Trigger Ballot To Harpoon Wales?

Newham is a one party borough, and there has only ever been one elected Mayor. Can this be good for local democracy?

Sir Robin Wales (61) has been the elected Mayor of the London Borough of Newham for as long as the office of elected mayor has been in existence, since 2002. Before that, from 1995, he was Leader of Newham Council. This means that Sir Robin has been Newham Council’s senior politician since before the development of Facebook or Twitter. He has been in office locally for longer than Vladimir Putin has been in national office in Russia.

During Sir Robin’s protracted period in office, Newham has undergone radical change, partly prompted by its role as host borough for London 2012. For much of this time, the Mayor has been exempt from some of the re-selection procedures which elected politicians are often required to undergo. Instead Sir Robin has remained Labour’s Mayoral candidate via the truncated process of “affirmative nomination”.

At “affirmative nomination” meetings, which are again taking place throughout the borough this month, Labour Party members vote on whether to re-select the sitting Mayor as their candidate or to initiate an open selection process in which a range of candidates compete for the party’s nomination. In other words, open selection is not a matter of course. In effect, a majority of members must vote against the sitting candidate for such a process to be triggered; and re-selection is the default. Meanwhile, across the borough, Labour is the default party of office; no other political party has managed to hold on to a single seat on the council.

Community activist Martin Warne, a resident of Newham, is keen to see an open selection process. Mr. Warne said “I used to be a member of the Labour Party, and if I lived anywhere other than Newham I probably would have re-joined.” He was ambivalent about the track record of Sir Robin Wales: “It’s mixed. There have been some improvements, but most of those have had little or nothing to do with Sir Robin. And it remains a relatively poor and deprived borough. We have the highest proportion of over-crowded households, the highest proportion of the population in low paid work, the highest rate of TB infection, the third worst rate of childhood obesity.”  He may have a mixed opinion of Sir Robin, but Warne has become single-minded about the need for open hustings to select Labour’s Mayoral candidate. He describes party members’ previous decision to keep the incumbent as “deeply depressing”.

John Gray, a Newham councillor and long-term resident of the borough, observed that “concerns have been raised within the Labour Party” on the grounds that “the current system favours the incumbent”.

In order to stand as the Labour candidate for re-election to the council, Gray himself has been required to undergo open selection, and he went so far as to say it was “bizarre” that Sir Robin Wales has not had to go through the same process. He spoke passionately about the need for choice. He has been hoping for a “trigger ballot” during the current round of “affirmative nomination” meetings, and did not rule out putting his own name into the hat if a trigger ballot is successful. “But there are more credible candidates,” noted Gray. “I’m not sure a middle aged white man is the best person to represent Newham.” He also added that Sir Robin is a “good campaigner” with “every chance of winning” in the event of a trigger ballot.

Among the Focus E15 mothers’ campaign for “social housing not social cleansing” there is not even qualified support for Sir Robin.  The group reports that among Newham residents Sir Robin is known as “the Sheriff of Newham, who robs the poor” rather than providing for them. After three years running a stall in Stratford Broadway, these campaigners say they have heard from “hundreds of residents voicing their anger and concerns with the Mayor.”

On “affirmative nomination”, Focus E15 insists that “there is no democracy without choice”. Group members who are also members of the Labour Party are hoping that Sir Robin will not have an easy ride through the programme of “affirmative nomination” meetings which is due to be completed in the first week of December.