Scratch beneath the surface, and you see that not everyone is content in this land of Labour red rosettes. A third of Newham residents did not vote for Labour in 2018. Their representation on Newham Council, made up of 60 seats, amounted to a grand total of zero seats.
The glitzy new home of City Hall – where the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the London Assembly are based – sits within a borough where half of children are deemed to be in poverty, according to the charity Trust for London. And with no official opposition on the council, factions run large.
Conservations with Labour activists reveal huge divisions over anti-Semitism and Islamophobia , left vs ‘moderate’, and approaches to the environment. Much of it goes back to the previous (and long-standing) Labour mayor for Newham Robin Wales. Left-aligned Labour mayor Rokhsana Fiaz – who challenged Wales directly – still finds herself slap bang in the middle of the row, four years on.
READ MORE:What London borough councils actually do from bin collections to housing
(Image: BBC Screengrab)
And while local members were selecting their Labour candidates in other parts of the capital, not a single local member got to vote for their council candidate in Newham this time round. Why? Both local party branches – East Ham and West Ham – have been suspended since last March over alleged membership irregularities.
It has led to claims that Labour is trying to hide its internal strife. “Rokhsana stood on a platform of transparency – but has cancelled three council meetings in four months. There hasn’t been a full council meeting for six months. We think it’s unconstitutional, and a lot of people feel betrayed,” Green candidate Nate Higgins says. “Labour needs to get its house in order.”
Speaking to candidates from opposition parties, some key themes emerge. Bin battles – not unique to Newham – are among them. Mr Higgins said: “We’ve been campaigning to get glass recycling since I moved here in 2017. The corner of everyone’s living room would be glass – the nearest bin would be 20 minutes away. Suddenly when I said I was running, the council found a way to make it happen.”
It’s been less than a year since Newham – which aims to reach net-zero by 2030 – started recycling glass, Mr Higgins says, and recycling is only collected once a fortnight. Conservative mayoral candidate Attic Rahman says the borough faces a major issue with fly tipping: “You have to pay £20 to get rid of bulky items. So people just leave them out.”
The closure of Newham City Farm by Labour is also high up the opposition’s agenda. “It’s caused a lot of upset,” says Councillor Pat Murphy – a Labour member for 40 years who recently quit the local party. James Rumsby, vice-chair of Newham Liberal Democrats, says the issue comes up a lot on the doorstep, as do the introduction of new parking charges for polluting vehicles. A car like a 2017 VW Golf now faces charges of £80 a year for parking, while a three litre Jeep would cost £160. More than half of Labour councillors opposed the move as a ‘tax on the poor who don’t have driveways’ – but it was pushed through nonetheless.
All opposition parties – as you might expect – say Labour has become too engulfed in its internal disputes to deal with the controversy. “Labour Robin Wales was selected in 2018 and a group sued to get the ballot redone. There’s new legal action now from the other side in revenge. Among voters, there’s general malaise. The party hasn’t had to look outwardly,” Nate Higgins says.
Both the Conservatives and Greens are putting forward full slates of candidates this time around. But all parties are having to target their resources. Much of the borough is seen as a write-off for the opposition, but newer areas like Stratford’s Olympic Park holds out some hope for the Liberal Democrats and Greens, who are both competing for lone opposition seats there.
But despite the stand-off to get one opposition voice elected, all the opposition parties say they’d like to see other parties win seats. “I don’t think it’s any secret that I want to see a rainbow council in Newham – with representatives of all the parties, from the environmentalist to the industrialist. Everyone deserves a voice and to be heard,” Conservative mayoral candidate Attic Rahman tells MyLondon.
Lib Dem James Rumsby agrees: “Any opposition would be welcome – anyone that will listen to residents and care about what they say.” Though he quickly adds: “I’d much prefer it to be us.” The Lib Dems and Greens got a combined 15 per cent of the vote in the old Stratford ward – though boundary changes this time round could help them scrape in among young, Westfield-visiting East Village residents.
(Image: Newham Conservatives)
Many of those in the Olympic Park are fed up with their monopoly energy supplier, East London Energy, which recently “doubled” its fees, according to James Rumsby. They face charges of “appalling customer service” – though it’s not clear how much influence the council can have over it. A separate ‘park charge’ for residents in the former Olympic site has “no transparency or consultation on what the [City Hall-led] London Legacy Development Corporation spend it on,” James says. It is as much as £100 a month for some residents. “The Labour councillors are doing nothing about it. They’re not pushing any pressure on the mayor or speaking to residents about it,” the Lib Dem candidate claims.
Even Labour members – in private – believe that holding 100 per cent of the seats is not particularly healthy. “It’s not good for the locality or the party: they look inwards and fight among themselves. It’s obvious to outsiders like myself, in boroughs where we’re the opposition,” one London Labour politician tells me.
And yet, no opposition party is under any illusions about how hard it is to unseat Labour councillors. James says all the small parties are “desperate” just to get one or two others on the council to hold them to account: “It’s challenging – lots of the areas in Newham vote Labour over and over again….People complain about the council all the time. Yet people still say they’ll vote Labour. But this isn’t good enough now.” We’ll soon see whether voters agree.
London Labour and Newham Labour councillors were contacted for comment but did not respond.
All of London’s 32 borough councils and their 1,817 seats are up for election on Thursday, May 5, alongside thousands more seats in the rest of England. It’s the first all-London council vote since 2018. Polls will be open from 7am until 10pm at hundreds of polling stations across London and the UK. This May’s elections will also see five boroughs pick directly-elected mayors: Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Croydon.
You have to be on the electoral roll to vote in May. The deadline for registering to vote at the 2022 local elections is 11:59pm on April 14. In England, you can vote when you’re 18 or over and a British citizen, qualifying Commonwealth citizen, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or a number of European Union countries. Registering to vote online usually takes about five minutes.
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Josiah joined MyLondon as the outlet’s first City Hall Editor in October 2021, reporting on the Mayor, the London Assembly, the Met police, Transport for London, and wider London politics.
He moved to South London from Brussels in 2015, working in communications for the Electoral Reform Society, and covering Westminster politics as a freelance journalist. Originally from Cornwall, he is now also a proud Londoner. Josiah has appeared on BBC Radio 4, Times Radio, LBC and other outlets to discuss current affairs and general political chaos.
If you have an untold story – whether it’s a housing nightmare, an unfair decision or a local scandal, get in touch at [email protected] or contact Josiah on Twitter.