Q&A: Sir Robin Wales on his record, the ‘trigger ballot’ saga and why he deserves a fifth term as Newham Mayor

by Dave Hill

Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales is long serving local authority leader in a part of East London undergoing massive change. He now faces a re-selection contest after a controversial “trigger ballot” outcome was nullified. Such is Labour’s dominance across Newham that whoever wins the selection vote will almost certainly be elected Mayor in May. I met Sir Robin at the Old Town Hall in Stratford last Friday.

Question: You were 63 last month, you’ve been Newham’s Mayor since 2002 and you were council leader under the old system for seven years before that. If you are again elected mayor in May and serve a full fifth term in that post, you will have been political leader of this borough for over a quarter of a century. Isn’t that too long for anybody to be in charge?

Answer: Well, I wonder what Manchester Utd thought about Alex Ferguson. The question is, is it successful? When I was leader under the old system we managed to do some good things, but I had people in the cabinet who were opposed to me so it wasn’t straightforward. We focussed on getting performance up. We were one of the three worst councils in London at that time. We were appalling – us, Hackney and Lambeth were the worst. By the time we’d finished we could argue we were the best. But I was planning to leave in 2002 and go back to my previous job. Then people said, if we had a mayoral system instead would you do it? I said yes. I’ve now run the borough for 16 years as Mayor. That is a long time, but things take time to get done.

Workplace, our job brokerage, is the best in the country by a long way. It’s transformed employment in the East End. We’ve seen the biggest increase in employment anywhere in the country. We’ve gone from second poorest local authority area in the country to the 25th, which is a big jump. Workplace has been going for ten years, but it took three or four years to get it ready. And in the first few years there were no jobs. Everything takes time. I came across my manifesto for the 2002 campaign and it said, “we have the fastest improving education”.  That’s because we were rubbish before. Now we can make an argument that we’re the best. Again, it takes time.

With private rented sector licensing, it took us four years to get that up and running. One of the things we underestimate in politics is the need to learn how to do something. It isn’t about saying, “here’s a policy, let’s do it”. It’s about saying, “here’s something we want to achieve, how are we going to do that? How will we make it work?” We were working on enforcement measures for years before in order to get that right.

The question regarding me is: “How successful have you been and are you still fresh and wanting to do more?” Well, yes I am. But it would be my last term, no matter what. I will be 67 by the end of it, and I think that’s reasonable. My plan would be that if I’m selected I would like to bring new people in and give them a chance to show what they can do.

Q: Let’s talk about that, because another criticism is that Sir Robin has surrounded himself with a kind of court, so it’s very difficult to hold him to account and stop him from doing whatever he likes.

A: If only! If I’m standing down in four years then I have to make sure there is a succession. There are some things I want to get finished and others where I need to think about what sort of state I want to leave them in. The big things are skills and health. There’s no point me starting it if I haven’t got some who can continue them.

My politics are, I like to think, governed by the scientific method. I trained as a scientist. I was a very poor scientist but I believe in that method. I believe if people think they have a better idea than mine then I should say, come on, give me your arguments. There is not a single argument that has been put by anybody who’s against me that I wouldn’t take up if I thought it was a good one. There’s bits and pieces, but otherwise there’s been nothing. Partly, that’s because I have a very big research team, so when we’ve put something forward we’ll have spent a lot of time developing and testing it first.

Q: Getting on to the first trigger ballot, when you and I bumped into each other a few weeks ago I think we agreed that “untidy” could be one word to describe it that few would disagree with. Stronger words have been used, of course. Looking back, what are your thoughts about that first process?

A: I think I won the trigger fairly. I think what happened was that the standard of records kept by individuals who are volunteers wasn’t very good.

Q: Can we agree then that East Ham CLP didn’t seem able to provide the information about affiliates that was required? Another complaint is that Newham Fabians seemed to magically be resurrected from the dead just in time to cast a “yes” vote for your automatic re-selection. The TSSA’s political officer, an ally of Jeremy Corbyn, didn’t receive any of the ballot paperwork, unlike counterparts in other unions and was effectively by-passed, with the ballot paper taken instead to a branch officer by a councillor who is one of your advisors and a “yes” vote collected. That looks a bit odd. The Bectu vote could have had something wrong with it as well. All a bit of a mess. And what your opponents say is that while you might not have been directly responsible for any of that, it shows that people will do what Robin wants, whether it’s right or wrong.

A: I don’t particularly want to go into all of that, because I think we must move on now. But to answer that last point, why was I banned from voting at the Co-operative Society trigger meeting by someone who was against me? John Biggs [the Mayor of Tower Hamlets] got to vote at his Co-op branch. Somebody at the Co-op meeting who opposed me left the meeting early but was allowed to vote anyway and I lost the Co-op by one vote. Had I been allowed to vote and the person who left early hadn’t, I would have won the Co-op. The Fabians followed the same process they had done the previous time. It may have been the wrong process, but that’s what they did, in good faith. As I understand it, the [ballot] papers were all sent to the people they were supposed to have been. Unions work the way they work. I don’t believe any of those were wrong.

We know the Co-op was wrong. And we know there was impersonation at ward meetings. Secretaries and people at those meetings vouched for other people and those people have not been expelled from the party. We have a video of a guy who says I’m this person [when he wasn’t]. It’s like in Tower Hamlets. What has happened is that Tower Hamlets has come to Newham. You know about Tower Hamlets. I think I won fair and square, I think it was all fully legitimate. However, the frustration of it was that it was not about a debate. The second time round I decided I’ll continue the trigger because a lot of MPs want the trigger process and I’m not going to be the one that says the trigger process is wrong for the rest of the country. But I said I wanted a no vote and an open selection. The GMB are lovely, by the way [Note: the GMB cast four “yes” votes for sir Robin in the first trigger ballot and did so again in the second one, despite Sir Robin himself asking them to vote “no”].

Q: To sum up then, you’re saying there may have been things about the first trigger that weren’t quite right that helped you but you’re also saying there were also things wrong that didn’t help you.

A: I know there were. I know the Co-op was fixed. We know that there were things in branches going on like that. But having said that, processes are messy in the Labour Party. I won by a comfortable margin. So even if the Fabians was wrong, it still didn’t affect the actual outcome. But it didn’t seem to me that to spend money on a court case was right. What it came down to was that the records weren’t very good. It’s volunteers that keep them.

Q: Did you have influence on the decision to re-run the trigger process at national or at regional level in the party?

A: I said to the party I don’t want you to spend money on all this, this is ridiculous. At that point I said I don’t particularly want to trigger again, I want to go straight to an open selection. But there’s a lot of debate about trigger ballots in the Labour Party. I think they are the right thing, because the trade unions should get the vote – the Labour Party was formed by the trade unions and socialist societies and so on. But I want people to come and show me what their alternative policies are.

Q: Are you satisfied that Pat Murphy, who was the trigger ballot procedures secretary and is a member of your mayoral team, did absolutely everything right?

A: Yes. I think he did it as best he could. Absolutely. And it was overseen by the region. He was certainly never asked to do anything wrong. Pat’s pretty straight. We played an absolutely straight bat. You have to, otherwise you get done for it.

Q: Why do you think people are so exercised by how this all worked? What do you think ultimately lies behind this challenge to you?

A: In the Labour Party here we’ve had a very big sign up from one particular community. All men. All from the same community. All signing up to vote en bloc. They thought that was enough to win but they didn’t pay attention.

Q: Are you talking about Momentum or something else or some combination of things?

A: If you take the people who have been joining up in Newham, you’ve got some former Trots who won’t vote for me. You’ve got people who are fed up because after a period of time that happens. You’ve got a lot of new members who are decent people, a bit radical who want something different for our country – well, we’re the most radical council in the country and we’re going to be talking to them about that. They are the sort of person I was when I signed up to the Labour Party. They are just people who want to do better. I want to talk to them, about policy. You’ve got a very substantial older group of people who are massively supportive. They are people who’ve lived in Newham for a while. The longer you’ve lived in Newham, the more you support me. All our survey results say that. People remember what it was like before and they say, my goodness look at the difference. Then there’s a fourth group..

Q: Are you talking about Muslim members?

A: We’ve lots of Muslim members, lots of them. But there’s a very specific group that joined up. They were all signed up within a month or two months. We did the analysis. It happens every so often. It’s the problem that Tower Hamlets has had. That’s the element that made life difficult here and that will make life difficult across London.

Q: Who were the organisers of this specific group signing up?

A: I think you should go and talk to other people about that. There were many people who were organising. We’ve become a party that is very litigious. So I will say to you that on the analysis of the [membership] numbers, we can show the numbers of people that joined up and I’ve written to them saying that and what I said was, we might take you to court.

Q: You believe what was done was against party rules?

A: Yes, it is against the rules. It happened back in 2016.

Q: In advance of the first trigger ballot?

A: Yes.

Q: And you think there’s a connection between those two things?

A: Yes.

Q: And you believe that specific group had a big influence on the branch outcomes?

A: About 200 votes across a number of wards.

Q: Are these Newham Bangladeshis, Newham Muslims? How would you define them?

A: I would say they are just…a group of people who signed up.

Q: I sense you are trying not to say anything that might be inflammatory and I understand that, but I’m trying to pin down who you are talking about.

A: I’m going to say that a particular group in a community were signed up by some people against the rules, you could see them all coming in at the time and this is not [a good thing], in a place like our borough. You know what our policy is: you cannot be a single ethnic or single religious group and get funding from us and we are determined to keep it that way. I also want to say that there are loads of Muslims who are progressives, and we try to work hard with the progressives in the Muslim community and I think we’ve been successful at that.

Q: Are you comfortable using a term to describe this that you’ve used to me before in relation to Tower Hamlets and which I know you are anxious to prevent happening in Newham – the term “community politics”?

A: That is exactly correct. That is exactly right. It’s from a small part of the community. In Tower Hamlets, it grew. It’s not grown for us. It’s a small part of a community, but it’s one of the things we want to block off. We want to stop that and we want to keep people voting in a progressive way.

Q: What do you think of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party?

A: Jeremy Corbyn has been elected twice to be leader of the Labour Party. It’s interesting, reading his manifesto and some of the things he’s said, it’s almost like he’s come here and said, “Oh I’ll have that idea”. He says, “I want jobs”. Well, we have the best job brokerage in the country. He says, “We want to do something about debt”. Well, we are the first council to give loans to people, through our MoneyWorks scheme.

He wants more culture in school. We teach every child to play a musical instrument for free. Free school meals? We were the first to do it. He wants to buy 8,000 homes for homeless families. We’ve bought 1,800 and we’re in the process of trying to buy another 1,200 [through the Local Space housing association, which Newham set up in partnership with others in 2006]. So we will be able to say, you want 8,000, here’s 3,000 to start you off. He says he wants more house building. Now, I get some criticism for this, but I think we’ve got to take some risk and say if we don’t build the homes that people need, who will? One of the things I want to get across to people is that we are very radical.

Q: I’m struck by an email you’ve sent out to members about your budget. Certain things stand out: the words “radical” and “progressive”; stressing putting the most vulnerable people first; being against out-sourcing. Those are very Jeremy things to say. I think that tells me that you’re not an idiot.

A: Ha ha! On outsourcing, I’ve only got got social care and parks out. We’re bringing parks back in. We’d like to do the same with social care, because the companies who do it aren’t very good.

Q: Some posters have appeared around the borough lately of you looking very popular with your chain of office on. Your critics are saying, here’s another example of Robin misusing his power to get re-selected.

A: Those shouldn’t have been done just now. We’re taking them down. It’s just one of those things.

Q: Why do you go in for the chain-of-office thing? None of the other borough Mayors do.

A: I wear the chain on specific occasions – when I’m doing a community thing or a kids thing. Kids love it. I think the sense of civic pride is important. And I do not have a mayoral car or a mayoral driver, or anything like that.

Q: A few years back I was talking to a very knowledgeable London Conservative, not from round here, who said: “Of course, what Robin wants is a middle-class.” What do you think about that?

A: It is perfectly true that we had the fewest Band D properties in London. No middle-class. None. My view has always been that we want Newham to be a place where people live, work and stay. If we attract businesses and middle-class people come with them, we can get more jobs and begin to change things for our residents. If I can get 100 homes, I’ll get 35 affordable. I’ll take those and the other 65 as well. I’ll take what I can get where I can get it.

It’s also about getting people demanding high standards in schools and I think that’s about people who work and have got aspirations. We’ve really gone after that group and we’ve said, we want this place to work for you. I don’t really want people who are middle-class so much as I want people who are working and are aspirational. I grew up on a council estate in Kilmarnock, and the people there were aspirational. They were trying to make better lives for themselves. The council housing and the rents helped make it possible for them. I want a situation where people who’ve made a bit of money here say, “I’ll buy a house and I will buy it in Newham. I’ll stay in the community, in the area”. I’m absolutely clear – our task is to do it for the people that are here, and to use what’s coming in to help those people too. What used to happen is that we’d just export people. They got a job, they left.

Q: And has that definitely changed?

A: You look at Canary Wharf. I’m a big fan, but it didn’t make the slightest difference to deprivation in Tower Hamlets. We were the first borough to support the Olympics. Westfield [shopping mall in Stratford] was already coming and what people don’t remember is that we put £12m of our money into the new station because we wanted a bigger one. Now, it’s too bloody small! But at the time it was a big statement. Then we thought, jobs are coming. How do we ensure that our residents get them? They didn’t have the skills. And how do we get our kids skilled? Education was big for us. It was critical.

Then it was about getting people into work. What Workplace does, is presents people and employers will take them if they want them. We say don’t take them if you don’t want them, but tell us why and we won’t waste your time until we’ve got it right. With City Airport, Richard Gooding [chief executive at the time] came to us and said the people you are giving me aren’t very good, so we embedded somebody and worked out what they wanted. Now, with employers, if we present people, 85% of them get a job. We took the jobs that were coming and we got our people into them.

Q: Not to sound grudging, but is that to some extent because we’ve had an influx of more motivated people?

A: No. If you look at the deprivation maps, the data is from 2014, before a lot of the gentrification began and you will see that it goes right across the borough. There are some spots where it has not jumped, and we know where they are. They are in social housing, where you’ve got fourth and fifth generation people who haven’t worked. We’ve got to work on those. What has been difficult has been rents [going up], which is why we’ve set up Red Doors. We’ve got to build. We’ve just got to build.

QRed Door Ventures is your council-owned house building company, of course,  one of the more ambitious ones in London. It aims to build-for-rent, including at sub-market levels. How much of that will be earmarked for Newham residents?

A: Red Doors’s job is to make money with housing and build as much as it can. It has to follow our planning policy rules, so it will build affordable homes within the means of residents as well as market homes. But we will take the profit from the market sales and put it into our new, separate affordable housing company, and that will build for Newham residents only.

The thing you can’t get away from is that unless somebody sets up something to build at scale, London’s problems are going to get worse and worse. The private sector builds about 15,000 to 20,000 a year, they do that for profit. That leaves another 20,000 at least that we need to build. Who’s doing it? Well, nobody’s doing it. The government isn’t. It’s one thing for it to say the Labour governments borrowed too much, but’s utterly ludicrous not to borrow to build housing. It’s moronic. So we have to do it. If you want stuff, you have to do something about it.

If you look at the Carpenters estate, which we’ve been trying to regenerate, I can’t do it; the council can’t do it on its own. It’s our land and we’re keeping it. That’s not for sale. But we’ve asked for expressions of interest from developers we might work with. We’ll put the land in and we’ll put some money in, but we’re not developers on that scale.

Q: Gentrification is happening in Newham, of course, largely because housing costs nearer the centre have become so high. Gentrification has become a boo word. What is your view about it?

A: What are you going to do about it? I think markets work. They have a long history of working. But they don’t necessarily give you the things you want. The fact is that, in London, as prices go up, you will displace younger people with less money and they will move with the wave. There is nothing you can do about it, in the sense that it will happen. The key is what you can you do to protect the people being driven out?

One answer is just to build a lot more houses – build and build and build and the push demand will slow down and prices will slow down. If Plaistow was 20 times bigger, it would take a lot longer for prices to go up there. That’s how supply and demand works and that’s how gentrification works. At some point we’re going to change the debate on housing. We’re going to say, If I get 500 social homes, that’s fantastic. But I’ve got 50,000 people in rented property and all of them would like lower rents. How am I going to help them too?

One thing is building lots of homes. The other is to buy property in Newham and let it out cheaper, to some of my local residents. The trouble is, it will take 20 years. And if you stop development, like at Haringey, where are people going to get homes from? If you don’t want development, what do you want? What about the thousands of people who would have lived in those homes? I’d like to put £4bn into Red Doors. That’s not enough, but it’s what as a council we can afford. If we could get to that place, then other councils might say, “that’s a really good idea”.

Q: You’ve had some uncomfortable publicity recently about the £40m you put towards the London Stadium. Does it still seem like that was a good idea?

A: We went in, we said we’ll give you £40 million to buy 35% of the stadium – that’s for conversion costs but we are not liable for any extra ones. We did it because it was a regeneration issue. We did it because we wanted to protect the stadium. We wanted a big stadium. We thought, why on Earth should the East End get second best? Why knock this fabulous, world class stadium down to a 25,000 one as if we’re not good enough? I thought we would make money out of it and I frankly admit that we didn’t. That stadium will make money eventually, though. You just need to get the right contracts in. If we’d been doing it, it would have been different contracts. The London Legacy Development Corporation did them and I wasn’t allowed in the room because we were making the bid.

But we will get somewhere between £120m and £160m in value back. Some of it now, because we’re benefiting from the redevelopment of Upton Park. The Newham and Essex Beagles are going to use the new community running track by the stadium and we can develop the site they are leaving for housing and we’ll get £43m from that and there’s more. All that is fine. We’re still looking at the redevelopment of Carpenters [which is next to the Olympic Park]. It was worth £90m. It might be worth £300m now. And just look at Stratford. This is going to be a fantastic place. We are attracting businesses. We get business rates, we get council tax, we get all sorts of income from it.

We are £1.5bn better off than we were seven years ago, and that’s because we don’t sell land. We’ve done investments that are creating money for us, we’ve invested about £20m this year. We’ve not cut services of any sort, in fact we’ve expanded – we’ve expanded library hours, for example. We’ve done all that and we have a balanced budget, which by 2020 will be balanced in revenue too. It’s fair for me to say, “look at the big picture”.

Q: Would you accept the word entrepreneurial to describe your approach?

A: Considered risk. That was the phrase used when I was at BT. You take a risk but you have to consider it. People should understand that sometimes things will go wrong. But if you look at our record, its clear that the risks we took were sensible and have all benefited us. And as it happens we’ll make £100m out of the bloody stadium. And if at any point the LLDC or GLA don’t want to run it, we’ll run it because we’ll make money out of it.

Q: What do you make of your one declared challenger so far, Rokhsana Fiaz?

A: I think it’s up to other people to judge that. I’m going in to the selection contest saying “look at what we’ve done”. And I’ve got an agenda now that talks about skills and links with businesses. On health, we’re seeking to purchase the primary care estate, all the doctors’ surgeries. The idea is we’ll rebuild them. You’ll get a really good surgery and on the old surgery site you can build housing. Red Door will come in and make money out of it and we can make a much better offer on health, especially mental health.

There will a big push on communities because we need to have a way to connect better with people or to help them connect better with themselves. We believe in community resilience. I like to think we do clever things. I like to think we are a clever council. You have to ask other people what vision do they have? What have they said in the last four years in terms of coming up with ideas?

If you’re in politics, sometimes you’re going lose. But if you don’t have a goal, what’s the fucking point? When I was growing up, both my parents were working and we were OK. But I saw lots of poverty. I thought, come on, we should be doing something better. That’s what we’ve done here.

Coming soon: A Q&A with Sir Robin’s only declared challenger so far, Councillor Rokhsana Fiaz.

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