In early 2018, Newham’s long-standing Labour Mayor Sir Robin Wales was denied the near-certainty of four more years in the job when a coalition of Labour members decided he’d already been in post too long and taken too much control of the levers of municipal power.
Sir Robin was deselected as the party’s candidate for the May 2018 borough elections and replaced by Rokhsana Fiaz, a relatively new councillor who promised a more inclusive approach to being Mayor, including giving Newham’s voters the opportunity to do away with the directly-elected Mayor system of local government completely.
But now, barely past the halfway point in her first mayoral term, Fiaz is facing a range of complaints by fellow Labour politicians and activists that she has been ineffective in her executive position and even misused it. What is going on?
The context is the particular character of Labour politics in Newham and the party’s complete domination of the council Fiaz heads: along with her massive victory as Mayor in 2018, Labour won all 60 council seats. Such domination by a single party can often be a recipe for backbench and activist discontent, and in Newham different Labour factions in effect make up Fiaz’s council opposition.
The latest flash point in relations between the Mayor and a number of party colleagues is her handling of allegations of antisemitism by a Newham councillor, Joshua Garfield, who is the only Jewish member of the Labour group.
Last night, Garfield, who contributed to the July 2019 Panorama investigation of antisemitism in Labour, emailed his fellow Labour group members, telling them he had that morning “advised” the Mayor to let them see a report setting out the findings of an investigation she had commissioned to address Garfield’s complaints about what he has, according to that report, termed “a culture of accepted antisemitism” within the Labour Party in Newham.
Garfield’s intervention followed a strongly-worded email to Fiaz by two other Newham Labour councillors, Quintin Peppiatt and Ken Clark, who is a former director of Labour’s London region and a sometime ally of Sir Robin Wales. The email was sent last Thursday, the day of the release of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s publication of its damning report on antisemitism in the Labour Party nationally under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
The email’s authors described themselves as “absolutely horrified” by what they had heard about the Newham report’s contents. They also took issue with the very commissioning of the report, whatever its merits, saying the matter should have been dealt with through established council disciplinary channels. And they accused “senior members” of the Labour group of an “attempt to hide the ugly stain of antisemitism.”
The report, which On London has obtained a copy of, is written by David Hirsh, an academic at Goldsmiths. Dated 23 September 2020, it centres on material posted on the Newham Labour Facebook Group page – material which, Hirsh writes, Garfield complained to the Mayor about in January of this year and is described by Hirsh as “representative of material which has been published there routinely since at least the beginning of 2018” and as being “indeed antisemitic”.
He says an article posted there written by someone who’d been suspended by Labour over antisemitism contained imagery which “shines with antisemitic symbolism” and he highlights a letter which appeared from someone who was facing allegations of antisemitism, which claimed that “the Israel lobby” buys politicians with “dark money”.
Though commissioned by the Mayor, Hirsh’s report also contains criticisms of her and of her then statutory deputy, John Gray, who stepped down from that position a few days ago.
Fiaz is described by Hirsh has having “a sophisticated understanding of the threat of antisemitism in the party and she did act, in a leadership capacity, to oppose the culture of antisemitism in Newham”. She is also praised as having previously exemplified “good practice” by instructing senior colleagues to alert the then general secretary of the Labour Party to Garfield’s concerns about What’sApp comments made by members of Newham’s Momentum group.
However, Hirsh also finds that Fiaz failed in “two concrete ways” to do more when she should have done: one, she did not stop using the Facebook Group page after becoming aware that antisemitic material was appearing on it; two, she wrongly delayed Garfield’s appointment to a deputy position in her cabinet because other Labour people had made complaints against him.
Gray was the administrator of the Facebook Group. Hirsh states at the top of his report that “John Gray does not espouse antisemitic stereotypes or politics and he has expressed no negative opinion towards Jews” and that Gray was “not a leader of Labour’s culture of institutional antisemitism”.
But Hirsh also says, in support of Garfield, that Gray “failed to oppose antisemitism even when it was his role to do so” in his capacity as administrator, by positioning himself as “a neutral mediator between those who opposed antisemitism and those who were most responsible for the toxic atmosphere of antisemitism” in discourse on the site. He is also critical of Gray for banning Garfield from the group, following a strongly contested claim that Garfield accused Gray of being an antisemite. Hirsh concludes that, in any event, Garfield should not have been excluded from the Facebook Group.
Addressing complaints made about Garfield by other Labour councillors, Hirsh writes: “Those who are directly responsible for political and institutional antisemitism in the Labour Party are generally the first to accuse their victims of aggression and disloyalty. They tend to treat antisemitism as though it is invented by Jews and they treat opposition to antisemitism as though it is dishonest, uncomradely and disloyal.” He finds that the complaints against Garfield “themselves constitute elements of the antisemitic culture in the party”.
The rights and wrongs of Fiaz’s and Gray’s handling of Garfield’s concerns are being sharply debated in Newham Labour circles. The Mayor has today sought to demonstrate that she will not tolerate antisemitism in the Newham Labour group. In an email sent to members this morning she describes the hurt experienced by Garfield “over the past two years” as “shameful” and urges members to learn from him and what he needs from them. She adds: “There are others from other religious traditions who represent a minority and they have suffered too. We need to stand by them too. To that end, I will be commencing a series of closed discussions with him [Garfield] and others to start the process of learning and an action plan to tackle antisemitism and other forms of racism locally here in Newham.”
Fiaz was invited by On London to comment on the findings of Hirsh’s report, to say if she intends to now share it with the Labour group and if she believes commissioning the investigation was a good decision. However, the council said these questions should be directed to Labour’s London region. The whole issue of the handling of Garfield’s complaints is believed to now be being looked at by the party at national level.
John Gray is said to be unhappy with aspects of Hirsh’s report relating to him and his dealings with Garfield, while believing Hirsh also makes some valid points. There is speculation about whether Gray stepped down as Fiaz’s deputy before being sacked (Charlene McLean has today been announced as his successor). On London‘s understanding is that Gray initiated the change after a long period in which relations between him and Fiaz deteriorated over a number of issues, including the quality and style of her leadership. He is not the only supporter of her original mayoral bid to part ways with her since.
Where does all this leave Rokhsana Fiaz, who ousted Sir Robin Wales with support from such a wide spectrum of Labour members? Hirsh writes that she has had “particular difficulties” locally “relating to the specifics of ethnic and communal politics”. Some critics characterise her commissioning of Hirsh as an example of what they say is a tendency of Fiaz to think she can sort problems out in her own particular way, effectively sidelining formal processes and with the effect of limiting transparency – criticisms with some echoes of those of Wales. That said, even non-admirers recognise that preventing the Labour group, some of them very preoccupied with the workings of party mechanisms, imploding into unending civil wars can be a thankless task.
Fiaz has also been under pressure over her election pledge to hold a governance referendum, which she wants to take place on 6 May next year. After a fraught internal debate, the council voted in favour of the committee system model of local government being offered to Newham voters as the alternative to the mayoral one. John Gray is among those committed to campaigning for it.
Meanwhile, a legal challenge to the council’s view that a petition for a referendum raised by a campaign called Democracy Newham, which is supported by some Newham councillors and other Labour figures in the borough, offering a different alternative to the mayoral system – the leader and cabinet model – cannot be accepted before 6 May due to emergency Covid rules about elections, is soon to be heard. Part of the claimants’ case contends that the council’s referendum cannot lawfully be held if it turns out that the petition, which was submitted to the council on 18 September, is ruled to be valid after all. The outcome is awaited with great interest.
Update, 4 November 2020: The full report by David Hirsh about Joshua Garfield’s complaints is HERE.
Update, 18 December 2020: Jo Bird, a person named in David Hirsh’s report, has told On London she considers the report to make “serious, unsubstantiated allegations against a number of people,” including herself, which she “completely rejects”. Bird, who is Jewish, says Hirsh did not contact her about his investigation or give her an opportunity to respond to his findings.
Update, 10 January 2021: Carel Buxton, a person named in David Hirsh’s report has told On London she considers the report to make “a serious and unsubstantiated allegation” against her, which she “completely and utterly” rejects. She says she has not been contacted by Hirsh in connection with his report and has therefore been unable to challenge his conclusions. Buxton is the current chair of West Ham constituency Labour Party.
The article was amended on 4 November 2020 pending clarification from Newham Council of when any change in its governance system would come into effect and to provide more information about the Democracy Newham campaign’s legal challenge.
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