Newham has suddenly gone from being one of the most predictable and stable boroughs in London, to extraordinarily unpredictable in the space of a few weeks.
Sir Robin Wales is the longest serving borough leader in London, having first become council leader in 1995 and then directly-elected Mayor in 2002. He assumed he would be reselected on the nod for 2018, but faced a strong challenge for an open reselection involving other candidates. After a lengthy discussion, involving threatened legal action and the intervention of the London Labour party, Sir Robin has announced an open selection on 1 March, at which he will be a candidate.
Faced with opponents within his group who feel he has not promoted the right people (themselves), and by left-wing supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum who have successfully mobilised against the local leadership in Haringey, some thought Sir Robin would choose to step aside rather than face the indignity of deselection. That is not the Robin Wales way and he has set up a full campaign.
The challenge has come from Rokhsana Fiaz, a councillor in Custom House ward; two other potential candidates, John Whitworth and Kay Scoresby, withdrew and backed Fiaz.
The key policy battles are around urban regeneration and new council housing in the borough, but the politics and allegiances of local ethnic minority groups add an unpredictable factor.
Fiaz has made it known she would like to see more council housing built in the borough. She has tweeted consistently on this theme, stating her desire to ‘drive up social and genuinely affordable housing in Newham’, and it links with her approach on the Strategic Development Committee where she has been one of the most vocal proponents for mixed communities in Newham. It is this policy platform that is seeing her attract support from the left wing of the party, with the activist and commentator Owen Jones tweeting his support.
In response Sir Robin Wales has come out fighting, promising to build more council housing if he wins the election and highlighting his past achievements on housing: he led the council’s clampdown on criminal landlords and Newham’s recent developments are deliberately ineligible for right to buy.
Both candidates have given long interviews to Dave Hill for the OnLondon website: first Robin Wales then Rokhsana Fiaz. With both candidates stressing their housing credentials and promising to build more council houses, it is clear that whoever wins the Mayoralty Newham is likely to see a greater focus on building council housing and in Fiaz’s words, ‘genuinely affordable housing’.
The electorate is comprised of individual Labour party members in Newham who joined before October 2016. The candidate who best captures the prevailing mood amongst members on key issues such as council housing, urban regeneration, jobs and skills will win. Whoever wins the Labour selection is effectively guaranteed to win the Mayoral election in May. If Fiaz wins, it is possible she will keep personal responsibility for regeneration as she is a skilled member of the Strategic Development Committee. If she chooses to appoint a cabinet member, then it may be one of her allies on that committee, who are Julianne Marriott and Rachel Tripp.
May the best man, or woman, win.