Rokhsana Fiaz’s re-selection as Labour’s candidate for Mayor of Newham last week almost guarantees her a second term in power at the election of 5 May. But if her path to victory in the Labour stronghold east London borough now appears smooth, the background local politics could hardly be more turbulent.
The very method by which Fiaz (on left in photo above) was picked to fight the mayoral contest results from controversy and turmoil within her party in Newham. She was chosen by a panel formed from Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) – which included deputy leader Angela Rayner – rather than through the usual local democratic process involving party members and affiliated organisations, which many think would have seen her replaced.
The NEC took over the selection process because, since March last year, both of Labour’s constituency parties (CLPs) in Newham, East Ham and West Ham, have been suspended following what the party nationally described as “a significant number of serious allegations regarding the conduct of Labour Party members and membership recruitment practices in Newham,” claiming these were backed up by “a considerable amount of evidence”.
Fiaz was preferred as candidate to London Assembly member Unmesh Desai – whose constituency includes Newham – who was the only other candidate interviewed out of the handful who put themselves forward, including three experienced current Newham councillors.
If there were not enough discontent in Newham Labour already, Fiaz’s likely continuation as Mayor has fuelled more. Amid complaints that the NEC intervention contradicts Keir Starmer’s past pledge to put an end to NEC-imposed candidates, On London understands there may be a legal challenge.
Even before the selection process was concluded the chairs of the two mothballed CLPs simultaneously resigned. Tahir Mirza and Carel Buxton, both strong supporters of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, stepped down, complaining about the actions of the party at national level and that the council under Fiaz had presided over cuts and “gentrification”. A number of ward branch chairs then did the same.
After Fiaz’s selection was announced, Patrick Murphy and Quintin Peppiatt, two long-serving councillors from a different wing of the party, resigned from the Labour group. Murphy, an ally of former Mayor Robin Wales who was ousted by Fiaz in 2018, says he was motivated by what he sees as a failure by Labour to investigate complaints about bullying in Fiaz’s administration. The Labour Party has been sent two separate sets of complaints: one by 18 Newham councillors concerning Fiaz herself and another by 26 councillors claiming there is a bullying atmosphere towards female councillors.
Last week the GMB union aired concerns about 63 non-disclosure agreements made by Newham with departing staff over a three and a half year period, costing £2.8 million. “GMB London has long had concerns around inadequate outcomes of formal grievances when staff raise [bullying and discrimination] issues at Newham Council,” said regional organiser John Colquhoun.
Peppiatt’s reasons for leaving the Labour group are his opposition to the decision by the Mayor to shut down Newham City Farm and his dissatisfaction with how complaints about antisemitism among Labour members have been dealt with.
Fiaz commissioned a report on the issue by academic David Hirsh, delivered in September 2020, which centred on material posted the Newham Labour Facebook page. The report said Fiaz had a “sophisticated understanding of the threat of antisemitism”, though it also criticised her response to the Facebook material after becoming aware of it.
Peppiatt and another Labour councillor, Ken Clark, complained at the time that the matter had not been dealt with through the usual council disciplinary channels and accused unnamed “senior members” of the Labour group of an “attempt to hide the ugly stain of antisemitism”. Hirsh’s report, which was never published by the council, has been passed to the Labour Party, which Peppiatt believes has failed to act on it.
The NEC has also been conducting the selection of candidates for council seats, beginning over the weekend and continuing this week. Sitting councillors have been warned off speaking to the media. Campaigners for the reopening of the City Farm, who held a 120-strong protest last Tuesday, say a few members have declared support privately but couldn’t speak up for fear of not being reselected.
Newham’s Labour factionalism must be understood in the context of Robin Wales’s near-quarter century running the borough as council leader and then elected Mayor. With the first flush of Corbynism, Wales faced mounting opposition to his forceful leadership style and strong pro-development agenda.
He won a December 2016 re-selection trigger ballot but there were allegations that allies had engineered a stitch-up. After Wales forestalled a legal challenge by asking the NEC to hold a fresh ballot, all 20 Newham ward branches called for an open selection contest, which Fiaz won.
A former consultant on building relations with ethnic minority communities, Fiaz was propelled to power by a diverse coalition including Momentum, other opponents of Wales and a faction of the socially conservative Muslim movement, Tablighi Jamaat. This mix, complicated by Fiaz later distancing herself from some parts of the left, means support for and opposition to her comes from different ideological groups.
Fiaz promised to run Newham in an open and transparent spirit, including by introducing Citizens’ Assemblies, placing restraints on mayoral powers and by holding a local referendum about whether the mayoral system should be abandoned in favour of a different governance model.
The referendum took place last year and produced a strong result in favour of retaining the mayoralty. And despite the scale and range of opposition to her, some believe Fiaz has brought change for the better. One of her allies says there’s a completely different culture in the council compared with when Wales was Mayor, with longer, meaningful council meetings and more accountability. An “absolutely shameful” previous underfunding of children’s services is said to have been put right. Fiaz is described as “very, very determined” but also “compassionate” and someone who “works relentlessly”. Criticism of her is dismissed as “sour grapes”.
Another supporter says Fiaz’s proudest achievements include spending more on youth provision while other boroughs have cut theirs, and the Citizens’ Assemblies, which have enabled residents to choose what projects they want Community Infrastructure Levy funds spent on. A third admirer says it has been possible to have constructive disagreements with Fiaz: “You can do more by having a quiet word than raving about it.”
But critics of Fiaz describe her as an abrasive character, obsessed with attacking the previous regime and relying on supporters who share neither Labour nor civic values, with corrosive effects. One former councillor says Fiaz exhibits “inexperience” and a “lack of understanding of politics”. Others says she has been indecisive and gone back on promises.
Newham may only deliver around two-thirds of the 1000 council homes Fiaz promised by the time of the election. A proposal to axe the borough’s free school meals scheme was reversed after an outcry. Despite 89 per cent opposition in a consultation, Fiaz persisted with emission-based parking charges that don’t affect residents with driveways. “Rokhsana promised not to be tyrannical but has been the polar opposite,” says parking charge campaigner Liam Adam.
Clark, a former director of Labour’s London region and a deputy Mayor under Wales, points to shrinking council financial reserves. “There’s too much of a habit of kicking the can down the road,” he says. Eight current councillors are being investigated for anti-semitism. “Words fail me,” says former Newham councillor Clive Furness in response. Murphy fears that valid criticisms of Fiaz are dismissed as Islamophobic.
Another London Labour figure, speaking before Fiaz’s reselection, perceives “quite a bit of misogyny” in criticisms of Fiaz from patriarchal Muslims who see “an intelligent, modern person they don’t like,” but adds that it would be “flabbergasting if we dropped one of the most senior Muslim politicians in the country. What signal would that send?”
Photograph from Rokhsana Fiaz’s Twitter feed.
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