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Haringey Council leader Claire Kober’s resignation should shame Labour’s NEC

Labour's most senior woman in local government has been brought down by her own party. 

The news of Claire Kober’s resignation as leader of Haringey council should cause the entire Labour movement to pause. How did the party get to a place where it chose to cannibalise its most senior woman in local government and one of Labour’s most successful council leaders ever?

It’s worth stepping back to remind ourselves of Kober’s decade-long tenure. She took over in the aftermath of the death of Peter Connelly (known to the shocked British public as Baby P), when Haringey’s name was synonymous with the worst type of public service failure. In the ten years since, she’s turned the authority around, not least transforming children’s services into a place where vulnerable children can not just survive but thrive. And she has achieved so much more – she has transformed perceptions of Haringey, bringing investment and opportunity to a borough with some of the UK’s poorest communities. Isn’t this what Labour in government is supposed to do? Claire should be lauded for her leadership. Instead she’s been demonised, and in a way that should worry everyone who cares about Labour and local government.

Kober resigned a week after the Labour’s National Executive Committee asked the Labour-led Haringey Council to stop its regeneration plans. Such interference is unprecedented – which is why huge numbers of Labour council leaders opposed it at the weekend. They are right to be concerned and right to stand in numbers against it (the resignation of Kober herself will be effective from May, when she will not stand for re-election).  

Labour in local government, is visionary, radical and putting into practice a true alternative to the Tories’ depressing vision of our country. The conditions for councils since the cuts started in 2010 have been abysmal. This has meant tough and unpopular choices. It has meant standing up to vested interests. And it has meant trying to shield some our poorest and most vulnerable people from the worst excesses of a Tory government. By and large, Labour in local government has been incredibly successful at this. Our record, including Haringey’s, should make any Labour member proud. We’ve delivered living wages, new council housing, tackled rogue landlords, increased child care provision, helped people back in to work, delivered investment, growth and jobs for our areas, recycled our budgets to the benefit of local business, and led the way on a host of employee rights. Look at any Labour town hall anywhere in the country and you’ll see achievements like these, and more. This is municipal socialism.

To deliver in the boldest traditions of Labour, we’ve also had to do things none of us got in to politics for. To understand which services weren’t performing, or what can we do without. None of these decision have been easy and they certainly haven’t been popular. This has meant at any given time pretty much every Labour group has had a small group of councillors who oppose decisions. That’s politics. But if council leaderships aren’t 100 per cent sure they can manage that dissatisfaction themselves, within their own collective responsibility and procedures, then they’ll start to second guess what the NEC might do. A minority of councillors (it was a minority in Haringey Labour Group) in any group anywhere in country could try to hold its leadership hostage. This risk is particularly acute given the clear lack of basic due process in the NEC’s decision making. None of this is how representative democracy works and it could easily make for more conservative decisions in town halls. It will force out some of the bravery and radicalism.

Moreover, the mediation proposed by the NEC was bound to fail. Haringey Labour had done nothing illegal and nothing counter to party’s rules that may justify an intervention. Local councils are autonomous bodies. They simply can’t accede to a situation where party processes can override the democratic governance of a borough.

It needs spelling out: mediation could not have delivered a workable solution. Either for Haringey’s Labour group or Haringey’s council officers. The Labour group – the legally and democratically constituted administration of the council, would necessarily have to concede to do something that a majority of them didn’t support.

Council officers are empowered to act by their political masters. They can’t take instructions from another organ of a political party, and they can’t take instructions from candidates who aren’t yet elected. In fact, they have legal duties not to. The NEC process effectively sought to overrule 2014’s local government elections, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it did so without any viable alternative way of running Haringey. It is appalling and unfathomable that the NEC would put itself in this position.

The final depressing part of this sorry mess is Labour’s woeful record on getting women in to leadership positions in local government. Fewer than one in five of Labour’s council leaders are women. Last week we saw another all-white all-male shortlist for a metro mayor candidate. As I said at the beginning, Claire was Labour’s most senior woman in local government, one of it’s most successful council leaders ever. For the sake of factional interest, people who claim to support the pursuit of equality have forced her out.

I hope beyond hope, that, with Claire’s resignation the NEC will step back from the brink and resolve not to act in this way in future. I fear however, it will just embolden them.

Sarah Hayward is a Labour councillor in Camden and the former leader of Camden Council.

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Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.