Last month, the Ham & High reported a row over the postponement of Haringey Council’s Annual Meeting by a full year to next May. Opposition Liberal Democrats leader Liz Morris claimed the council’s Labour leader, Joseph Ejiofor, had driven through the decision “unilaterally behind closed doors” and that it would have been perfectly possible for her group and the Labour majority to agree to hold the meeting by remote means far sooner – as, indeed, a number other council meetings have been since. The Lib Dems also suggested the move was prompted by “internal Labour politics rather than the Covid-19 crisis”. Some Labour councillors agree. How can that be?
As ever with Haringey’s Labour Group, the story is sprawling, tangled and discordant. Recent history provides helpful context. As regular readers know, Ejiofor secured his position as leader after a campaign led by Haringey Momentum, supported by sundry non-Labour allies and egged on by a Guardian columnist, to deselect sitting Labour councillors prior to the May 2018 council elections and replace them with candidates more to their taste. This resulted in the then council leader Claire Kober standing down and an in-flow of Corbynites to the Labour Group. After the elections, which Labour won with a reduced majority, Ejiofor, a senior Momentumite, was elected leader of the Group and therefore became council leader too. But not everyone was happy and there has been talk of plots against him ever since.
Ejiofor has had recurring problems with his cabinet. In October 2018 Ishmael Osamor – son of Edmonton MP Kate Osamor – resigned as “deputy cabinet member for Broadwater Farm resident engagement” after pleading guilty to drugs charges. Two months later, on 31 December 2018, Ejiofor enlivened New Year’s Eve for councillors Zena Brabazon and Peray Ahmet by sacking them amid claims and counter-claims about leaks to the media. Brabazon had run against Ejiofor become the Labour leader and had been favoured by local Labour members. The following March, cabinet member for finance Pat Berryman resigned, and two months after that Brabazon was back in the cabinet after Labour Group members elected her as their deputy leader in preference to Ejiofor ally and cabinet member for housing Emine Ibrahim. Following precedent, Brabazon was made deputy council leader too and returned to the cabinet. A “moderate”, Elin Weston, was jettisoned to make way for her to take on responsibility for children and families.
For a year, the cabinet revolving door stopped turning. But Ejiofor’s internal critics did not go away. The Annual Meeting – what other boroughs would call an Annual General Meeting – postponement infuriated some of them, who say the Labour Group was by-passed when it should have been consulted. Then, a month later, Ejiofor sacked Brabazon for a second time, saying she had failed to keep him informed about a court case relating to the protection of two vulnerable children. Brabazon, though saying it would be wrong to address the specific claims against her, has defended her record.
The way at least some of Ejiofor’s critics tell it, both Brabazon’s latest dismissal and the Annual Meeting postponement should be understood within the wider context of discontent within the Labour Group. What are the reasons for it? One councillor says Labour’s crushing general election defeat last year and the party’s change of leader to Keir Starmer has caused some colleagues, previously seduced by the “radical” rhetoric of the Corbyn years, to review their positions. Conversely, there are complaints that Ejiofor’s administration, once dubbed the nation’s first “Corbyn Council” by a local activist, has been failing to stick to manifesto commitments, including on supplying council housing.
A virtual meeting of the cabinet on Tuesday considered a report on the council’s housing delivery programme, which Ibrahim, who has remained cabinet member for housing, expressed pride in. The document describes progress towards the council’s target of delivering “1,000 council homes for council rent by 2022” and sets out an “initial assessment” of the likely impact on it of the Covid-19 crisis, “including its viability”. The introduction says construction has begun on 331 such homes on seven different sites and the prospective locations for further homes have been established.
The report says sufficient land has been identified to accommodate the full 1,000, much of it on “infill” sites – basically spaces on and around existing estates – or involving the conversion of shops into dwellings, or the redevelopment of larger pieces of council-owned land. But it also notes that the pandemic has meant the suspension of work on all sites where construction work had begun and that because of this, even though enough planning consents and even starts on construction to eventually reach 1,000 homes might have happened by May 2022, “the number of completions is likely to be severely curtailed”. Potential Covid-related limitations on the council’s ability to borrow the money it needs are also spelled out.
The report on the housing programme has prompted some backbench vexation. There has been some, perhaps rather purist, objection to the definition of a council home used, such as including dwellings secured through Section 106s deals with private developers or bought from other owners. Ibrahim is unimpressed by such arguments. “What’s important is tenure, rent and the landlord,” she says. “Who built these homes means absolutely nothing to the thousands of families on our waiting list”. She also defends the likely slippage of the target date for completing the 1,000 homes, a major manifesto pledge. “Whilst the global pandemic will inevitably delay our completions, the safety of workers across the construction industry is of paramount importance to me.” She adds: “That should not be put at risk for those who wish to play politics. We promised our residents 1,000 council homes and we will deliver those, and the next 1,000.”
Another seam of complaint seems to be not so much the reasons given for the likely delay in completing the 1,000 homes as an alleged failure to provide the Labour Group with an opportunity to discuss those reasons and their implications. And here, perhaps, is where any post-Corbynite re-think tendency (which is not especially vocal or coherent) and the diehard backbench Corbynites within the Group (who certainly do exist) find common ground – a contention that Ejiofor and those most loyal to him make big decisions without involving them.
That, at any rate, is the heart of the case being made by Labour Group members exercised about the postponement of the Annual Meeting. It is important to stress that that decision was taken in accordance with provisions in the council’s constitution. This says in relation to the Annual Meeting: ‘The Mayor or Deputy Mayor may in any case when he/she considers it necessary following consultation with the Leader” alter the date or time of it. Even so, critics of Ejiofor, contend that his backing for the long postponement might have quite a lot to do with a desire to forestall a formal leadership challenge – not that it is crystal clear that such a challenge would be mounted or succeed.
It’s all to do with timing – not only of the Council’s Annual Meeting, but also of the next Labour Group Annual General Meeting, which dissenters have been viewing as a potential opportunity to vote Ejiofor out. It is usual for Labour Group AGMs to precede council Annual Meetings, which are normally held in May. But, of course, normal procedures have been disrupted by the coronavirus. In March, Labour’s national governance and legal unit sent out guidance for Labour Groups seeking clarity about conducting their affairs under these difficult new circumstances. This said that while it was vital to follow government rules on controlling the spread of Covid-19, it was also “very important to ensure local democracy is not unduly disrupted”.
With that in view, the Labour guidance – very much in line with that of national government for local authorities – said it was fine to conduct “entire meetings” remotely and that “where council AGMs are going ahead, Labour Group AGMs should also go ahead”. It also encouraged Groups to consider voting for executive positions (such as leader) by post, email, phone or video conference. However, the guidance also said that “Where council AGMs are postponed, Labour Group AGMs should also be postponed”. Therefore, if the council Annual [General] Meeting was postponed, the Labour Group one would be too – and with it any immediate prospect of a change of Group and council leadership.
So what grounds did Ejiofor have for seeking a year-long postponement of the council AGM when both Labour Party and national government guidance – which had been distilled and circulated to councillors by the relevant Haringey officers – had encouraged using remote technologies to continue business as usual as far as possible? A curiosity of the saga in that in April, after Labour’s guidance had been produced, the then director of Labour’s London region Hazel Flynn – she has since been replaced – informed Ejiofor that the region had received what she called “statutory guidance” that Council AGMs did not need to be held until at least September 2020. The source of this “statutory guidance”, which contradicted both Labour’s and the government’s, remains mysterious.
There was also discussion between Ejiofor and Liz Morris about what to do about the council Annual Meeting. The Lib Dems maintain that it had been perfectly possible to agree to hold it in July, but that Ejiofor had gone ahead with the year-long postponement anyway – hence the Lib Dem remark that “internal Labour politics” had been a greater consideration than adapting to the constraints of Covid-19. Likewise, a Labour critic of Ejiofor says the Group would probably have supported July dates for both meetings had they been given the chance. Several boroughs have rescheduled their AGMs for the near future and it is pointed out that Hounslow, which, like Haringey, has put it back by a full year, has publicly explained its decision at some length.
On London has invited Ejiofor to discuss the whole affair, but he has yet to respond. In fairness, he probably has more pressing matters on his mind.
Image of Joseph Ejiofor from Haringey Council remote overview and scrutiny committee, 26 May 2020.
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