Consolidation and concentration

11 Nov

Newham’s Labour group of councillors met on Monday evening, as they do before every Council meeting, in private. This is one of the few arenas where political disagreements can be aired and the Mayor can be challenged. Decisions are taken at Group and then in the council meeting itself the Labour position is whipped, so the public sees a (theoretically) united front. Given every councillor is Labour and there is no formal opposition party, this has the potential to be a a powerful body.

But the reality can be somewhat different, due to the patronage powers held by the executive mayor. Appointments to the executive – cabinet members, deputy cabinet members, commissioners – are entirely within the mayor’s gift. Those who hold these positions, and those who aspire to in the future, are heavily incentivised to back the Mayor in any vote where they have a strongly held view.

Most Labour Groups on other councils have observers from the local party to report back to members, but that doesn’t happen in Newham. Both local constituency parties are suspended and there has been no functioning Newham-wide Labour Party body since before the end of the Robin Wales era. There is no accountability to local members.

Monday’s meeting was well-attended, at least according to the participants list on Zoom, although only a minority had their cameras on. A number of ‘attendees’ were simultaneously at a GLA party in city hall in Southwark hosted by Unmesh Desai AM. I understand a room was set aside to allow partygoers to vote.

The agenda included some items of business left over from the Group AGM earlier in the year, including proposed rule changes to improve the independence of Group from the executive.

The first proposal was put forward by the Labour Group secretary Susan Masters. The amendment suggested a limit on the number of group officers – chair, secretary, treasurer, women’s officer, equalities officer etc – who also serve on the Council executive. This would be a progressive step away from the practice of the previous mayor, where Group was chaired by a ‘mayoral adviser’, whose career and pay was in the hands of the Mayor. So Labour Group business was rushed through before any time for dissent.

Although proposed by Cllr Masters, this idea had been discussed through a working party and appeared to be uncontroversial; there were no speeches against. But when the votes were counted the proposal was defeated. So the officers can continue to be entirely drawn from councillors whose livelihood is in the hands of the Mayor. If the proposal was so objectionable, why couldn’t those opposed to it put forward a single speech to explain why?

Next, Cllr Daniel Blaney proposed that deputy cabinet members (appointed by the Mayor and given £19,242 per annum as a result) should not vote in group elections for the chairs of council scrutiny committees. These are meant to hold the Council executive to account and, obviously, need to be entirely independent. The mayor and cabinet members already do not vote on nominations for scrutiny chair and Blaney’s amendment would have extended this.

During the May 2021 governance referendum the campaign to keep the mayoral model insisted that scrutiny was a crucial function that ensured proper checks and balances in the system, so there was no need to change things. This is obviously undermined if in practice the executive chooses the who does the scrutiny. The previous regime elevated this practice to an art form! [link: https://forestgate.net/2016/05/13/visions-of-scrutiny/%5D

Cllr Blaney, alongside his ally Cllr John Whitworth, was a prominent campaigner for the committee system last May. That Cllr Whitworth recently lost his role as scrutiny chair in a vote, including those cast by deputy cabinet members, is no doubt a coincidence.

There were a number of speeches against the amendment arguing that deputy cabinet members had so little influence it would be nice if they could vote in the scrutiny elections! If that is indeed the case, what it is that they do that justifies their generous special responsibility allowance?

Blaney argued this was obviously problematic because of the inflated number of jobs being handed out by the mayor and the role of patronage. It was, he said, reminiscent of the Robin Wales era, and a far cry from the promise of a smaller executive she made in her 2018 manifesto. To be fair to the mayor, it isn’t correct to say she has as big a ‘payroll vote’ as Robin Wales. Not quite.

Sadly, Blaney’s amendment was lost.

Finally, there was a proposal to add a new role to the Labour Group officer team: a ‘deputy leader’. But who would the deputy leader be? The leader is the mayor, a role she holds ex-officio under Labour Party rules. Does this mean the deputy mayor (who is appointed by the mayor) must be the deputy leader? Neither the proposer, the mayor herself, nor the seconder, deputy Mayor Charlene McLean, could say.

The Chief Whip, Cllr Anamul Islam, suggested that the matter be deferred pending clarification. He wanted confirmation first that this would be a new post elected by the group. The alternative would further entrench mayoral patronage in the Labour Group, adding another payroll vote to the officer team. However Cllr John Gray, group chair, said it had been proposed legitimately and would be voted on. Unlike the earlier proposals which sought to limit the power of patronage, this was successful.

At the end of the meeting the chair noted a request that Labour Group start meeting again in person. He suggested this would be perverse while councillors are working on a rota basis to attend Full Council in person. I think this is the right call, but the case for continued remote or hybrid meetings is seriously undermined when a number of councillors attend a busy indoor party while logging remotely into a meeting on their phones.

We will have an executive mayor for the next ten years (at least). But it won’t always be Rokhsana Fiaz. Councillors who voted to consolidate the patronage powers of the the mayor within Group may regret their decision if the next mayor – be that in May 2022 or 2026 – is a less benign figure. There are certain figures in the local party with aspirations for office who would not hesitate to use these powers to their advantage.

One Response to “Consolidation and concentration”

  1. Birdman November 11, 2021 at 17:02 #

    It seems little has changed since srw. Almost absolute power with the added bonus of both constituency parties suspended for no publicly stated reason. Yes, some policies have changed but if members cannot help shape and influence those policies, there seems little point in being a member.
    In a one party borough like Newham, a committee system would have had little impact on the patronage.
    The issues of a low threshold for becoming a Councillor, very attractive allowance rates, the funding of political parties through mandatory deductions from allowances etc etc, all make what is happening in Newham a tale told everywhere else. The one party nature of Newham just brings it into sharper focus.
    A PR voting system would ensure some opposition in the chamber. I was never a SRW fan and left the party after 34 years because of him, but in fairness Newham, well before SRW, was rotten and it was only a few decent councillors such as the late Stan Hopwood that kept me involved. By the time I resigned, the decent councillors with a backbone could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Ironic, as one of the councillors couldn’t seem to count.
    Until there is PR there won’t be change.

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