Book review: Andrew Hosken’s Nothing like a dame

Andrew Hosken, Nothing like a dame, the scandals of Shirley Porter 372 pages, Granta, £20

This is not a normal story about corruption. It is not, like most such tales, about money since its protagonist, Lady Porter, daughter of Jack Cohen the founder of Tesco, was not short of a bob or two. It is, rather, about the lust for power and, more seriously, about how a determined rich individual, can overcome her own unpopularity and take over a major instrument of government, Westminster City Council, and subvert it to her ends.

Porter’s climb up the hierarchy of local government was remarkable. First elected in 1978, Porter made herself known through puerile publicity stunts, mostly about rubbish on the streets, and became leader by 1983 in a putsch not dissimilar to that of her great enemy, Ken Livingstone, at the GLC. Once there, she had no compunction using her money and contacts to run the council as her own personal fiefdom, even with advisers such as the mysterious Roger Rosewell, a former Trotskyist, paid for out of her own fortune..

Hosken tells the story brilliantly, often with greatly enlightening and entertaining detail, and breaking up the chronology to deal with the various individual scandals which individually are shocking enough but together suggest that the very basis of the administration was corrupt.

The fundamental scandal was ‘Building Stable Communities’, the code for a fantastic gerrymandering exercise designed to make eight marginal wards safe for the Tories by booting out Labour voters through the sale of council houses and attracting yuppie incomers. Porter had been shocked at how Labour nearly captured Westminster in the 1986 elections and transformed the whole focus of the council’s activities into keeping her opponents out of power, which, ironically, would probably have happened anyway.

There were two other major outrages committed by Porter: the sale of three cemeteries in North London for 15p, in the full knowledge that no provision was being made for their maintenance, and, most shockingly, the use of two tower blocks heavily contaminated by asbestos to house 220 homeless families, many of whom could not get into the homes left empty by the ‘designated sales’ programme, that was the main mechanism of Building Stable Communities.

If there are any quibbles with this excellent book, it is the lack of references, a result of the publisher seeking to keep it to a manageable length but hopefully an omission that will be remedied in the paperback version as this is a subject ripe for future generations to study as a classic failure of governance. Perhaps, too, Hosken is not generous enough to the Labour opposition whose very talented team of councillors, several of whom later become MPs, did so much to hound Porter out of office and reveal the truth of what became a very expensive scandal for Westminster’s ratepayers, possibly as much as £100m, though Porter herself was only surcharged by £43.3m and eventually paid £12.3m.

Porter who had a flair for cheap publicity stunts but little else, sought desperately to get Margaret Thatcher to appoint her to the House of Lords but while Porter admired the Prime Minister, her feelings were not reciprocated and it was always a hopeless enterprise. So is it just possible to feel sorry for Lady P, who is not very bright and always felt slighted because she never got onto the Tesco board, which a male heir of Jack Cohen, however stupid would have done? Although Hosken at times clearly wants to, her sheer nastiness and the brutality of her regime which resulted in misery for so many, ranging from relatives of the dead in the cemetery to the homeless families sent to an asbestos ridden tower block, mean that it is very difficult to feel any sympathy for this spoilt brat of a woman. She gives it away herself by saying ‘if only people had been stronger and told me’. Well they did Shirley, countless, times and you did not listen. Indeed, one could almost hear Tony Blair just perhaps wondering the same thing about all the acolytes with whom he surrounds himself in No 10 failing to warn him about Iraq.

Indeed, Hosken is able to tell the story in great detail thanks to the relatively tight policing of local authorities by district auditors whose detailed report are a source of large amounts of highly revealing material. It contrasts strongly with the way that central government gets away with far more – whether it be computer procurement scandals, ministerial misdoings or sheer incompetence – simply because its activities are far less open to scrutiny and never come to light.

And that is the wider lesson of this book. Power corrupts and there have to be checks and balances to prevent it doing so absolutely. Porter, with the money to buy advice and pay for power, such as when she helped out financially stricken councillors so they would vote for her in a leadership election, was able to circumvent those essential checks and balances, just as Blair is doing at the moment. Perhaps Hosken could do his scandals next.

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