Heidi Alexander, the former shadow health secretary, has quit the Commons to become Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for transport.
News that the Lewisham East MP was considering resigning her seat to take up the role overseeing London’s transport network broke last last month, and her decision to quit will spark a fierce contest for her safe south London seat, which she held last June with a 21,000 majority.
Alexander quit as shadow health secretary in 2016 in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and has since become a vocal advocate of a soft Brexit. She has clashed with pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum, who criticised her decision to step down, both locally and nationally.
She is the latest in a string of high-profile Labour moderates who have sought alternative roles outside of parliament. Last week Dan Jarvis, the Barnsley Central MP, was elected the inaugural mayor of the Sheffield City Region, while Jamie Reed, the former Copeland MP, and Tristram Hunt, the former shadow education secretary, both resigned mid-term for new jobs outside of politics in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
City Hall said Alexander had to leave parliament to take up the post as it is legally impossible to be both an MP and deputy mayor. Her appointment was welcomed by Sadiq Khan, whose campaign to become London Mayor was chaired by Alexander, who will likely prove a key ally in coordinating his bid for reselection this summer.
Khan said his new deputy “knows this city inside out, and her work both as shadow health secretary and campaigning over the best Brexit deal has demonstrated the terrific job she will do as part of my team standing up for London.”
He added: “Londoners can be confident she will ensure we deliver our ambitious plans to transform London’s transport network over the coming years.”
In a letter to members of her local party, Alexander said she had “reflect long and hard” about her decision to leave parliament and declined to take even an implicit swipe at the left.
“These are tough times for us all,” she wrote. “I have reflected long and hard about whether leaving parliament now to take up a new challenge at City Hall is the right thing to do.
“But ultimately I came into politics to change our society for the better. London is a great world city, home to 8.7 million people. Our health, economic prospects and quality of life are inextricably linked to how we move about our capital and I want to help shape the future of the city I love. I am impatient to make a direct contribution and I know I will be able to make a difference at City Hall under Sadiq’s leadership.
“I will of course continue to support the Labour Party and Lewisham will remain my home for many years to come.”
Colleagues from Alexander’s wing of the party were quick to congratulate her but nonetheless lamented her departure. “Heidi is getting the chance to take charge of a huge policy agenda in an important and powerful role,” one moderate MP told the NS. “It’s a no-brainer for someone as able as her. From a selfish point of view, when good people leave it just makes it harder for those of us who stay and she will be a particular loss to the group of MPs working to shift us to a pro-single market position.”
A hotly-contested fight for the Labour candidacy in the by-election to come will now ensue. Sakina Sheikh, a Lewisham councillor touted as a potential left candidate, had declared within an hour of Alexander’s resignation being formally announced.
She said in a statement that she hoped to continue Alexander’s work protecting services from austerity and that she was proud to support Corbyn’s “transformation” of the party. “Jeremy Corbyn has opened the door to a new kind of Labour Party, one which sticks to its principles, opposes neoliberalism and utilises the knowledge and epxerience of its members,” she wrote. “As an MP I will dedicate myself to representing the Lewisham East community, while also building this new kind of Labour Party that is capable of transforming Britain for the many, not the few.”
Other names suggested as potential candidate include Katy Clark, the former North Ayrshire MP who works in Corbyn’s office as political secretary; Claudia Webbe, a CLP representative on Labour’s NEC, and Nadine Houghton, an organiser for the GMB. Sources familiar with the local party have alsosuggested to the NS that Kevin Bonavia, a member of Lewisham council’s cabinet, running as a unity candidate from the soft left.