A forest of arms raising points of order (picture via James Beckles’ account of the meeting)
Last Monday (13th February) I attended the annual general meeting of Newham Co-operative Party. It’s the third AGM the party has had in the past year. The first one had to be re-run after serious concerns about the conduct of the meeting, which resulted in the second just seven months ago being conducted under the auspices of the national party.
Judging by what went on, it won’t be too long before there’s a fourth and the national party will almost certainly need to be involved again.
Things got off to a bad start, even before the meeting began. Cllr Patrick Murphy, mayoral advisor and the ‘procedures secretary’ of Newham Labour party who had overseen the trigger ballot process before Christmas, left after being informed he wasn’t actually a member of the Co-operative Party and therefore couldn’t speak or vote. He was invited by the chair to attend as a visitor and perhaps assist with the vote counting, but he refused.
Nonetheless there was a large turn out of councillors, most of them on the mayoral payroll or closely associated with his faction.
The chair, Gill Hay, took the opportunity to remind the meeting of the code of conduct and insist she needed no help from the floor in chairing the meeting. Nonetheless, ‘helpful’ suggestions abounded, mostly from councillors who took objection to her attempts to give everyone who wanted to the chance to participate, even if it meant the meeting starting slightly later than the advertised 7:30.
A 7:30 start means a 7:30 start, they said repeatedly. We have homes to go to, they said. I have a childminder booked but only until 8:30, another complained. And with each intervention the clock ticked slowly on. The tone became ever more hostile.
Things finally got underway at about 8:00. Cllr Neil Wilson, the party secretary announced there were 67 members present eligible to vote and a further four new members who could attend but not vote. The chair invited the new members (including me) to stand up and volunteer to be tellers for the elections. Cllrs Tahmina Rahman and Paul Sathianesan also stood.
As soon as we sat back down Cllr Rahman, who was sat four seats along from me, went into a quiet huddle with the mayor. He then walked across the room and took Cllr Sathianesan outside for a chat.
On a proposal from Cllr Clive Furness it was agreed to take the officers reports as read and move straight to the elections. Clearly, members finding out what the party had been doing for the past year was of no interest. The chair reported on a call she had had earlier in the day with regional office regarding the procedure for voting. This was at variance with the rule book and was queried. It was agreed to proceed, but with the ballot papers kept secure in case of any subsequent problems. A fortuitous proposal, as it turned out.
When the chair announced that John Saunders would supervise the tellers, Sir Robin leapt up to volunteer to assist in the process. This was met with gales of laughter, but he wasn’t joking.
The first election was for chair. Gill Hay was re-nominated. Cllr Hanif Abdulmuhit proposed deputy mayor Cllr Lester ’Three Jobs’ Hudson, saying – with an entirely straight face – it was time the leadership of this organisation had a bit of diversity. Only in Newham can replacing an LGBT woman with a male Cambridge-educated accountant be seen as increasing diversity. In his brief speech Three Jobs claimed he wanted to see the Co-op Party meet more regularly and asserted the importance of its leadership reflecting the leadership of the Labour council.
Ballots were distributed, collected and counted. 69 votes in all. Two more than the number of people eligible to vote.
The rolls were re-checked and a 68th eligible voter found (they hadn’t signed the register). And a fifth new member was identified. Oops. But the votes still didn’t tally, so the election was re-run, with ballots handed out to individuals as the roll was called.
This time the right number came back and, by a two vote margin – 35 to 33 – Three Jobs Hudson became Four Jobs.
On assuming his new position Cllr Hudson immediately proposed that all of the remaining elections be held at once, on a single ballot paper. To speed things along. This was rejected.
Next up were the two vice chairs. Buy-to-let queen Cllr Ayesha Chowdhury was nominated, along with sitting vice chair Jeanette Dye and Mehmood Mirza. Ms Dye topped the poll, with Cllr Chowdhury elected alongside her.
Things went completely and disastrously wrong with the election of the new secretary. The candidates were Gill Hay, the now ex-chair, and Cllr Lakhmini Shah. While voting was taking place for this position nominations were taken for Treasurer. This confused a number of people and when votes were collected a number of ballots had been cast for Cllr Aleen Alarice, who was nominated for treasurer. The vote was scrapped without being counted and fresh ballots issued.
When these were counted it was found a total of 70 votes had been cast – two more than the number of eligible voters. Again the vote was scrapped and fresh ballots issued by roll call.
This resulted in a 34 – 34 tie.
No-one seemed to know what to do next, so Cllr Hudson declared the meeting closed at 9:45. Everyone who held a position that wasn’t voted on would stay in post, he said, including the delegates to the upcoming CLP AGMs.
In a sign that his grip on power is weakening following the trigger ballot, Sir Robin was pulling out all the stops. He was clearly controlling his supporters in the room. And when he was in the kitchen area, where the votes were being counted, Cllr Ken Clark took to supervising. People showed their ballots to others to prove their loyalty, while others people were summoned for chats about what they had to do or say.
The irony is that the mayor was so desperate to salvage some semblance of authority he ended up reinforcing how much he’s lost it. I am told that Sir Robin’s conduct at previous meetings has caused significant concern to the Co-op Party, to the point that he risks disciplinary action.
He’s walking a tightrope.