Not many council by-elections, particularly those in wards that are safe seats for one party or another, attract much national publicity. Yesterday’s by-election in Haringey’s West Green ward is an exception.
The circumstances in which the vacancy arose were noteworthy, as is the identity of the departing councillor. Ishmael Osamor was a young politician who might have had a long and successful career ahead of him following his election in May and rapid rise to the cabinet of the “Corbyn Council”. He was the third generation of his family to be involved in left-wing Labour politics. His grandmother Martha Osamor was a leading black Left activist in the 1980s and was denied the nomination for a parliamentary by-election in Vauxhall in 1989 (probably the subject of some retrospective remorse in Labour’s mainstream, given that the imposed candidate was Kate Hoey).
His mother Kate, for whom he works in parliament, became the MP for Edmonton in 2015 and was serving in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet until Ishmael’s career came to a crashing halt in October after he pled guilty to possessing a large quantity of illegal drugs. The prosecution accepted that he had obtained them for use with friends at a music festival in September 2017, but was arrested in possession. Political parties normally ask candidates for elected positions whether there is anything in their personal histories that would embarrass the party, and this would count. It would seem that, for whatever reason, the procedures failed on this occasion.
Ishmael Osamor stood down as a councillor, but the scandal cost his mother her front bench position after she threatened a journalist who came to her home. She has since been apologetic about her conduct, writing on Twitter: “I am deeply sorry for my emotional outbursts and I am working to better manage my feelings. I ask for space and understanding so I can care for my family and get us through this difficult time.”
So let us move on, and talk about the by-election and the ward. The ward’s westernmost point is at Turnpike Lane station on the Piccadilly Line, between the so-called “Harringay Ladder” of parallel residential streets and Wood Green town centre. Its boundaries run along the middle of Westbury Avenue and West Green Road. This area is a slice of cosmopolitan north London terraced housing, youthful and multicultural with a strong contribution from Cypriot culture (Greek and Turkish alike). The other main element to the ward, over in the north east corner, is a more famous location – the Broadwater Farm Estate.
Broadwater Farm has a troubled history, deteriorating rapidly from its optimistic opening in 1970 to the nadir it reached in the riots of 1985. Since then, it has been the subject of painstaking social and architectural improvements and when I walked across north London to clear my head during the weekend after the 2015 general election it was the one place where someone – an older woman who loved her area and its people – smiled and started a conversation with me.
However, not all is well on the Farm even now. Some of its core buildings continue to age badly, and in June the council was advised that the Tangmere and Northolt blocks, were vulnerable to some of the sorts of problems that led to the disasters of Ronan Point (in 1968) and Grenfell and should be demolished. Demolition without securing prior support through a ballot of residents was approved by the Haringey cabinet in November – an uncomfortable decision for the leadership of the “Corbyn Council” whose members had risen to power criticising of the previous Labour administration’s approach to redevelopment.
The opposition Liberal Democrat Group’s recent effort to get the decision reconsidered was unsuccessful, but it and the Osamor affair provided an unhelpful background for Labour’s defence of the seat. The party has enjoyed massive majorities there in recent elections. It was not seriously challenged even at its low point in 2006 and the Lib Dems polled badly in West Green in May’s full council elections.
However, they have long been the principal, if distant, challengers to Labour and their candidate Elizabeth Payne appears to have made some headway by supporting those Broadwater Farm residents who objected to the lack of a ballot about the demolitions or to the demolition itself. She secured a large swing of 14 per cent in her party’s favour. However, Labour’s margin on victory, though reduced, was still comfortable. Seema Chandwani won with a majority of nearly 30 percentage points. Turnout was a fairly poor 24.5 per cent, despite the considerable efforts of activists from both the leading parties.
Like her predecessor, Chandwani is well connected with the Corbynite wing of her party and last year was elected to Labour’s conference arrangements committee, an unglamorous but powerful body that shapes the agenda for the party’s supreme decision-making forum. Long prominent in her party’s local internal politics, she will now no doubt play a strong role in those of the Labour Group on the council, the leading example of Corbynite governance in action.