Sir Robin Wales was Labour Leader of Newham Council from 1995 and first assumed the new executive mayoral office in May 2002 so has been in power for 23 years. The Labour Party in Newham is extremely dominant controlling all 60 seats whilst Sir Robin won 61.2% of the vote in the 2014 mayoral election meaning that whoever wins Labour’s selection is virtually certain to become mayor. In March 2018 Labour Party members in Newham took part in an online ballot in which Sir Robin backed by East Ham MP, Stephen Timms won 503 votes. However, challenger Cllr Rokhsana Fiaz backed by West Ham MP, Lyn Brown who gained 861 votes with a turnout of 66.4%.
The open selection came about after a ballot held in December 2016 and endorsed by the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) involving electoral wards and affiliated organisations voted on whether they wanted Sir Robin to be automatically reselected or whether to hold an open selection. Sir Robin won the trigger ballot with 20 votes to 17 but 11 out of 20 Labour electoral wards called for the ballot to be reopened to other candidates. Some individuals filed a court case against the NEC on the basis that the NEC failed to investigate any allegations of alleged electoral malpractice in the initial ballot. On the basis that legal costs would be significant and a waste of the party’s resources, Sir Robin called on the NEC to cancel the results and hold another ballot which was held in February 2018. This resulted in all 20 local Labour wards voting unanimously for an open selection.
Arguably the primary reason for Sir Robin’s defeat was that he has been leader of the council for a considerable length of time and in the eyes of his critics has overstayed his welcome. It was clear that even he knew his time as Mayor was coming to a conclusion as he said during the selection campaign that if elected again it would be his last term.
Sir Robin gave his own reasons for why there was an appetite for change saying in a Huffington Post interview before the open selection that older members were more likely to support him because they had seen the positive change his leadership had brought about. On the other hand, younger members, especially those who had joined the party after Jeremy Corbyn’s surge were more hungry for radical policies and viewed Sir Robin as out of touch. Sir Robin said in defence that some of the policies Momentum advocate are simply unachievable while his approach is more pragmatic with tangible results to show for his work.
Cllr Fiaz’s principal reasons for challenging Sir Robin were two-fold. Firstly, she accused him of managing a top-down administration that made decisions in closed circles and excludes community participation in council meetings. Secondly, she criticised his record in managing regeneration projects and contrasted this with the 24,000 people on the Newham housing waiting list with newbuild flats in Stratford that cost millions.
Cllr Fiaz has worked across a range of sectors from media to corporate communications whilst most recently running the interfaith charity, Maimonides Foundation. She won her OBE for services to black and ethnic minority communities around the time she was involved with Prevent – a government programme to safeguard communities from the threat of terrorism – in which she pushed for better community engagement. Given Cllr Fiaz’s background it is too simplistic to dismiss Sir Robin’s deselection as a Momentum takeover of Newham. Cllr Fiaz admitted that her views are further to the Left of him, however, she is not a member of Momentum and is in fact the vice-chair of the Newham Fabians, a branch of the social democratic Fabian Society. She argued that her policies have a broad appeal and it is how she managed to galvanise support from all wings of the Party including Momentum who backed her and the centre-left group Progress.
Cllr Fiaz’s pledge for greater council transparency, for more social housing and opposition to the Silvertown tunnel scheme are policies that have clearly resonated with Labour members in Newham. She also promised to hold a referendum on whether the mayoral system should continue to run by the end of her term.
Throughout Sir Robin’s long Mayoralty, he has been considered as one of the main supporters of regeneration in town halls across the capital. However, with changes in the Labour Party and the rise of Momentum, this approach has increasingly been out of touch with the wishes of many Labour activists.
Conversely, Cllr Fiaz who named housing as her number one priority advocated policies in her selection campaign to build 1,000 new council homes to be let at social rent by 2022 and to ensure projects led by developers have a provision for 50% of homes to be let at social rent levels and owned by the council. Undoubtedly many developers will be concerned that such an approach may not be realistic around viability.
In essence, the policies Cllr Fiaz campaigned for in her selection campaign appealed to a broad range of Labour Party members in Newham. It is easy to assume that Sir Robin’s deselection marks the beginning of a Momentum takeover in Newham as we recently saw in Haringey. However, this latest news is more about personalities than internal factions within the Labour Party. Cllr Fiaz is a fresh face who will be the first ethnic minority female Mayor in the UK and was chosen to bring greater transparency to decision making in the borough. Having said this, under Sir Robin’s Mayoralty, Newham has been generally positive towards regeneration and has been successful in delivering large numbers of new housing units. Without Sir Robin Wales and Claire Kober leading Newham and Haringey, it will be harder for Sadiq Khan to meet his ambitious London housing targets.