Jules Pipe seems to be a reluctant politician. One of the first things he says is that he came into politics accidentally. His political opponents give the impression of a technocrat, a man not inspired by big ideas or ideology but by the desire to see things run properly. George Galloway the MP in neighbouring Tower Hamlets rumoured to be eyeing up the possible future job of mayor of that borough described him as: “a pale, male, stale apparatchik of new Labour.”
Pipe says he became a councillor, then leader and then mayor of Hackney merely because he happened to be the right person at the right time. He is reluctant to talk about personal ambition and his political ambition seems completely focused on ensuring Hackney is managed efficiently and fairly. In some ways, one could argue that this technocratic managerialism is itself a political ideal. He repeats several times his maxim that “Inefficiency is a form of theft from the residents of Hackney.”
The mayor is very much a politician in the mould of Tony Blair but without the need or desire to personalise his leadership. Whilst Blair tried to hide his lack of a big ideal behind his apparent charisma and personality, Pipe seems reluctant to the point of obstinacy to reveal the man behind the mayor. Whereas Pipe’s London contemporaries, Ken, Boris or Newham Mayor Robin Wales, have used their personalities as a tool of political leadership, Pipe avoids this. During our interview he continually emphasises that the Mayor is part of a cabinet who take collective responsibility for executive decisions. When asked about his personal achievements he talks about the efforts of his political and bureaucratic team to raise standards in local schools.
Pipe was created as a politician by the very particular circumstances of Hackney politics in the period up to end of the 1990s. He emerged as Labour group leader in 2001 and went on to stand as Mayor for the first time in 2002, becoming Labour’s first directly elected mayor and standard bearer for the Blairite ideal of strong local elected leaders usurping the power of part-time, amateurish, unaccountable and often corrupt local councils. Hackney Council certainly fit those descriptions and more. Following a left-right split in the ruling Labour group in the mid-1990s, Hackney limped through a decade mired in allegations of corruption, racism, and the virtual collapse of local services and political leadership. The perpetually hung council, the bitter inter and intra-party fighting, the splits and floor-crossing all added up to paralysis.
Meanwhile, local services collapsed. Rubbish went uncollected, street lights were not fixed. Pipe says that at the height of the crisis Hackney did not even know how many children it had in its care: “The Council couldn’t even tell you who they were or where they lived, so this was a frightening degree of chaos which really impacted on people’s lives.”
And it was from this brink that Pipe and the group around him, backed by powerful forces in Blair’s government, rescued the Labour group and then the council. He was motivated, says Pipe, by a simple residents’ concern for his borough and his neighbours: “I’ve never considered myself a politician, but more like a resident who got over-involved. I was just a concerned person doing the right thing when asked to take a decision.”
In fact Pipe’s background, what one can find out about it, seems to support his claims to be the reluctant politician. At the time he took over as Hackney Labour leader he was still working part-time as a sub-editor for the Sunday Telegraph, a job he continued in up until his election as Mayor when he finally began to earn a politicians’ wage.
Pipe says it was working to get the council back on its feet delivering basic services which first motivated him: “They were only collecting 65 per cent of council tax, they were taking on average two-thirds of a year to make a benefit payment. There was a lot to get right, so it was getting those basics right which kept me going at the beginning.”
Now, he says he is working to continue the improvements he has started. He is especially proud of the borough’s achievements in education with the sixth new local school opening soon and local schools on average achieving higher than average GCSE results , although he doesn’t mention that Hackney’s primary schools were ranked lowest in England last year in Sats league tables for the seventh year running. In his third term, if re-elected in May – and with Labour’s current grip on all levels of Hackney politics there is no reason to think he won’t be – Pipe talks about taking those improvements further. He is concerned about the borough’s reputation for crime.
He says: “We’ve had a 39 per cent drop in the standard basket of crimes, that is 10,000 fewer victims than 5 years ago. There is still a lot to do But then we have to kill off the reputation the borough still has for crime. other boroughs have high crime but don’t have the reputation. we get the knock-on effects of the bad reputation where people don’t want to come here, or come to the theatre here and that affects the local economy.”
This hints at part of Pipe’s strategy: regeneration. Or, as the regime’s critics call it: gentrification. The council in recent years has had a conscious policy to attract the middle classes to the borough. Whilst this has meant improvements in the look and feel of some parts of Hackney, and has certainly helped achieve higher average standards in local schools, critics say that regeneration and gentrification just distract from and hide real problems of deprivation and poverty. So the very un-sexy problems of overcrowding in houses and rising council house rents aren’t being addressed.
Pipe has attacked critics of his regeneration policies. In 2006 local poet, author and far-left mayoral challenger, Michael Rosen, criticised the regeneration of Dalston as symptomatic of New Labourite policies. Rosen said that working class areas had been neglected for years by Labour councils and were now being handed over to private developers to regenerate for the benefit of their own profits and middle-class incomers.
Pipe responded furiously criticising Rosen as representing the “keep Hackney crap mentality”: “Michael Rosen’s ill-informed stance against the Dalston development is just the latest example of the “Keep Hackney Crap” mentality so beloved of the borough’s far left contingent. The premise of Mr Rosen’s argument is an absurdist fantasy. The idea that Hackney Council is motivated by the desire to line the pockets of big business at the expense of residents is only slightly less inventive than the myriad factual inaccuracies and unsubstantiated opinions that make up his article and subsequent posts. I suppose it makes a change from the other common charge of being in the pay of big business.”
Of course, Rosen didn’t suggest that Pipe was motivated by a desire to benefit big business. Rather, critics say that lining the pocket of business at the expense of local residents is the inevitable consequence of New Labour policies. Whilst Pipe may not be an ideologue, there is an ideology behind the policies he supports, which inevitably benefit the Council’s business “partners”.
And it’s not just the far-left who are critical of Pipe’s regime’s neglect of the poor of the borough. Andrew Boff, Tory mayoral candidate believes that Pipe’s policies disguise real poverty and deprivation with clever use of statistics, targets and box ticking. He criticises Pipe’s recent announcement of another zero per cent Council Tax rise, especially coming in the run up to an election. Boff say that Pipe is sacrificing the poor who rely on services and who pay for tax cuts with rent rises in order to keep the middle classes of the borough on board.
As audit and standards reports continue to show, Hackney has certainly come a long way since Pipe first stepped up to the plate to do what he thought was right for his community. But with a general election looming and massive spending cuts promised, and with Labour nationally much less secure than it is in Hackney, the future for big local authorities with huge and growing demand on public services is far from secure.