|The News Line: Feature
Saturday, 2 December 2017
‘Shirleymander’ selling off council houses to get votes
‘I DID nothing wrong,’ claims ‘the Leader’ in a rehearsed reading of ‘Shirleymander’.
|The cast and audience at the rehearsed reading of ‘Shirleymander’
The sharply witty play by Gregory Evans was presented at the Playground Theatre, west London and will receive its full stage premiere next summer to coincide with the anniversary of the nearby Grenfell Tower fire tragedy.
The work is a dramatisation of the Shirley Porter-Westminster Council ‘homes for votes’ scandal of the 1980s. Directed by Anthony Biggs, a talented cast of nine led by Tracy-Ann Oberman, Patrick Ryecart and Michael Simkins bring out the class arrogance and utter ruthlessness of the Tory ruling class party.
Biggs told News Line: ‘In some of the policies during Shirley Porter’s time there are parallels with what happened down the road (at Grenfell Tower).’ The play opens and closes with Tesco heiress Porter (Tracy-Ann Oberman) and her husband in Palm Springs, Florida, having fled from millions of pounds in surcharges.
She boasts that, ‘When I was leader of Westminster Council, I dealt with … two prime ministers, captains of industry, as well as down-and-outs, prostitutes, criminals and socialists.’ It moves back in time, first to deal with Porter’s attack on the borough’s working class and the Westminster workforce.
There are fines for littering and she riles against the 1978 ‘Winter of Discontent’ that brought down the Callaghan Labour government, moaning about rubbish on the streets. With Thatcher and the Tories in government, Porter launched cuts in her council’s workforce, telling them for ‘those who are inefficient and can’t pull their weight, there may be demotion or redundancy.’
Four years into the Thatcher government comes the sell-off of cemeteries in Hanwell, Mill Hill and East Finchley. Porter is shocked: ‘They cost us a fortune. We employ twenty-six workers.’
‘Skivers to a man,’ interjects a Tory councillor.
Porter decides to run the council like her father’s Tesco supermarket. She brings in the one-stop shop to deal with all benefit claimants. Moving back to the cemeteries, a scene in the Leader’s office has Porter asking her deputy (Peter Guinness) and a council officer: ‘Have you sold them yet?’
Concerns are raised about Labour gaining voters in the coming council elections. An unnamed political adviser joins executive meetings. A Tory ‘wet’ (Roberta Taylor) suggests, about council homes, ‘We can afford a few thousands a year to keep these places nice.’ Porter refuses, with her deputy saying, ‘It’s a principle.’
Asked ‘what principle?’ she says: ‘We’re Tories. Thatcherites. We privatise, we divest, we flog off. It’s what we f***king do.’ Moving to the sell-off, the ‘wet’ asks: ‘How much?’ She is told ‘fifteen’. ‘£15,000?’ she asks; ‘No. 15 pence,’ for all three. In the 1986 local election, Labour is gaining ground and takes some wards off the Tories. ‘This can’t be happening,’ says a shocked Porter.
She orders no written record of Leader’s group meetings and begins to plan the sell-off of council housing. Porter declares: ‘From now on we will all concentrate our efforts on winning the next election.’
‘Wet’ tells the audience: ‘Shirley Porter’s grand plan for everlasting electoral supremacy was cooked up in a series of secret meetings in hotels, in conference centres, in closed rooms in City Hall.’ She adds: ‘Councillors, party activists, advisors, planners – as well as council officers and civil servants (who should have known better) were draw into the plot.’
Porter warns of ‘Left-wing extremists interfering in the daily business of this great city of ours.’ She points out that Tory voters ‘tend to be home-owners’ while Labour ‘draws the majority of its support from the council estates, from people living in private rented accommodation’. ‘The bed and breakfast brigade,’ interjects her deputy. ‘And from the homeless,’ continues Porter. ‘Labour voters, as you know, tend to be feckless, indolent, transient. They are often unemployed.’
She makes it clear she is going to move on marginal wards, announcing her ‘Building Stable Communities’ policy. The onslaught begins with evictions and moving homeless people out of the borough, selling off properties. A number of homeless are moved into two tower blocks – Hermes Point and Chantry Point – in a safe Labour ward.
The ‘wet’ objects that the blocks’ steel frames ‘are coated with asbestos’. Asked how much it would cost to make the blocks safe for families to live in, the ‘wet’ says £38 million. This is dismissively rejected by Porter and the secret meetings continue. But some ‘homes for votes’ documents are leaked by concerned council officials.
When a QC suggests that ‘using council house sales as a political weapon’ is illegal, the officials backtrack. But with the scandal building – of the cemeteries sell-off, asbestos-riddled tower blocks and 300,000 homeless families moved out of Westminster – the District Auditor (Patrick Ryecart) begins an investigation.
Meanwhile, Thatcher brings in the unpopular Poll Tax. Porter boasts she has got Westminster’s Poll Tax ‘down to £195’, the lowest in the country. Fearful of the District Auditor’s probe, she orders ‘shred everything.’
Despite all Porter’s efforts, after years of probing and interviews, the District Auditor produces a scathing report on ‘gerrymandering’. A surcharge of £2m is issued against Porter, and the final report recommends a £31.6m sanction on Westminster.
Porter wins at the Appeal Court but loses in the House of Lords, which finds she acted illegally. She flees to California, vowing to return to ‘clear my name’, but retires to Israel, still unrepentant. The rehearsed reading received deserved enthusiastic applause with people looking forward to seeing the finished play’s timely performance in the summer.
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