Newham: Plaistow North by-election loss confirms headache for Labour

Newham: Plaistow North by-election loss confirms headache for Labour

The Plaistow North ward by-election held in Newham yesterday produced a spectacular Labour loss to Independent candidate Sophia Naqvi in what had previously been a very safe seat.

The party’s vote share dropped by 39 percentage points. Naqvi came from nowhere to win with 46.3 per cent of the vote. The result poses some difficult questions for Labour’s leadership locally and perhaps nationally.

Plaistow North is the east of West Ham, broadly the area around the District line between Plaistow and Upton Park stations. It lies in part of the sprawl of industry and working-class housing that spread rapidly eastwards across the flat lands north of the Thames in the second half of the 19th Century.

West Ham has ancestral Labour loyalties: it elected the first Labour council in England in 1898, and Plaistow’s MP from 1918 to 1945 was the trade unionist Will Thorne, whose former house is to be found in Lawrence Road at the north east edge of the Plaistow North ward.

The ward is densely built-up, a mixture of Victorian terraces and mostly low-rise council-built blocks of flats relieved only by some allotment and a playing field (though West Ham Park is on the northern edge of Plaistow North). Thirty-five per cent of households are in social housing, compared to 33 per cent renting privately and 29 per cent owner-occupied.

It is a social mixture as well, a chunk of multi-ethnic working-class London. About half the people are South Asian Muslims – the ward is at the edge of the very strongly Asian and Muslim block of territory based on East Ham. In the 2022 elections it was a very safe Labour seat, with the Labour slate taking two thirds of the vote and the remainder divided nearly equally between the Conservatives and the Greens.

The election was called as a result of the resignation of Labour councillor Daniel Lee-Phakoe. Labour attributed this to “personal reasons”, alluding in the process to “fake news and divisive politics” circulating in the borough. Another account has suggested he was an organiser of internal Labour opposition to the directly elected Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, and attributed political motives to his resignation.

Such intrigues – if they exist – may be remote from the electorate, but the by-election brought out some of the seething disputes that lie beneath the apparently placid one-party surface of Newham politics.

Electoral opposition to Labour in Newham does not come primarily from the other two principal English parliamentary parties: the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates (respectively, James Clifford and David Terrar) were showing the flag rather than contending for victory.

The Green Party, with two council members, is the main party opposition in Newham. It was represented in Plaistow North by Zahra Kheyre. But the serious challenge to Labour in this contest came instead from an ex-Labour Independent. Where there is hardly anyone else who can win an election, ruling parties tend to manufacture their own opposition.

The Plaistow North campaign was a kind of sequel to the by-election held in the neighbouring Boleyn ward in June, with a lot of the same factors at work. Boleyn kicked off the political rise of Mehmood Mirza, who won a surprising victory as an Independent in what had been expected to be a routine Labour hold like many other local by-elections recently (see here, here and here).

Mirza served as election agent for Naqvi, a former Momentum supporter. Like his, her campaign was backed by activists who would identify as being to the Left of Labour, though it was also a combination of Left politics and some localist and populist causes, for instance against fly-tipping and in favour of car parking for a household’s first car.

The campaign was fought on a mixture of local and international issues. The national record of the Conservative government barely featured. Palestine had a prominent position in Naqvi’s campaign literature, although Labour candidate Aktharul Alam also portrayed himself as a strong supporter of Palestine, as so did another Independent candidate, Anas Khan. The Greens, too, held a Gaza solidarity event. The market in pro-Palestine signalling was crowded.

In contrast to the build-up to Boleyn, local expectation was that Labour would turn in a poor result. Even so, the result was striking. Naqvi won with 1,266 votes, far ahead of Labour’s Alam with 750 votes (27 per cent). The other candidates attracted little support. Khan led the pack of also-rans with 274 votes (10 per cent), the Conservatives won 257, the Greens 113 and Lib Dems on 73. Turnout was a relatively healthy 25 per cent, a small fall from 28 per cent in the full borough election in May 2022.

Part of the explanation has to be Muslim dislike of the national Labour leadership’s line on Gaza, which has resulted in councillor resignations elsewhere and pressure on the party’s representatives from Muslim community organisations across the country.

The by-election in Newham was an opportunity for those feelings to be reflected in the ballot box, given the availability of a credible challenger in Naqvi. It is possible that feelings run stronger in majority-Muslim areas like Plaistow North than they do in mixed areas with significant Muslim minorities, such as Higham Hill in Waltham Forest where Labour had a solid hold last month.

Reputable national polling shows Labour support among Muslims at 56 per cent – still a majority but well down from the 86 per cent support Labour had in the 2019 general election. The drop was larger in Plaistow, though that reflects local circumstances.

Naqvi’s victory was significant for Newham politics. Her campaign articulated a feeling that Newham’s long-serving Labour administration, more specifically that of Rokhsana Fiaz in her second term as Mayor, was losing its previous dynamism and becoming complacent and divided.

Labour’s election results in 2022 showed substantial slippage from their peak performance in 2018 – Fiaz’s mayoral first preference vote was down from 73 per cent to 56 per cent, and support for Labour’s council slate fell from 68 per cent to 56 per cent. The slide has continued in the Boleyn and Plaistow North by-elections this year, although, also in July, the voters of East Ham’s Wall End ward took a less of a hostile attitude.

There is an electoral malaise in this ancestral Labour heartland at the moment. Mirza polled only eight per cent in the mayoral election in 2022 as an Independent candidate but would clearly be doing better now as leader of what amounts to a local opposition party. After all, Lutfur Rahman and Aspire returned to power in neighbouring Tower Hamlets last year with a familiar blend of Leftist and Islamic rhetoric, populism and somewhat conservative campaigning on issues like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

However, the hurdle at which past challenges to Labour’s hegemony in Newham have fallen is the ability to campaign across the whole borough. That is a bigger task than picking off a ward or two where issues and personalities come together. Mirza’s political operation is not yet ready for that. Even so, its growth is a headache for Labour in a borough where the party has become accustomed to winning everything.

X/Twitter: Lewis Baston and OnLondon. Photo from Sophia Naqvi’s X/Twitter feed. If you value On London’s coverage of the capital, become a supporter or, alternatively, a paying subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return you get a comprehensive weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to London events.

Categories: Analysis

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