“Stiflingly factional”: What’s going on in Waltham Forest?

Our east London reporter investigates

Waltham Forest Council’s ruling Labour group is under scrutiny after the removal of three Asian councillors and a candidate selection process in which most Muslim applicants failed to make the candidate panel after an often hostile interview process that refused a string of left-leaning candidates.

This is a local Labour leadership – run along a classically top-down ‘strong leader’ model – that has not taken kindly to challenge, and this control-freakery has been stamped all over the current local election selection process. At the time of going to press, one Asian male candidate has been suspended, having been successfully selected in the seat where he is currently a councillor, and three other sitting Asian councillors did not make the panel or win their appeals.

Furthermore, in the interview process, all ten Pakistani/Kashmiri heritage applicants were failed at interview and all but one of 14 Muslim applicants did not make the panel, the majority of whom were not reinstated on appeal. Unsurprisingly this has generated negative headlines about discrimination in interview processes in Waltham Forest, the optics of which look shocking in one of London’s most multicultural areas.

This east London borough, like many in London, has undergone both gentrification and an increase in need and poverty during the austerity years, with which the Labour council, increasingly starved of funding, has had to grapple. But the council has often tended to respond to this with an unimaginative dash for development in search of any and every source of council tax revenue, regardless of suitability and need. It has also faced criticism from environmental campaigners recently for supporting the controversial replacement of the Edmonton incinerator, in the neighbouring borough of Enfield.

The wider politics of the Labour Party in the past seven years have long cast a shadow. The Labour Party across Waltham Forest has been riven with factionalism since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, when many of the long-standing councillors and some activists felt at risk from the left wing members joining or becoming active again in the party.

The response to the Corbyn surge was different in each of the borough’s three parliamentary constituencies, with the right remaining particularly strong, and hostile, in Walthamstow, where the MP, Stella Creasy, has called the shots, co-ordinating candidates for Party positions and holding phonebanking sessions for her slate in her office. Her father has been the CLP secretary for the past 14 years.

In Chingford and Woodford Green, the left-backed candidate Faiza Shaheen came within just over 1,000 votes of unseating Iain Duncan Smith from a once-rock solid Tory seat in 2019, after a campaign during which the current and previous council leaders (Grace Williams and Clare Coghill) and deputy leader (Clyde Loakes) were visibly absent.

There is no question that the right of the party have come together, overcoming personal animosities, to protect their positions, and to prevent scrutiny of their policies. In doing so, they fought to maintain power in a limited number of hands, which meant excluding anyone they felt they couldn’t control. We have had a diverse range of mayors during that period for example, a role which holds no real power, but only white leaders.

The exclusion of black and Asian councillors from positions of influence has been a theme for some time. Although they have had cabinet roles, none have controlled the purse strings. And a recently created role, Commissioner for Equalities, has no money and has to channel all actions via the leader’s office. This post was created after very public accusations of racism at the William Morris gallery run by the Council.

It is important to understand a bit more about Waltham Forest, and the policies of the Labour Group. Waltham Forest is an outer London borough with a young population (average age 35 years), where the majority of people travel outside of the borough for work, at least until the pandemic.

Property prices have been on the increase for some time, which has coincided with substantial cuts to council funding. During the 2010s the Labour Group decided that the best way to resolve the funding shortfall was to build thousands more homes, and reel in the extra council tax the new residents would be paying.

This sounds logical and understandable until you look at the types of developments that have been going up – small one- and two-bed flats costing £400,000 plus – and the types of people who have been moving into the borough – largely families priced out of areas such as Hackney. The two don’t marry up, and none of it meets the pressing needs of families who already live in the borough. The building boom has also stripped the area of much-needed community space, with no borough plan in place to address this. And some of the development is planned on flood plains, despite the very real risks of flooding.

Waltham Forest is also part of the North London Waste Authority (NLWA), which is just about to replace its old incinerator with a new one that will burn even more waste. In fact the incinerator is so large that the CEO of Acciona, the company building it, has admitted it is oversized and that its suitability was “debatable”.

Clyde Loakes, Waltham Forest’s deputy leader and longstanding Labour Councillor who chairs the NLWA, has consistently defended the incinerator project, and the failure to properly consult affected residents about the redevelopment. You can find out more about the campaign against the incinerator here.

These policies have been sustained by an aggressive top-down management style. In spring 2021, a previous mayor and councillor in a very safe seat, Yemi Osho, stood down, reportedly citing bullying in the Labour Group. This led to a by-election that resulted in another black woman, the Momentum activist Jennifer Whilby, being selected and elected. This unnerved the local Labour right, as did the selection of another left activist, Uzma Rasool, for a by-election in another safe Labour ward in Leytonstone on the same day.

A month later, in July 2021, the council got a new leader, when Clare Coghill, who had been living outside the borough during the pandemic, stood down (although she remains a councillor until May 2022) and was replaced by Grace Williams. Coghill, who had overseen a period of intensive housing development in the borough, went off to work for Square Roots, a subsidiary of the developer London Square, which is seeking permission for a controversial housing development on flood plains and a local park on the western edge of the borough.

Originally there were four candidates for the top job – Williams, Loakes, Ahsan Khan and Liaquat Ali – but it became clear fairly quickly that for one faction to win, some of these candidates would have to withdraw. The rumour is that a meeting of white male councillors including the Whip and Deputy Leader Loakes, recognised how unpopular the latter was – not helped by his support of the incinerator – and Loakes decided to withdraw to support Williams. With Khan also stepping down in favour of Ali, it was a straight run-off. The two new left wing councillors were of course crucial in this vote, and Ali came within two votes of the leadership.

The Labour right were spooked. They may not be able to retain control if the left got more people onto the panel for the local elections, and it seems they set about determining who to block to prevent this becoming a reality.

A significant number of left candidates were blocked from being on the panel in November. This included a young Asian woman who had started a charity to educate people about FGM and forced marriage and helped force a change in the law. She was described by one member on her interview panel as the “perfect candidate”, and had been accepted on the panel for the by-election just six months previously, but was denied a spot because she swore a few times on social media when she was 19, five years earlier.

The others targeted in this cull were Anna Mbachu, who had been elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Group the previous July. She was initially prevented from being on the panel for “bringing the party into disrepute” over claims of libel that she failed to prove in court. She claimed that a former male colleague had written offensive lies about her on social media, but was unable to provide the original posts for the court’s consideration. She also participated in Black Lives Matter protests organised by local lefties, and was criticised by white male members of Labour Group for joining them. As shortlisting was due to begin, she still hadn’t received an outcome from her appeal, and was allowed to go on the panel in the absence of a decision.

Liaquat Ali, his son Umar and nephew Hather, were also prevented from restanding, and didn’t win their appeals. Ali consistently supported the Corbyn leadership, although he hasn’t always been known for political consistency. His family’s links to slum landlordism clearly don’t fit with socialist values. The worst public stories of this, however, pre-date the previous local elections in 2018, and yet all three were allowed to stand then, and Liaquat has been a cabinet member since. In fact Liaquat has been a councillor for many years, holding a cabinet position for long periods. The only thing that has changed recently is that he sought to become the Group Leader, and got to within two votes of it, with the support of his son and nephew among many others.

In reality, what we have seen in Waltham Forest is a purge of oppositional or questioning positions within the Labour Group. There is no interest in a ‘broad church’ or Party unity from people who want power at any cost,  and to prevent scrutiny of or amendment to their policies, and if that means aggressively targeting specific groups of the membership, and creating a stiflingly factional and hostile atmosphere, so be it.

Image: Waltham Forest in Greater London. This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Adobe Illustrator.This file was uploaded with Commonist.  This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this file:Greater London UK location map 2.svg (by Nilfanion). Author: TUBS, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts