Hackney: Dimensions of the Cazenove by-election

Hackney: Dimensions of the Cazenove by-election

Politics in Hackney have a history of turbulence as rich and varied as its population. A council by-election to take place on Thursday is forming the latest chapter, with sex, war, religion, apathy, scandal and low traffic neighbourhoods all making appearances. Also, bins.

The contest is required because the directly-elected Mayor of Hackney, Caroline Woodley, had to give up her seat representing Cazenove ward in the north of the borough after winning the mayoralty last November. It already had the makings of a close-run and unpredictable race. Now it looks the same but more so.

Although Labour has held all three Cazenove seats since 2018, they have been previously occupied by Liberal Democrats and recent margins of victory have been small. In 2022, the third-placed Labour winner received 1,582 votes compared with the fourth-placed candidate, a Lib Dem, with 1,471 – a margin of just 111. And there were further reasons for Labour unease.

One was the backdrop to Woodley’s elevation to Mayor. This followed the resignation of her predecessor Philip Glanville – in unhappy circumstances summarised here – last September. Woodley won the ensuing mayoral by-election with ease in a Labour-dominated borough, but with a significantly reduced share of the vote, perhaps reflecting Labour supporters’ indifference, disquiet over Glanville’s departure, or both.

Another element in the Cazenove mix was the impact of the Middle East conflict. This might be a standalone local contest in a different part of the world, but Labour’s loss of one in another part of east London, Newham, in late November seemed to show that Muslim voters in particular were unhappy with the position of Labour’s national leadership on the war.

Around 15 per cent of the population of Cazenove are Muslim Londoners. Might they abandon Labour on Thursday? And what about Cazenove’s Jewish Londoners, who make up nearly 24 per cent of its residents? How, if at all, might they use their votes to make known their views about the war?

And quite apart from the electoral arithmetic, how would those events overseas affect relationships between the two communities? The Cazenove area has long been noted for very good relationships between its Jews and Muslims, symbolised by schools and places of worship adjacent to each other. Now, there were concerns that relations could become strained. Would that itself become a campaign issue?

By Christmas, all four of the main political parties in London had selected their Cazenove candidates. Labour chose Laura Pascal, who described herself in her X/Twitter profile as a “policy wonk” and, significantly, a “feminist”. Also, since 30 July 2023, some months before she was picked as Cazenove candidate, she wrote and then pinned at the top of her X/Twitter feed a statement of her position about sex and gender – another issue which excites high passions and sharp divisions, not least within the Labour party. She wrote:

“My embodied reality as a member of the oppressed sex class is experienced in a world where biology has a significant impact. You can believe what you want but I believe that biological sex is a real thing and neither law or some kind of new scientific concensus (sic) wld change that.”

Pascal’s stance on the matter of transgender rights had already been challenged and defended by her in public – her pinned X/Twitter post was itself a response to criticism of Keir Starmer’s statement that a woman be defined as an “adult female”. Starmer’s view was attacked by Pink News as an “anti-trans dogwhistle”.

If Pascal’s views on this issue troubled any of those charged with picking a potential new Cazenove councillor, it didn’t stop them giving her the nod. However, it displeased some who are aligned with the Pink News perspective on the subject. Pascal was accused of “bullying trans women” and of representing a “new wave of horrific transphobia” unleashed by Labour.

Pascal, however, seemed undeterred. On X/Twitter she wrote “trans women are not female. By definition they are male”. The pinned post remained pinned.

Then, on Saturday, Labour members in Hackney received an email from the party’s borough organiser telling them that all planned campaigning in Cazenove ward was cancelled. No reason was given. But it soon emerged that Pascal had been suspended by Labour’s London region following a formal complaint about her being submitted by a fellow member and a decision taken to investigate her.

This was greeted with satisfaction by her attackers. But a campaign called Labour Women’s Declaration, launched in 2019 to, in its words, “raise the profile of women’s sex-based rights within the Labour Party and wider socialist movement” came to Pascal’s aid with a statement maintaining that she “supports the party’s official positions on the defence of single-sex spaces for women” and noting criticism of her for “speaking out in support of Labour’s positions, for example that sex and gender are different and that sex matters”.

While accepting that administrative suspension can be necessary, the statement continued: “When a suspension will derail the democratic process, the party needs robust processes to weed out any vexatious complaints.” Labour was asked to deal with the Pascal complaint within 48 hours.

That didn’t happen. A well-place source told On London there had been “multiple” complaints about Pascal, including alleged racism as well as alleged transphobia. Precise details were not given, but Pascal’s critics have drawn attention to her “liking” a post by someone else which drew an unflattering comparison between a white person adopting “blackface” and a biological male adopting a female appearance.

Where does all this conflict over Israel-Gaza and over sex and gender identity – two high-profile and highly-polarising issues that have caused Labour’s national leadership considerable discomfort – leave the battle for little Cazenove?

One thing that is clear is that Laura Pascal is still the Labour candidate as far as the ballot paper is concerned. Her suspension came after nominations had closed and the papers had been printed. She has not withdrawn from the by-election. She could, therefore, still become a Hackney councillor on Thursday, although she would have to sit as an independent member until if and when the complaint against her is dismissed, which would allow her to join the Labour group.

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She has not been available for comment. She has, though, made adjustments to her presentation of herself on X/Twitter. Her feed, at time of writing, no longer has any pinned post. To her profile she has added “Atheist Jew” and “Democratic Socialist” and, as its main image, a photo of the Parliament Square statue of women’s suffrage pioneer Millicent Fawcett centred on the banner she holds and its slogan “Courage calls to courage everywhere”.

The Lib Dem candidate is Dave Raval. His party, in contrast to Labour (though not to Sadiq Khan) has called for a bilateral Israel-Gaza ceasefire. Raval himself has welcomed Labour’s suspension of Pascal for what he called “her anti-LGBT views” and urged “progressives” to vote for him in order to “stop the Tories”.

Is the Conservative the one to beat? The party ran only one candidate in Cazenove in 2022, who finished a distant last-but-one. However, their by-election hopeful in 2024 is the man who finished in that close fourth position for the Lib Dems – the well-known and highly experienced Ian Sharer.

A convert to Judaism, Sharer’s history in Hackney politics has been wide-ranging and eventful. In the 1990s, he was a Labour councillor and in 2001, by then a Lib Dem, he was acquitted of vote rigging charges in a case which saw a fellow Lib Dem and a Conservative jailed. He won in Cazenove in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 and was a close runner-up in 2018 as well as 2022.

His defection to the Tories is said to have been over the issue of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which Hackney Council is very keen on but some local residents, including members of north Hackney’s famous ultra-Orthodox or Charedi Jewish community, are not.

The fourth Cazenove contender is performer, writer and Yiddish teacher Tamara Micner for the Greens, who has been joined on the doorstep by London Assembly member Caroline Russell. Following Pascal’s suspension, the Hackney Green Party condemned her social media sharing and liking as “grossly offensive and prejudiced”. A current Hackney Green councillor has urged Labour activists to help Micner get elected “to keep the Tories out”.

Who will emerge triumphant in Cazenove? Is Ian Sharer, for all his local background, really likely to prevail in a ward where no Tory has ever been elected? Can it be assumed, as the “stop the Tories” rhetoric of her rivals appears to, that Laura Pascal winning can be discounted?

Asked if he is confident of winning, Dave Raval is cautious. “I don’t think anyone can honestly predict who’s going to win this one,” he says. He is upbeat about local reactions to the Middle East horrors: “No way has that affected community cohesion. It’s a bit of a cliché, but while people may have strongly held views on a broader scale, this is a local election and when we talk to people on doorsteps they talk about local things.”

That said, he anticipates the Labour vote being “a bit depressed”, in part because of its Israel-Gaza position, which he thinks might persuade Muslim and some other generally Labour-leaning voters to stay at home, but also due to perceptions of Labour complacency, division and disrepute. He points out that local MP, Diane Abbott, is still suspended over a letter she wrote, published by the Observer, in which she argued that Jews, among others, are not “all their lives subject to racism” whereas black people are.

Raval also mentions another topic of doorstep conversation – rubbish collection: “Cazenove, I think, has the worst litter problem of anywhere I’ve seen in Hackney. I’d like to focus on why. Is there less street-cleaning? Is bin-collection inadequate?” Cazenove residents, he says, were mostly against Hackney’s fairly recent shift to from a weekly to a fortnightly service. “Generally, there is an issue that needs to be dug into, and if I became the councillor I would meet with officers and see if we can work out a solution for this”.

Sex, war, religion, apathy, scandal and low traffic neighbourhoods may all make their mark on the Cazenove ward outcome. But will it be bins that swing it?

Update, 17 January, 2024, 20:55. Laura Pascal’s suspension has been lifted and she has released the following statement:

“I offer a heartfelt apology to the people of Cazenove ward, Hackney and anyone who has been offended by my social media activity, which fell well below the standard expected of someone seeking election to public office. It was a mistake to like some tweets that caused offence and a great deal of hurt. Ultimately, the people of Cazenove ward will make their own judgements on Thursday, but I hope they can find some reassurance in the fact that I have reflected deeply on my past social media activity and offer this apology unreservedly.”

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