Newham mayor ‘trigger ballot’ dispute: new readers start here

by Dave Hill

Next May, Sir Robin Wales will be elected executive Mayor of Newham for the fifth time in a row, extending his leadership of the East London borough in that post, which he first won at its inaugural election in 2002.

He will be, that is, unless one of two things stops him.

One would be his defeat by another candidate. The chances of that happening are remote. Sir Robin won his fourth term in 2014 with a massive 61.2% of the vote, well over three times the amount secured by the Conservative runner-up. He is a Labour politician in a borough where Labour holds all 60 seats on Newham Council, while its two Labour MPs, representing the constituencies of West Ham and East Ham, sit on huge majorities. It’s pretty clear that Sir Robin is going to win again…unless, for some reason, he ends up not standing.

Which brings us to the second thing that might, just might, stop him from securing that fifth mayoral term – a successful attempt by fellow Labour Party members in Newham to have someone different as their candidate.

Such an attempt began in earnest at the beginning of this year, when a letter signed by 47 Labour members in Newham, including 10 councillors, was sent to the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) asking it to investigate what the letter called “many failures of process/propriety and irregularities” in the conduct of a ballot process that resulted in Sir Robin becoming next year’s mayoral candidate automatically rather than having to face possible challenges from others in an open selection contest.

The outcome of this “affirmative nomination” vote, or “trigger ballot”, conducted between 25 October and 4 December 2016, was a narrow win for Sir Robin, by 20 votes to 17. But the complainants’ letter was supported by detailed submissions claiming that some of the votes cast in favour of Sir Robin proceeding automatically should not have counted and that there had been enough questionable votes cast to make “a material difference to the result”, tipping it in Sir Robin’s favour.

The NEC has declined to launch an inquiry and the complainants have responded by taking legal action, contending that the trigger ballot was unlawful. Correspondence between the two sides’ lawyers continues. Meanwhile, doubts about some of the votes questioned by the complainants have been supported by subsequent disclosures:

  • The Fabian Society, a Labour affiliate organisation, found that its Newham branch, which voted “yes” to Sir Robin going forward to be the 2018 mayoral candidate automatically, had “breached the society’s rules” for determining how trigger ballot votes should be cast and said the Labour Party had been informed of this.
  • The media and entertainment union Bectu, which has since become a sector of another union, Prospect, and disaffiliated from Labour, has told On London that it has found no record of a branch affiliation fee to East Ham Constituency Labour Party (CLP) being reclaimed from it during 2016 or 2015, as it would have expected to had one been paid. This leaves open the possibility that a fee was paid but not reclaimed. However, the complainants stated in their letter to the NEC that they “do not believe” the fee was paid in 2016 and argue that the Bectu vote should be declared void partly on those grounds.
  • The complainants’ letter said that the political officer of another affiliated union, the TSSA, was surprised both that his union had voted “yes” to Sir Robin going forward automatically and that he had “not been sent any paperwork” relating to the trigger ballot by the Labour councillor who organised it, as he would have expected. This has been confirmed to On London. The political officer of the GMB union, however, did receive paperwork from the procedures secretary, prompting the complainants to write that the councillor concerned, one of Sir Robin’s inner circle, appeared to “have adopted an inconsistent approach in relation to communicating with affiliates”.

The complainants say that this alleged inconsistency also extended to some affiliated unions being wrongly allowed to cast more votes in the trigger ballot than others. For example, the GMB cast four votes, all saying “yes” to Sir Robin going forward automatically, one for each individual branch affiliated to a Newham CLP. By contrast, Unison cast only one vote, a “no”, despite having six locally affiliated branches. Unite had two affiliated branches and each cast a “no” vote, while the three affiliated Communications Workers Union branches also cast one vote each, two for “yes” and one for “no”. USDAW, with one affiliated branch, cast a single “yes” vote.

Individual unions have their own policies for deciding which way mayoral trigger ballot votes are cast, but Labour members in Newham who are unhappy with the process contend that their party should insist on either each affiliated branch each having one vote or a single vote being cast by each union, no matter how many of its branches have individually affiliated to CLPs.

The view that rules were inconsistently explained and applied forms part of the “pre-action correspondence” sent by the complainants’ lawyers to those of the NEC, which continues to decline to investigate the conduct of the ballot. The complainants also say that the NEC is breaking its own rules by failing to act. Labour’s London region has again maintained that the trigger ballot process was run correctly.

The letter sent to the NEC in January asked it to declare void or hold in abeyance a total of seven of the 20 “yes” votes Sir Robin received, including three from the 20 Labour party branches, each of which cast a single vote. Nine of the ward branches voted “yes” and 11 voted “no”, but 11 votes by affiliated organisations brought Sir Robin’s “yes” total up to 20, while only six affiliate votes were “no”s, favouring an open candidate selection contest. Should just three of the 20 “yes” votes be struck out or just two turned into “no”s in a re-run trigger ballot and all others remain the same, Sir Robin’s affirmative nomination would numerically disappear. He could not, by definition, be sure of winning any open selection contest that might ensue.

The trigger ballot dispute has exposed discontent with Sir Robin among some Labour members that has been present for some time. There appear to be a number of reasons for it.

One is simply that his critics think Sir Robin has been mayor too long already, and that someone else should have their chance. He was also leader of the council for seven years before the mayoral system was introduced. The disquiet isn’t simply because 23 years, let alone 27, is a long time to be political leader of a borough at the frontier of London’s rapid development to the east, but also, critics say, because Sir Robin’s control of the council’s machinery has become too complete, making it difficult for councillors outside of his cabinet, advisers and other supporters and members of the public to hold him to account.

Some also say it’s time a woman became a Labour executive mayor, not least because the capital’s other three borough mayors, in Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Lewisham, are all Labour men, not to mention the Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, or, for that matter, the recently-elected Labour “metro mayors” of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region (the Tory West Midlands metro mayor is male too).

And then there are the internal politics. These come in various shades and are of varying degrees of significance, depending on whom you talk to. There is no question that some local party members consider Sir Robin insufficiently left wing, including a proportion of those who joined the party as part of the membership surge that accompanied Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader. But it is also about Sir Robin’s leadership style and a number of big decisions he has made, particularly in recent years. Disquiet about those is definitely not restricted to people from Labour’s Corbynite or Momentum strand.

Of course, supporters of Sir Robin see things differently. They have been less keen to discuss the trigger ballot issue, but some place the blame on a new influx of members from the Left and on particularly strong feelings about Sir Robin within Unison ranks locally.

It’s important to note that even among those who think the trigger ballot process was far from satisfactory and itself an example of why it is time for Sir Robin to move on, there is appreciation of the energy he has brought to the job and for some of his achievements as mayor. Those wanting the trigger ballot process probed by the NEC insist that were it re-run in a manner to their satisfaction and the outcome again was a “yes” to Sir Robin automatically becoming the 2018 mayoral candidate – or if he prevailed in an open selection contest – they would support him. They have also indicated that they are open to their dispute being resolved through mediation rather than legal action. But there is no mistaking their unhappiness with the status quo. Lots more on all this to come soon.

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