like to take an afternoon nap, as his predecessor had done. Hosken adds:

The city architect and the director of cleansing had their own ‘grace and favour’ flats in the best parts of town, one senior officer started his week by asking for a supply of the latest books from the city librarian and spent the rest of the week, when not inconvenienced by meetings, reading them. Neville says: ‘I’m not saying they didn’t work, but it was all very genteel and leisurely before Shirley Porter.’ One clerk remembers: ‘It was fossilised, in the past, totally antiquated and chronically overstaffed.’

How they were to regret those days. And how attractive the idea of a council official who wants to read books instead of balance them strikes me – apart from the fact that such old-guard attitudes were exactly what allowed the Thatcherite tendency to get its grip on government. Certainly, the new Tories took care of over-manning and overspending, but of society they took no care at all. It was precisely as a result of those severely utilitarian principles that what Hosken calls ‘one of the most calamitous political careers in the history of British local government’ was allowed to develop.

Nonetheless, and without it justifying Porter’s behaviour in the slightest, a small troubled voice in my head whispers to me of snobbery and an undeclared racism in many of her critics. As well as her ignorance of politics and how the council worked when she took over, it was noticed that her voice was ‘shrill and rather nasal’, the result, Hosken says, of a chronic throat complaint. He suggests that ‘to some of the snootier patricians, wreathed in their old money, Porter’s slightly manicured accent bore the unmistakable taint of elocution lessons.’ Jack Cohen is described in this book as an ‘East End barrow boy’ who made ‘the transition from “gorblimey” street trader to respectable shopkeeper’, and ‘followed a path well trodden by successful London Jews: from the cramped squalor of Whitechapel to the more comfortable areas of Hackney and north to the leafier and desirable neighbourhoods of Golders Green or, even better, Hampstead Garden Suburb’. Shirley Porter’s flat in Gloucester Square, where some meetings were held, is described in detail:

Witnesses attest to huge mirrors and a profusion of vulgar ornaments. By common consent, the fittings, furniture and kitsch paintings represented a victory of wealth over taste, and it was a sign of her unpopularity that people laughed about her bad taste behind her back. Porter became so acutely aware of the cowardly mockery of 19 Chelwood House that she was reluctant to allow newspaper interviewers to use the lavatory in case they wrote about gold-plated taps.

She was in other words seen as a working-class Jewish upstart. I’ve been an English Jew for too many decades not to recognise the echo of something more than simple class snobbery in the judgments made of her voice and decor. The English part of me recognises exactly what is being described and the Jew in me flinches ever so slightly. Perhaps the nouveaux riches of any race might have their accommodation described like this, but the picture on the front of Hosken’s book is of Porter as a racial caricature. Bright lumps of gold adorn her ears and finger, brass buttons decorate her blazer, a gold smiley-face pendant hangs round her neck, the most garish of orange lipstick outlines her lips, her arms are arrogantly akimbo, her less than gracile facial features perform an ugly, over-bronzed sneer of contempt. She is outsized against the background, looming over London, the curse of the 50-foot woman, lording it over and diminishing the Houses of Parliament and the City: common as muck and in control. Call me oversensitive, but she’s not just dreadful, she’s so Jewish.

But to return to what she did. The selling of the cemeteries turned out to be a trial run for her biggest, stupidest and most cynical act of corruption, which became known as the Homes for Votes scandal. There was nothing very original in what she did: gerrymandering has a long history. And she isn’t the first, and won’t be the last politician to display complete disdain for any notion of democracy. Democracy, we know, is a useful tool to those who are in a position to manipulate it to get what they want. In 1986 Porter very nearly lost her second term in office to a highly organised Labour campaign to get the Tories turfed out in Westminster. The electors voted her in with the tiniest of majorities and gave her a nasty fright. By this time she was running the council almost entirely with her small, unelected, virtually secret cabal. Orders went down from on high and officers were expected to do exactly what they were told, no matter about the legality. So when Porter decided that Westminster needed more resident Tory voters in the marginal wards the answer was to sell off council housing stock to private buyers. Get the Labour voters out and the Tory voters in. This was only what Margaret Thatcher was doing in the country at large. Council tenants’ right to buy their houses was designed to give the working classes a good reason for voting Conservative. Porter was able to take this a step further and aimed to ship the working classes out of her marginal wards and ship the yuppies in. The problem was the legal requirement for a local authority to house the homeless. There were 23,000 council houses in Westminster (considerably fewer than in other local boroughs), and thanks to its central position and nearness to railway termini homeless people turned up there from all over the country. Ten thousand people were on the waiting list for a council house. A secret strategy paper looked ahead to the next local elections, in 1990: ‘Unlike other London boroughs the sale of council houses offers little opportunity to socially engineer the population of Westminster. This remains a longer-term objective, but there is an immediate need to socially engineer the population in marginal wards.’

It was decided to export the homeless outside the city and sell off the council housing that should have been available for them. ‘Homelessness,’ one of Porter’s conspirators wrote: ‘Be mean and nasty.’ Empty flats had steel security doors to keep the homeless from getting in. They were fitted at an initial cost of £300 for each property, with £50 a week added on for rental. It was, as it happens, the United Nations International Year of the Homeless. So it was in Westminster, but not in the same way. It is, obviously, illegal for a council to manipulate policy in order to gain votes for the majority party, but although some officers had misgivings all of them complied. A meeting took place between Porter and a consultancy company at which the company was commissioned to write a favourable report on housing and planning policy. One of the consultants took notes. Hosken quotes from them:

There was a need ‘to push Labour voters out of marginal wards’ and to ‘privatise/gentrify council blocks in marginal wards’, she said . . . On the population decline in central Westminster, which had brought about the electoral disaster, Porter raised the question: ‘Is loss a bad thing? . . . Who are you losing? Concentrations of ethnic minorities. Social imbalance. Social problems from concentration.’ She concluded the meeting by telling the consultants: ‘We want the right answers.’

But the consultants decided that the answer to population decline was the provision of more social housing, and Porter was furious. Her rejection of the report was used later as evidence that she knowingly continued her unlawful policies in spite of advice to the contrary.

As with corrupt bureaucracy everywhere, the distortion of language played an important part in an attempt to regularise the indefensible. The whole campaign to ensure Tory voters in the borough was termed Building Stable Communities and became a kind of code. People were ordered to ‘think BSC’, to demonstrate ‘BSC initiatives’ and everything was required to fit in with the ‘total BSC concept’. Designated Sales meant selling council houses to people with job offers in the City or first-time buyers at a huge discount. In fact, speculators bought them up and then sold them on at a market price. This didn’t matter to Porter: it still ensured the right kind of people moved in. The Quality of Life Strategy was all about improving and tidying up the eight vital marginal wards. Potholes were filled by Pothole Eater Squads, known familiarly as the PES, pavements were mended, estate agents’ boards and builders’ skips were made to disappear, hanging baskets were installed. Four and a half million pounds were spent in the first year, almost all of it in the key wards. A memo headed ‘Disabled Mobility Schemes’ read: ‘All schemes under this heading and those relating to tree planting and pavement trouble spots are to be specifically angled to the eight key wards.’ Hosken continues: ‘Streets which formed ward boundaries presented a particular problem for the engineers. What if someone in a wheelchair crossed from a marginal to a non-marginal ward? Should there be a ramp to receive them? The conundrum was never satisfactorily sorted out. Sometimes it happened; sometimes not.’

In a sub-initiative called Greening the City large wooden tubs containing trees were dotted about the marginal wards. In no time at all the tubs were full of litter and the vomit of passing late-night revellers. The director of planning was furious. The tubs disappeared overnight and 42 tubs ‘complete with vomit and West End detritus’ turned up in the Labour stronghold of North Paddington. ‘It was mad,’ a Labour councillor said. ‘There were elderly people and mothers with pushchairs who were finding it difficult if not impossible to get round these tubs. One woman living in a basement flat complained that a tub blocked out her sunlight. No one saw them being delivered, or even knew where they came from or who put them there.’ Hosken explains: ‘The action had taken place at the behest of the City Council in the early hours of two consecutive mornings at the cost of £6000.’

For her services to society, Porter was made lord mayor of Westminster after she retired in 1993 from Westminster Council. She was given a damehood, although she had been determined to secure a peerage for herself. (Funny to think that if she had waited for a Labour government, she could have saved herself all the trouble and just bought herself a peerage.) It took an extraordinarily long time, but finally the law got round to scrutinising Porter’s actions as leader of Westminster Council. Huge numbers of documents and files were seized by the Audit Commission, though it was later discovered that many others had been shredded. Porter’s millions allowed her to fight the allegations and judgments at each step and buy herself crucial time. She retained some support. A team was formed to campaign against the district auditor and newsletters were circulated attacking the ‘integrity of the district auditor and the soundness of his findings’. It was led by two women, one a new Tory councillor, Nicola Woodhead-Page, and the other a former employee of Private Eye called Rowan Pelling, better known these days for having edited the now defunct Erotic Review.

The legal battle went on for more than seven years, with Porter taking her case to ever higher courts. Overall, Westminster lost more than £100 million thanks to Porter’s schemes to rid her borough of the poor and keep her party in power. As council officers are personally liable for losses that result from incompetence or criminal activity, Porter was surcharged. When presented with a bill for £31.6 million, she took the judgment to the House of Lords, where she lost her final appeal. She had spent £3 million on legal fees and by now the surcharge had gone up because of interest to £43,321,644; it was ‘the biggest debt to the public purse in the history of England’. When Porter was at last forced to disclose her assets in 2001 prior to payment of the fine, it turned out that she was worth no more than £300,000: the eight years of court proceedings had given her the time to hide her money. The £3 million she spent was a bargain. In her sixties she emigrated to Israel with her frail husband and somewhere in the world £69 million waited for her. The Audit Commission continued to fail to find her money for another three years until Porter’s son got into financial trouble and some stolen emails enabled them to trace the money she used to bail him out back to an account that could be proved to be hers. In order to get the thing sorted out, or perhaps just out of desperate weariness, the Audit Commission made a deal with Porter and agreed that she could settle the debt by paying just £12.3 million of the £48,717,334 she now owed. Of that, nearly half was used to pay the Audit Commission and other legal fees. Porter signed an ‘Agreed Statement of Facts’, in which ‘she admitted the corrupt reasons for her actions, although she does not recognise that her betrayal of public trust was absolute.’

Clearly Shirley Porter was a rich woman who had something to prove and had no problem about using public resources to prove it, but it was only her fatal penchant for getting everything down on paper that made it possible for her to be found guilty. Even those who didn’t support her in Westminster Council went along with her, out of fear or laziness or in the hope that it would all just go away. Somehow the opposition Labour Party on the council failed to find out what was going on, or to get to grips with the scale of it. ‘Political corruption, if unchecked, engenders cynicism about elections, about politicians, and damages the reputation of democratic government,’ the Law Lords declared, and ruled that Porter’s attempts to engineer political success was ‘a deliberate, blatant and dishonest misuse of public power’. But public power in a liberal democracy is quite accessible to those who want it very badly, and those who want it very badly quite often want to use it to further their own private and personal ambitions. That’s a conundrum that still remains to be solved.