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Local election meltdown

Both main political parties are still trying to decide who will run in May
By Victoria Munro

(credit: James Cracknell)
(credit: James Cracknell)

With only three months to go until the local elections, both of the borough’s main political parties are reportedly in meltdown as they struggle to finalise their list of candidates.

The borough’s mosques are calling for an investigation “into what appears to be clear discrimination” in the Labour party, following the de-selection of a Muslim cabinet member, as well as two of his relatives, and allegations of bias against Muslim applicants.

Meanwhile, the borough’s Tories are “more divided than they’ve been in nearly two decades”, according to a departing councillor, and have entirely restarted the process in two wards for the third time after complaints of inappropriate attempts to influence members.

Depending on the outcome of ongoing appeals, there could be as many as twelve new Labour councillors after the May elections, after four councillors were de-selected at interview and eight did not run again.

Labour councillors who did not run (top two rows) and those de-selected or appealing de-selection (WF Council)

The controversy in Labour hinges around the de-selection of long-standing cabinet member Cllr Liaquat Ali MBE, who represents High Street and is said to have lost the leadership race to Grace Williams last summer by 23 votes to 21.

Cllr Hather Ali and Umar Ali – both related to Liaquat – are reportedly appealing their own de-selections.

A local Labour spokesperson refused to confirm how many votes there were between Cllr Williams and Cllr Ali, stating: “As with all internal Labour Group elections, the specifics of any vote remain confidential.”

Cllr Anna Mbachu, who has represented Grove Green ward since 2006, is also said to be appealing her de-selection from the council. Cllr Mbachu took a former NHS colleague to court for libel in October and was ordered to pay the defendant’s court costs of £34,000 after her case was thrown out.

Eight councillors did not participate in the selection process, including former leader Clare Coghill, who joined the board of affordable housing provider Square Roots a few months after announcing she would not stand, and cabinet member for housing Simon Miller.

Other councillors not running are Joe Lacey-Holland, siblings Asim Mahmood and Saima Mahmud, Ros Flowers, Jacob Edwards and Patrick Edwards – no relation. The council’s website shows that Cllr Patrick Edwards, who represents Cann Hall, last attended a council meeting in February of 2020.

The process to fill empty spots, however, has created a scandal in the borough’s Muslim community, after all but one of 14 Muslims who applied to become a new councillor were refused, according to the Waltham Forest Council of Mosques (WFCOM).

Following the original publication of this article, a Labour spokesperson told the Echo that “there at least five new candidates who identify as Muslim”. They added that is “in addition to a large number of sitting Muslim councillors who were also successful in their application to stand again”.

One unsuccessful new candidate, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Echo they dropped out of the process after what they felt was an unnecessarily “hostile” interview, claiming their Muslim faith and politics on the left of the party spectrum biased the process against them.

A spokesperson for WFCOM, which represents eleven mosques and thousands of Muslims in the borough, told the Echo: “We are concerned about the reports of potentially blatant Islamophobia in the Labour party, seemingly aimed at keeping Muslims – who make up a quarter of the borough’s population – out of the political process. 

“This is particularly baffling given Labour prominently and rightly calling out the Islamophobia nationally in the Tory party. It would be a disgracefully hypocritical stance to call it out nationally whilst ignoring it in their own house.

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“Many Muslims in our community continue to question their affiliation and are asking if Islamophobia is just a political football for Labour to exploit for their own means. Labour have not been reassuring so far, but we expect an investigation into what appears to be clear discrimination.”

Councillor interviews in both Labour and the Conservatives are conducted by party members from outside the borough in an attempt to ensure neutrality, often councillors from neighbouring councils like Redbridge.

A Labour spokesperson said the selection process is run by the Local Campaign Forum (LCF), a committee within the party, and “follows a process set down in the Labour Party rule book… to ensure councillor candidates meet the very highest quality requirements which our residents expect”.

However, those within the party report that the Waltham Forest LCF is “overwhelmingly white”, despite the borough being one of the most diverse in Britain.

Responding to accusations of bias in the selection process, a Labour spokesperson said: “Waltham Forest Labour has a strong record on diversity and there is a determination to ensure Labour candidates properly reflect the diversity of our borough.

“The Labour Group organised engagement and training sessions ahead of the selection process for members who identify as BAME. These were well attended and encouraged those from previously under-represented backgrounds to apply.

“While the selection process is still ongoing, we are confident the panel of Labour candidates that will be put before the electorate in May will be more diverse than at any previous borough-wide election.”

Despite being a far smaller party – with only 14 seats on the council – preparations for the local election among Waltham Forest Conservatives have reportedly been no less troubled.

Departing councillor Andy Hemsted told the Echo: “In almost twenty years on the council, I have never known the group so divided. It’s not working for the residents of Chingford and it’s so sad to see.”

Though in April current Tory leader Tim James said his predecessor “felt it was time” to hand over the reins, Cllr Alan Siggers recently told the Echo he was forced out of the role.

Despite having made it clear he would not run in this year’s race, he feels he was removed as leader before his term was up because he “was in the way” of plans for the election.

The selection process started under Cllr Siggers’ leadership in the summer of 2020 and was almost finished late last year when the decision was taken to restart the process in Hatch Lane, Valley, Larkswood and Chingford Green – four of the five wards currently under Tory control.

In Chingford Green, two of three current councillors, Nick Halebi and Andy Hemsted, were de-selected, although Cllr Hemsted successfully appealed before deciding to stand down anyway.

Cllr Halebi’s wife and the third ward councillor Kay Isa was approved. The pair’s son, Justin Halabi, became a councillor for Hatch Lane last May, replacing the late Geoff Walker.

According to Londra Gazete – a weekly newspaper for London’s Turkish community – the pair’s other child is Turkish Cypriot popstar Eylem. As seen on her official Instagram, the singer met with Home Secretary Priti Patel and Chingford MP Iain Duncan Smith in June 2020.

However, Cllr Halabi’s spot in the May elections could be under threat, as the Tories are having to redo the selection process in Hatch Lane and Larkswood wards after successful complaints.

The complaint in Hatch Lane reportedly centres around an email sent to Conservative members before they were due to pick which successful interview candidates would stand in the election, attempting to influence their decision.

Similarly, in Larkswood, a leaflet backing three of six choices approved at interview was sent to members a few days before the vote, although this reportedly was not the grounds for redoing the selection.

The leaflet instructed members to vote for existing councillors John Moss and Catherine Saumarez, as well as new candidate Alicja Borkowska.

Prior to the decision to restart the selection process the second time, the Larkswood candidates were Cllr Moss, Cllr Seesunkur and 18-year-old Sam O’Connell, picked by members over Cllr Saumarez last November.

The local Conservative party has failed to respond to multiple requests for comment at the time of writing.

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