Rokhsana Fiaz defeats Sir Robin Wales to become Labour candidate for Newham Mayor

by Dave Hill

Long-serving Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales has been defeated in a Labour Party selection contest that will almost certainly see him succeeded by London’s first female directly elected mayor in May.

Sir Robin, 63, lost a one-member, one-vote contest against his challenger Rokhsana Fiaz, 47, by 861 votes to 503, which means that in seven weeks he will step down from the helm of the east London borough after 16 years as mayor and seven years before that as council leader under the borough’s previous local government system.

Fiaz’s victory comes having served just four years as a local councillor but after gathering experience in media, public affairs, anti-racism campaigning and as a consultant to government departments seeking to better engage with and recruit from ethnic minority communities – work for which she was awarded an OBE in 2009.

She has promised to ensure that 50% of new homes built by developers are “at social rents and owned by the council”, do more for young people, involve communities more in decision-making and pledged to hold a referendum on the continuation of the mayoral system itself, as On London was the first to report.

She thanked party members on Twitter for “putting their trust and hope in me” and said she “can’t wait to start working with members and residents to build a Newham that offers homes for our residents and a future for all our young people”. Labour’s dominance in the east London borough is such that victory for the Labour mayoral candidate is almost guaranteed.

Sir Robin congratulated Fiaz on her win, expressing pride that during his time at the helm “unemployment has dropped, poverty has declined and education results are at an all time high”. He added: “Rokhsana has made some ambitious promises that clearly Labour members support and I look forward to seeing her face the bigger test of putting these ambitious targets to the residents of Newham.”

The selection result brings to an end 15 months of internal local Labour Party dissension over the process for selecting the 2018 candidate, which began after the outcome of an initial affirmative nomination or “trigger ballot” held in the autumn of 2016 was challenged by 47 party members in Newham, including 10 councillors.

Labour’s governing National Executive Committee (NEC) confirmed Sir Robin as winner by the margin of 20 votes to 17, despite detailed claims that there had been “many failures of process/propriety and procedural irregularities” in the way the ballot was run by Labour’s local campaign forum in the borough and a request for an investigation.

After ensuing legal action reached an advanced stage, Sir Robin called on the NEC to cancel the outcome of the original contest and during a re-run earlier this year, which was administered at London regional level, urged members and affiliated organisations who supported him to vote for an open selection contest to take place, rather than for him to go forward automatically as the 2018 candidate.

This was a calculated risk, taken in the knowledge that a clarification of rules about union voting rights in trigger ballots resulting from the controversy and unhelpful publicity about Newham’s financial investment in the former Olympic Stadium were likely to count against him in the re-run. Sir Robin banked instead on his practiced, sometimes pugnacious, campaigning style convincing members that his know-how would help protect Newham residents from continuing budget cuts and that his policy programmes are radical rather than “right-wing”, as some critics consider them.

His defeat is a reflection both of the convictions of many of Labour’s newer members in Newham, where membership has risen sharply since Jeremy Corbyn became party leader, and of the view among some of longer standing ones that he had become too powerful in the post and difficult for councillors and the Newham public to subject to proper scrutiny. The alleged irregularities in the first trigger ballot were seen by his critics as a symptom of an unhealthy dominance of party and Town Hall machinery.

The re-selection saga, covered extensively by On London, has raised many questions about how Labour trigger ballots are constituted and run, including a lack of clarity in the party’s rule book and relevant procedural guidance about what precisely constitutes the affiliation of a union or other organisation to Labour at local level and what conditions they must meet in order to have voting rights. Sir Robin himself conceded that the original trigger process had been “untidy”, though he insisted in an interview with On London that he had been a victim of questionable procedures rather than a beneficiary.

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