Newham, an east London borough, seems an unlikely place for royalty to lurk. But here, disaffected Labour members like to joke, lies the kingdom of “Sir Robin” and his “Tudor court”.
The Sir Robin in question is Sir Robin Wales (pictured below, left). Born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, he joined the Labour party at 15, but it was after his move to London in the late 1970s that his political career flourished. He was elected a councillor in Newham in 1982. From there, he climbed the rungs of local politics to become the leader of the council by 1995, and its first directly-elected mayor in 2002.
Short-tempered at times, and unafraid of controversy, Wales has nevertheless built up a loyal power base in a longstanding Labour stronghold. His courtiers are drawn from the 60 Labour councillors, and as an executive he has the power to hire, fire and promote them. He has a seven-strong cabinet, and 13 mayoral advisers, who receive an extra allowance accordingly.
To Sir Robin’s defenders, this is an effective team which has pioneered the kind of left-wing policies other authorities can only dream of – universal free school meals, crackdowns on rogue landlords, and free music lessons for all. In 2012, the optimistic flames of the regenerated Olympic grounds flickered on its western edge.
But dissenters mutter darkly that Newham, which has a budget of more than £225m a year, is a “fiefdom” and a structure that hands so much power to one man is in need of reform. They point to the example of neighbouring Tower Hamlets, where a directly-elected mayor, Luftur Rahman, appeared to rule with impunity until he was brought down by a court ruling.
As the cogs start turning for the 2018 electoral machine, that debate has come to a head. And, while the issues are distinctly local, the forces driving it may be a foretaste for the party at large of what is to come.
The trigger ballots
The attempt to unseat Sir Robin is taking place in draughty halls, through letter boxes and on the corners of the internet occupied by local blogs. At the heart of the contest are the trigger ballots, the firing gun of the process to select Labour’s candidate for the 2018 mayoral elections.
The trigger ballot – as decided at some long-forgotten Labour conference – is an affirmative ballot. The incumbent, in this case Sir Robin, is the candidate unless a majority of wards and affiliates vote against him and trigger an open selection process.
The voting eligibility rules, too, are dusty. In order to vote, members must turn up in person at the said draughty hall, on time (latecomers will not be admitted), study the CV of the candidate, listen to a debate and then cast their vote. “Yes” is a green light for the incumbent. “No” is how you stir up trouble.
This year, some campaigners calling themselves Trigger Democracy mean to stir up trouble. They have called for a co-ordinated No vote to force an open selection process. One councillor, John Whitworth, has said he is ready to challenge Sir Robin Wales.
“People don’t understand how powerful a directly-elected mayor is in a unity authority,” another councillor and supporter of open selections, John Gray, told me. “The London mayor Sadiq Khan is in a powerful position, but the local London boroughs stand up to him. They are fully paid-up members of the awkward squad.”
Wales has “done some good things”, he said, but it is time for a change: “He has been there for so long.”
So why haven’t members exercised their rights before, and voted No? Gray argues the rules requiring members to spend an evening shivering in a hall discourage all but the hardiest from turning up. Although the number of members vary from branch to branch, some ward polls indeed seem pitifully small, with one recording a turnout of just 12.
Rohit Dasgupta, the chair of Labour’s Canning Town South ward, says the mayor’s supporters have launched an aggressive campaign to keep members on board. The short time frame for the polls has also been controversial. He told me: “I found the date for my trigger ballot was set without proper consultation.”
If members are unhappy about the way procedures are carried out, they are free to complain to the procedural secretary. But in the claustrophobic world of Newham Labour, the procedural secretary is also an adviser to the mayor. And however responsibly this officer acts, it has not helped the atmosphere of mistrust.
A changing party
If critics of Sir Robin feel passionately about this selection process, so too do his supporters. Because of the non-political nature of the council, it was hard to speak directly to the mayor, but Clive Furness, another Newham councillor and mayoral adviser, listed what Wales has achieved in office. He told me: “The trigger ballot process we are using is long established, agreed and enshrined in the party rulebook.”
He questioned why Trigger Democracy’s founders had chosen to stay anonymous (the website is indeed devoid of names) and claimed that activists from outside the Labour party were involved.
“Once again, our members’ private details appear to have been leaked to activists outside the Labour family, to our opponents and to members who should not have had them,” he told me. (Councillor Gray also alleges his wife was cold called by supporters of the mayor).
Indeed, Labour’s internal campaigns are plagued by accusations of data leaking. During the summer’s national leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith’s campaigns lobbed allegations of data breaches at each other. In a divided party, every cold call seems to fuel suspicions of enemies within.
Ken Clark, a cabinet member of Newham, is also a former director of the London Labour party. He traces the data breaches back to a decision several years ago to share membership lists with candidates.
“In the past, the party would send out material to members and keep lists confidential, but in recent times they have given them to the candidates themselves,” he said. “Once you do that you are losing control of the membership lists.”
Another change is the swelling of the membership ranks since Corbyn became leader. In July, the national membership stood at more than half a million – the highest ever in modern times. In Newham, according to Clark, the party has ballooned from 900 members to more than 3,000.
“It is a massive change in membership, with different groups of people,” he said. He attributes this change to some of the suspicion around the election process.
“Never before have we had this sort of division about trigger ballots. Last time people were elected on one no one said a word. But now there are also many new members, and they wonder why is that so.”
In one light, at a time when Labour’s national poll rating is dire, Newham can be seen as an outlier, a throwback to the Scotland of the 1990s, or a forecast of London in the 2020s – a left-wing establishment in an unfriendly blue sea. For Labour parties elsewhere in the country, there are more important things to worry about than a powerful, left-wing mayor.
But in another light, as grassroots members demand more say over re-selecting their MPs, it captures the essence of the party’s dilemma. Should politicians be more accountable to their local branches? Who gets to determine how they are chosen? And with a new set of members, should there be a new set of rules? Should representatives of diverse constituencies look more like them, and less like white men?
As for Newham, despite the mutual accusations, the ward polls have so far returned results for both sides. Even if Sir Robin triumphs, it will be a close run.
“Here in Newham we have people participating in a democratic process to see if the incumbent should be their candidate,” Clark said. “That is a healthy process to me.”