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Talking to the Fabians about committees

23 Nov

On Saturday Newham Fabians held an online meeting to talk about local democracy and participation. I was invited to talk about the committee model and why I think it’s the best option for Newham.

This is what I said…

Since 2002 Newham has been run by a directly elected executive mayor – for the first 16 years that was Sir Robin Wales; the current mayor Rokhsana Fiaz has served for 2 ½ years.

The referendum in May will be the first time in close to 20 years that residents have the chance to debate and determine how our borough is run. The choice will be between the current arrangements and a modern committee system.

Newham Voting for Change, the campaign for a committee system, is delighted that there will be a clear choice between a council run by a Mayor and a small executive they appoint and a more participatory, inclusive and open system in which every councillor can play a role. We’re looking forward to campaigning for the committee system in the referendum and having the chance to make the arguments about how Newham council should make decisions and agree policy.

So, what is the committee model?

This is the flatter, less hierarchical and more collaborative alternative to having the executive – or strong leader – arrangements we have now.

Under this model, full Council holds all the decision-making powers. It is full Council’s decision whether to exercise those powers directly or to delegate them to committees or to officers. Council can decide for itself how to organise the committees and adapt them over time to meet changing needs.

While there is no set model of committees, historically they have been based on major functional areas, such as housing, finance, education and resources; along with regulatory committees such as planning and licensing; governance committees such as audit and standards; and statutory scrutiny committees, such as health.

The London Borough of Sutton, for example, has four main committees that are responsible for the Council’s principal functions. These are:

  • Strategy and Resources Committee
  • Environment and Neighbourhood Committee
  • Housing, Economy and Business Committee
  • People Committee

Full Council appoints a leader, but without executive powers and, of course, they can be replaced by full Council – not an option that exists under our current arrangements.

The council leader provides political and strategic leadership, proposing new policy, strategy, budget and service standards, as well as acting as spokesperson for the authority.

They represent the Council in the community and in discussions with regional, national and international organisations.

Although this is not an issue in our present one-party state, all committees and sub-committees must be politically balanced, where possible.

Research shows that in councils that moved back to a committee system, the role of full council has been enhanced, with more councillors involved in decision-making. Which is a key reason for moving away from a mayor or leader-and-cabinet system.

Why do we believe this the best option for Newham?

Good governance is about more than structures and processes. Political and organisational cultures, attitudes and behaviours are what make systems successful.

We have seen that the concentration of power and patronage in the hands a single individual, and their hand-picked ‘executive team’, has led to groupthink, poor decision-making and a toxic political culture. Although Rokhsana Fiaz has handed back many of her powers to cabinet there is nothing to prevent a future mayor reclaiming them for themselves.

In a modern Committee system, all 66 councillors will have the power to represent their areas and do the job voters believe they are electing them to do.

Decisions will be made by committees of councillors (from all parties, should an opposition ever manage to get itself elected) working together. All of our councillors will have a voice to represent the communities they serve – not just the mayor and their chosen few.

Power and resources for decision-making in local communities can also be built into a committee system. This means more decisions can be taken closer to the people affected.

We believe that the committee system is:

OPEN – there is more opportunity for citizens, experts and communities to have their say and influence decisions

REPRESENTATIVE – all council members have input into decisions, not just the Mayor and Cabinet

CO-OPERATIVE – councillors have to work together to make decisions

ACCOUNTABLE – every councillor takes a role in making policy and seeing decisions enacted

And a properly designed committee system will be just as swift for decision-making as the mayor-and-cabinet system.

The socialist case for committees

Socialists know that supporting open, democratic and accountable government is crucial. Our party was established to open up government to working people who had gone unrepresented — so that democracy might be used to improve the lives of the many, not just the few.

I hope the referendum debate can be a starting point for a wider discussion on how to renew our democracy in Newham. As Fabians and socialists, we have questions to answer.

How do we create a political culture based on cooperation and solidarity? How do we rebuild trust in our politics and in our public institutions? How do we build support for and fund high quality, universal public services? How do we become carbon neutral within the next decade, to avert climate catastrophe?

The scale of the task confronting us means that the public needs to be at the heart of deciding how to proceed.

I will finish by quoting Olivia Blake, MP for Sheffield Hallam and a supporter for the campaign for a committee system in her city: “Labour councils should be innovative, pioneering new democratic processes with greater citizen participation and deliberation. And we need to start now. The people are ready for change, and we should listen.”

Newham Fabian Society is the local branch of the Fabian Society, a left-leaning think tank dedicated to new public policy and political ideas that is affiliated to the Labour Party. If you’re interested in finding out more, email the secretary.

Durning Hall redevelopment

5 Nov

Carousel1

CGI of the proposals (including the scheme already underway on Woodgrange Road)

Aston-Mansfield, the charity that owns and runs Durning Hall, is consulting local residents on its plans to redevelop the site, which sits on the junction of Woodgrange Road and Earlham Grove.

The charity says that

…despite the support of the community over the years, there are longstanding issues with the existing buildings that need to be addressed.

Without significant work, the site is financially unsustainable and cannot support us continuing our charitable work across Newham.

To address these challenges, we have been working on plans to redevelop the site. Redevelopment will secure our future in Newham. It will allow us to develop the work that the charity does to support children, young people and families in the borough.

The detailed plans for the redevelopment of the Durning Hall site include:

  • 78 new high-quality homes for Forest Gate, including 35% (27 new homes) at affordable levels, with associated courtyard and play space within the proposals for residents.
  • A new circa 100 sqm ‘Youth Enterprise Pop-Up Space’ to help young people develop trading and business skills.
  • 127 sqm of creative children’s playspace that will be designed to accommodate children with special educational needs and disabilities.
  • Four flexible retail units on Woodgrange Road to support local businesses in Forest Gate.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the consultation will be run entirely online. There is a dedicated website, where you can have your say.

By-election. But not yet.

26 Aug

Julainanne Marriott

Julianne Marriott (left) in her role as education lead

Julianne Marriott has resigned as a councillor for East Ham Central ward. She had announced at a meeting of the Council July that she was standing down as Cabinet member for Education and is now leaving the council altogether.

If a by-election is called to replace her it won’t take place until 6th May 2021, in accordance with the current Coronavirus regulations. So there’s plenty of time for Newham’s political parties to pick their candidates!

Ms Marriott was first elected in 2014 and was re-elected 2018. She will now be devoting herself to a new full-time job. My understanding is that her new role is not politically restricted, so there was no legal requirement for her to resign. She could have sat quietly on the back benches until the next election, collecting the £11,000 a year allowance. That she chose not to is entirely to her credit.

In a farewell note to colleagues she said (emphasis added)

Representing the people of East Ham Central and being part of Newham Council for six years has been an amazing experience and one that I’ve learned so much from. I will forever be a cheerleader for Newham and the role of local government. I can only hope that this Tory Government learns to feel the same way.

The Tories have systematically underfunded and undermined local government over the last 10 years and has now left us with an over £33m bill for supporting our most vulnerable residents through Covid-19. I can only sign off with the exhortation that there is a real enemy out there – and it’s one we need to focus our energy on fighting.

i look forward to seeing you on the doorstep as part of our journey to getting the Labour government Newham’s residents need.

Notice of a casual vacancy has been posted on the council website.

One man, four parties

16 Apr

Albdul Karim Sheikh

Former councillor Abdul Karim Sheikh

Tributes were paid this week to Abdul Karim Sheikh, former councillor and ceremonial mayor of Newham, who has sadly passed away at the age of 82 having contracted Covid-19.

On Twitter Newham Jack (who he?) asked ‘Is he the only person to have stood for election in Newham representing four different political parties?’

While I don’t know the answer to that I can confirm his political career did indeed span standing for four very different parties.

He first stood for the council in Plashet ward in 1986 for the Independent Newham Broad Alliance. He finished in last place with 401 votes.

By 1990 he had joined Labour and was selected to contest Kensington ward, where he romped home with a majority of 1,300. He switched to St Stephens ward in 1994, winning re-election easily. In 1998 he was selected for Upton ward; as no other party put up a candidate the Labour slate was returned unopposed.

2002 saw him stand for the last time on the Labour ticket, this time in Green Street West. He defected to Respect in 2005. 

In an interview with Socialist Worker he explained

The new system of a directly elected mayor, brought in four years ago, has changed the council into a dictatorship. The mayor, Robin Wales, was originally against the mayor plan, but changed his mind after the referendum.

I left the Labour Party and joined Respect last year, partly because I felt councillors were no longer listened to.

The system takes power away from even elected members of the council. That’s why Respect is talking about trying to reverse this system.

Cllr Sheikh was narrowly re-elected in Green Street West for his new party in 2006 alongside Hanif Abdulmuhit, who has since returned to the Labour Party.

He left the council in 2010 after Respect were heavily defeated.

2014 saw him try again in Green Street West. This time for the Conservatives. He was unsuccessful, trailing the winning Labour candidates by more than 1,500 votes. He contested the 2018 election for the Tories again and, completing the circle started 32 years before, he came last.

One man, four parties. Perhaps a unique contribution to local politics.

Suspended?

22 Feb

Mehmood Mirza with Peter Willsman

Mehmood Mirza (right) with Peter Willsman in September 2018

Alternative ‘news’ site The Skwawkbox is reporting that West Ham CLP membership officer Mehmood Mirza has been suspended from the Labour Party after a compliant about his conduct. Mirza is currently running for a seat on the party’s national executive committee as the BAME representative.

According to The Swawkbox

Mehmood Mirza, who received 75 nominations from local parties, would be unable to publicise the nature of the complaint because of Labour’s confidentiality requirements. However, while the precise nature of the complaint is unknown, a Labour source has told the SKWAWKBOX that parts relate to Mirza applauding a speaker’s comments at a Labour Party meeting and walking around a meeting after members were asked to remain seated.

The SKWAWKBOX also understands that Mirza’s supporters allege that the complaint was lodged by a figure on the left of the party.

Two hours before Mirza received notification from the party, he received a call from the right-wing Telegraph newspaper asking him to comment on the complaint.

The story has indeed reached the Telegraph, although it is less certain about his suspension

Mehmood Mirza, the frontrunner to become the next BAME representative on Labour’s ruling body, was reported for posting an allegedly anti-Semitic cartoon on Facebook.

The member of public who reported Mr Mirza, the vice chair of the West Ham Labour party, has not heard back from the party despite the complaints being initially made in October last year.

The cartoon in question, which Mr Mirza shared on his Facebook page, depicted a sticker with the words “anti-Semitism” being placed across the mouth of a man who has a “free Palestine” band around his head.

The cartoon was created by Carlos Latuff, a Brazillian artist who has previously been accused of creating anti-Semitic content by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the human rights organisation.

… Mr Mirza still appears as a candidate on the party’s official website, though The Telegraph understands he may have been suspended.

Whatever the outcome, this will be an embarrassment to those who have endorsed him.

West Ham CLP’s general committee meets on Thursday. If Mirza has been suspended he won’t be able to attend.

Election 2019 Results

16 Dec

Stephen Timms, Rokhsana Fiaz and Lyn Brown

No surprises in Newham, as Labour easily held both of the borough’s Parliamentary seats. The party’s share of the vote declined slightly, but neither Stephen Timms nor Lyn Brown will be losing any sleep over that.

East Ham

Stephen Timms (Labour) – 41,703

Scott Pattenden (Conservative) – 8,527

Michael Fox (Liberal Democrat) – 2,158

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (Brexit Party) – 1,107

Mike Spracklin (Green Party) – 883

Kamran Malik (Communities United Party) – 250

Labour majority of 33,147

 

West Ham

Lyn Brown (Labour) – 42,181

Sara Kumar (Conservative) – 9,793

Eimear O’Casey (Liberal Democrat) – 4,161

Danny Keeling (Green Party) – 1,780

Emma Jane Stockdale (Brexit Party) – 1,679,

Paul Jobson (Christian People’s Alliance) – 463

Humera Kamran (Communities United Party) – 143

Labour majority of 32,388

Maryland Point

30 Oct

Map of proposed Maryland ward

The Local Government Boundary Commission for England has published its draft proposal for re-warding Newham and it represents a major victory for local campaigners in Maryland. They argued that their community deserved direct representation on the council and the Commission agreed.

When I wrote about the council’s own proposals I expected them to be accepted. I was mostly right – but also quite wrong.

The Boundary Commission has adopted the majority of Newham’s recommendations, but re-drawn the map in the north of the borough to accommodate a new Maryland ward, which extends from Leyton Road in the west to Field Road in the east and takes in the roads around UEL’s Stratford campus in the south. If adopted, it will elect three councillors.

As a result three other wards have significant changes. The proposed Stratford East Village ward is now smaller and renamed Olympic East Village; it will have two councillors. Forest Gate North is also smaller, having lost almost all of the streets off Forest Lane west of the community school. But it gains the parts of the Woodgrange Estate that currently sit in Forest Gate South. The redrawn FGN will elect two councillors. Forest Gate South, shorn of the Woodgrange Estate, the area around the UEL and streets west of Water Lane, is also reduced to two councillors.

Stratford Olympic Park ward will simply be known as Stratford.

For what it’s worth, I think the boundary between the proposed new ward and Forest Gate North is absurd. Even if you accept that Maryland is a distinct community (I am personally unconvinced) there is no way it extends almost the entire length of Forest Lane. A more sensible boundary would be the western edge of Forest Lane Park and the cemetery.

Councillors for Corbyn

22 Jul

Labour councillors across the country have responded to “continuing right-wing attacks” on Jeremy Corbyn by signing an open letter expressing their unwavering support for the leader:

We are elected councillors who are proud to publicly represent the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. We feel compelled to write this letter to express our support for Jeremy Corbyn whilst he is personally subjected to accusations of racism and antisemitism. He is a decent man who has fought hate and fascism throughout his life. It is unjust to witness such a personal attack on a man, who was twice democratically elected because of such principles.

We owe it to ourselves to fight the scourge of antisemitism, and all other forms of hate and racism both within our party and society. We believe that a vast majority of Labour members are good, honest people who wish to create a society free from bigotry and discrimination. If there are incidents of racism, antisemitism or any forms of hate we all demand action is taken.

We strongly believe there is now a rigorous effort to reform and improve the inadequate disciplinary processes that our current General Secretary, Jennie Formby, inherited when she took over the role last year. There is still more work to be done, but we have every confidence that Jennie Formby can do this whilst protecting members’ rights to natural justice and due process.

The targeting of Jeremy Corbyn – who has a lifelong record of opposition to all forms of antisemitism, racism and hate, even when this has meant him speaking as a minority – undermines all of our efforts to achieve a fair and just society free from all forms of hate. We have no doubt in his integrity and sincerity in fighting discrimination, and we are proud to give Jeremy Corbyn the full support he deserves.

So far the letter has been signed by “over 600 councillors,” which is not quite as impressive as it sounds when you consider the party has more than 6,300 councillors (it used to be more, but the last couple of election cycles haven’t worked out that well).

Of the 60 Newham councillors, nine have so far added their names:

  • Cllr Daniel Blaney
  • Cllr John Whitworth
  • Cllr Moniba Khan
  • Cllr Sasha Das Gupta
  • Cllr Aisha Siddiqah
  • Cllr Anamul Islam
  • Cllr Mas Patel
  • Cllr Susan Masters
  • Cllr Hanif Abdulmuhit

With both East Ham and West Ham CLPs in the borough now firmly in the hands of ‘Corbynistas’ (as their private WhatsApp group is called), how long before the other 51 are questioned about their lack of loyalty?

European election results 2019

30 May

Britain and the EU 992x561

The returning officer has released the full results for Newham from last week’s European election:

Party

Votes

Percent

Labour

33,379

51%

Liberal Democrats

9,192

14%

The Brexit Party

7,730

12%

Green Party

5,353

8.2%

Conservative

3,756

5.7%

Change UK

2,234

3.4%

UKIP

1,336

2.0%

UK European Union Party

917

1.4%

Animal Welfare Party

640

1.0%

Women’s Equality Party

572

0.9%

Others (independents)

312

0.5%

Total votes

65,421

100%

Compared to the previous European election in 2014, Labour lost 7 points of vote share and the Conservatives lost 11 points. UKIP also lost share, down over 6%, though their previous vote was bettered by Farage’s new Brexit vehicle.

The big gainers were the Liberal Democrats, up 12% and the Green Party up 3.6%.

Turnout was down 3%, from 39% to 36%.

 

Itchy feet

19 Nov

Having finally got rid of Sir Robin Wales, some Labour councillors are itching to ditch the directly-elected mayoralty altogether. A motion is being put to Labour Group tonight (Monday 19 November):

Motion for a change in Newham governance arrangements 

Since 2002, the London Borough of Newham has been governed using the directly elected Mayoral model of executive arrangement to determine how decisions are made in the Council.

This Council recognises that democratic engagement should be continually promoted and Newham’s system for local governance must always reflect the ongoing need for strong democratic engagement and accountability. It should also ensure that it has a model of governance that best ensures scrutiny and a rigorous series of checks and balances on the exercise of power.

The Council notes the Localism Act 2011 which permits the holding of a binding referendum on the abolishment of the directly elected Mayoral model and replace it with a Leader and Cabinet model.  

Therefore this Council commits to hold a binding referendum by May 2020, on a change of governance from a directly elected Mayoral model to a Leader and Cabinet model.

The motion is being proposed by Cllr Suga Thekkeppurayil, who is chair of the Labour Group, and seconded by Cllr Hanif Abdulmuhit.

Obviously, I fully support having a referendum and will campaign for abolition of the directly elected mayoralty. But this is already the policy of the new administration. At the election in May Rokhsana Fiaz promised to hold a referendum on the directly-elected mayoralty, saying:

The Directly Elected Mayor model of governance is broken in Newham. We will hold a referendum on its future before the end of my third year as Mayor.

Despite some councillors might think (or hope), holding a referendum in May 2020 instead of 2021 won’t end the directly-elected mayoralty any sooner. Whatever happens, any change to Newham’s governance arrangements won’t come into effect until the next local elections. Rokhsana Fiaz will be the mayor until 2022.

What might happen if a referendum is held in May 2020 is the election of a Tory mayor of London. Whilst Sadiq Khan is a popular mayor his re-election is not guaranteed. Every vote will count and there’s a lot of Labour votes in Newham. Do local campaigners really want to be distracted by having to spend part of their time canvassing to get rid of the Newham mayor while at the same time trying to get votes to re-elect the London Mayor? That’s a recipe for confusion.

Labour Group should amend the motion to read ‘by May 2021’ and pass it. Then, after (hopefully) re-electing Sadiq Khan they will have a year to plan and execute a successful campaign to return Newham to a more sensible form of local government.

UPDATE:

An amendment has been submitted by Cllrs John Whitworth and Daniel Blaney removing the specific date and replacing it with

in good time for any consequent constitutional changes to be factored into the 2022 Local Elections.