- Abjol Miah: facing a local clamour to stand in the Weavers by-election
ELN: The surprise news that Labour councillor Anna Lynch has resigned her seat in Weavers ward leaves Tower Hamlets having to organise a second by-election in the Borough.
Cllr Lynch’s public reason for her resignation is that she works in the NHS and as a result of the Tory-led Government’s cuts she is has had to move out of London (to Somerset) for work – wording which has left observers puzzled. Cllr Lynch was previously a nurse at the London Chest Hospital, and it is hard to believe that nursing jobs are impossible to obtain in the capital – or that they are easier to obtain in Somerset. Surely a committed local politician could have found enough paid work somewhere in London to top up her councillor allowances. Is Cllr Lynch alleging that Tory cuts have axed her job (possible) or that because of general cuts she is leaving London and she has obtained work in Somerset (what her statement actually says)?
The timing of Cllr Lynch’s resignation allows the Weavers ward by-election to be held on 3rd May, the same day as the election for London Mayor. This is welcome, as it will save the Borough some costs. However, it will be especially welcome for Labour, which will be hoping to benefit from the increased turnout expected for the mayoral election on that day. Labour will hope that voters going to the polls to vote for Ken Livingstone (and not many in the ward will be voting for Boris Johnson) and for Labour’s John Biggs will also vote Labour on their third ballot paper – rather than switch allegiance in the middle of their voting action. This would give Labour an advantage over other candidates: in a lower turnout, where Labour voters may stay at home and local support for a good candidate from an alternative party may motivate more voters to go to the polls, Labour would face a harder battle.
As Labour must have timed the resignation to facilitate the by-election being held on 3rd May, obvious questions arise. How long have they known that Cllr Lynch wanted to resign? When, for that matter, did Cllr Lynch actually move out of London?
Much as the timing of the by-election may help Labour, it will be hampered by its own internal procedures for selecting a candidate.
First, the Labour candidate must be chosen from a “panel” drawn up before the May 2010 elections, barring many competent newer members from putting their hats in the ring. Although Labour has the power to vary this and admit further members to the panel, it refused to do so when the candidate for the Spitalfields & Banglatown was chosen (keeping out popular local members who had not wanted to stand in the May 2010 elections and therefore were not on the panel). Any Labour about-face to admit new members to the panel for the Weavers selection would leave it open to accusations of manipulating local choices.
Second, although Labour nationally has procedures which require local members to chose its election candidates, this process has not operated (for local government elections) in Tower Hamlets for several years. The recent Spitalfields & Banglatown selection was made by local party officials and Cllr Josh Peck (Leader of the Labour Group): which leaves the local party in a “lose-lose” situation. Either the process of local bigwigs chosing the Labour candidate over the head of local members is repeated (which implies Labour members in Weavers cannot be trusted) or it is changed (in which case, Spitalfields members can ask why the local Labour bigwigs trust Weavers members, but not them). If, as seems likely, Labour retains its top-down approach, the candidate will be seen as a safe pair of hands who will support the local leadership’s line and not as someone with a local mandate.
Third, in May 2010 Labour had an inflexible policy of standing one woman in each ward. It has already varied this policy by chosing a male candidate to stand to replace the woman it stood in Spitalfields in 2010 and whose disqualification caused the by-election there. Standing a male candidate in Weavers would be a second reversal of this policy, leaving Labour open to accusations that its support for equal opportunities for women can easily be discarded when it wants to. However, there are very few women candidates on the panel from whom Labour could chose a female candidate for this by-election.
Weavers is no safe ward for any political party: it has changed hands several times in recent years. The Tories have never been popular locally and their performance in government won’t win them votes, so a paper candidate is to be expected to avoid the Party further embarrassment. Similarly, the Lib-Dems have been so tarnished by their support for the Government that they cannot be counted as serious contenders. The Greens, if they stand, may pick up some of the Lib Dem vote and also mop up some disenchanted Labour votes.
Labour’s chances of retaining the seat will be affected by their difficulties in choosing a credible candidate but also by the two sitting councillors in the ward. Cllr Abdul Mukit, elected as a Labour councillor in May 2010, is regarded as a lacklustre performer who has been consistent in his support for the current leadership and their divisive policy of non-co-operation with the Mayor and is unlikely to convince many voters to come out for Labour again. The winsome Cllr Kabir Ahmed is much more of a local dynamo, but he has been virtually disowned by Labour. Labour has refused to allow its councillors to serve in Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s Cabinet or become mayoral advisors: as Mayor Rahman stood on, and was elected on, the Labour Party manifesto, this has widely been seen as local Labour leaders being personally vindictive as there are no political differences. Cllr Ahmed, who has always tried to work with everyone, became a mayoral adviser and was suspended by Labour. He remains suspended and written out of contemporary history as he does not appear on local Labour leaflets. Labour has not, however, given him a hearing. In effect, local bureaucrats have imposed a sentence before a hearing has taken place – a practice Labour is quick to criticise in foreign governments but happy to embrace when it suits it. Were Labour to hold a hearing and proceed to expel Cllr Ahmed (and those who took places in Mayor Rahman’s Cabinet), it could lose seats on the few remaining Council committees: democracy is subservient to political expediency, leaving Labour unable to crawl back to the popular Cllr Ahmed and invite him to assist their candidate.
Who will Labour bureaucrats chose to fly the red flag in Weavers? Rumours suggest that Professor Michael Keith, keen though he is to return to frontline politics in the Borough, has ruled himself out of this difficult contest: apparently there is a limit to the amount of egg one face can take [but see our STOP PRESS below]. On the other hand, local bureaucrats Graham Taylor and Chris Weavers are reported to be “gagging for it”. Former party Chair Graham Taylor had to leave office when he argued for Bethnal Green Technology College to apply for academy status, contrary to local Labour policy. However, he has long had his eye on a Council seat in Weavers, where he lives. After a period of purdah over the academy issue, Taylor has recently returned to frontline politics in the Borough – possibly in preparation for stepping into Cllr Lynch’s shoes.
Chris Weavers, whose usual answer to any problem arising is to suggest that he organise a solution, is thought to be attracted to the notion of styling himself “Cllr Weavers of Weavers”. However, Taylor’s resignation enabled Weavers to become Chair of the local Party, realising a long-held dream. Having finally got his bottom on the seat of power, he is in a quandary about whether to seek a boot upstairs so soon into his reign over party structures.
Faced with this uninspiring choice to replace a relatively uninspiring councillor – who, while a staunch supporter of the NHS, never seemed fully to embrace Labour policies as a whole – local opinion formers have approached former councillor Abjol Miah and asked him to put his name forward. Miah’s reputation for competence, community activism and charisma are thought to be the attraction. If Miah responds to local calls, he will be a hard act to beat – leaving any Labour candidate with a very daunting battle.
“Nutty professor” comes out of his shell
East London News understands that Michael Keith has, after all, been unable to resist the temptation to return to the Town Hall and is risking a split in the local Labour Party in order to realise his personal ambition.
News of Keith’s interest comes as bad news to current Labour leader Josh Peck who was already facing rumblings in the ranks after just one year in control – a year in which he has been able to articulate what Labour is against (the Mayor) but not inspire about what Labour is for (perhaps not surprising in a generation which has not been in opposition before).
Peck had been hoping to be the leader of Labour’s Next Generation and to stay in charge for years to come. His close working relationship with local party bosses and his position as Leader, which would have given him a say in who Labour’s candidates will be for the next scheduled elections in May 2014, should have seen him set for at least a two term reign. But Keith is no one’s second fiddle. He comes from the Blair generation of the Labour Party, which disowned public ownership and welcomed private ownership but most especially embraced the third way: using the public sector to commission services from the voluntary sector. That Labour experiment never proved itself in practice for many reasons – but there are no signs that Keith has abandoned his faith in it.
In a Labour Group which has haemorrhaged Bangladeshi members since the last election and which appears to have given up on its aim that a third of its members will be women, it seems that the focus may turn once more to which white man will lead them. If Keith can persuade Labour bosses he is their future, the scene will be set for a battle between yesterday’s man, as he tries to resuscitate his theories, and the next generation, with their policy vacuum. Before we know whether that’s what’s ahead for Labour, the voters in Weavers will have to decide if they will embrace the “nutty professor”.