On 5th May, residents will decide who controls the borough for the next four years By Victoria Munro
Waltham Forest residents will cast their ballots on 5th May to decide who leads the borough for the next four years.
The borough held its first local elections in the 1960s and has been overwhelmingly Labour or “no overall control” ever since, with the exception of a brief Conservative majority from 1968 to 1971.
At the most recent election in 2018, almost 200,000 votes were cast and Labour maintained the majority it has held since 2010, winning 46 of a possible 60 seats.
However, 16 current councillors, including a cabinet member and the former leaders of both main parties, are not running for re-election, while changes to ward boundaries have dramatically altered the playing field.
New battles lines drawn
In December 2020, the Local Government Boundary Commission published its final recommendations for how to redraw the political map of the borough, since confirmed.
The LGBC is an independent parliamentary body that aims to avoid “electoral inequality” by ensuring all councillors on a council represent approximately the same number of voters.
In Waltham Forest, this meant redrawing every ward boundary in the borough and creating two new wards: Upper Walthamstow and St James. Whereas previously every ward had three councillors, six with smaller populations now have only two.
Politically, the most significant change is the creation of Upper Walthamstow and the new shape of Hale End & Highams Park – now re-named Hale End & Highams Park South – just above it.
The old ward straddled the A406, which generally separates the borough’s Labour South from its Conservative North, and turned red in the last election after Labour won two new seats. The new ward now lies entirely in the borough’s traditionally more Tory area, giving the party a chance to recoup.
The tension is said to have resulted from leadership struggles: on the Labour side between Labour leader Grace Williams and cabinet member Liaquat Ali MBE and, in the Conservatives, between those backing leader Tim James and those who favour deputy leader Emma Best.
Last summer, the vote to pick former Labour leader Clare Coghill’s successor reportedly came down to 23 votes for Cllr Williams against 21 for Cllr Ali. Cllr Ali and his two relatives, Cllrs Hather and Umar Ali, were then rejected at interview when they applied to run again this year.
Two more current councillors, Masood Ahmad and Mohammad Asghar, were later deselected at ward level. Like the Ali family, both identify as Muslim.
The final decision for each ward is decided by a vote among local members; a process that reignited complaints made during the leadership race about issues with the internal voting system.
The entire party has used an online system called Anonyvoter for internal ballots since 2020. As reported by the left-wing Labour news site Skwawkbox, it has attracted multiple complaints at a local level about technical issues.
Those within Waltham Forest Labour claim that, in a couple of wards, multiple members were unable to vote. This was particularly concerning in St James, where members claim five people were blocked from voting and the final choice came down to a margin of one.
Similarly, it is alleged that two councillors who took part in the leadership vote last summer never received an email confirmation after voting. The final tally adds up to only 44 out of a total 46 Labour councillors.
The concerns about these internal votes were put to the local Labour party, who would only respond “on background”, meaning the Echo could only use the information provided if it was not attributed to the party.
Within the Conservatives, the selection process for all wards was restarted after former leader Alan Siggers handed the reins to Tim James. Some wards were later forced to restart a third time after successful complaints about the process.
These included Cllr James’ own ward, Hatch Lane, and Larkswood ward. In both cases, the final decision the third time around was made by a panel of Conservative members from elsewhere in the country, forgoing the usual ward members’ vote.
In Larkswood ward, this led to the deselection of Cllr Selina Seesunkur, chosen by members during the vote the second time the process was run.
According to those within the party, her deselection – along with the departure of Cllrs Andy Hemsted, Nick Halabi and Alan Siggers – means the majority of councillors running again are those who favour current deputy leader Emma Best over Cllr James.
Both Labour and the Conservatives will automatically have a leadership vote at their first meeting after the local election.
A challenger (re)forms
In the last local election, Labour managed to win only one seat in Chingford, held by Cllr Elizabeth Baptiste in Valley ward.
In most parts of Chingford – with the exception of Valley and Hatch Lane, where the most popular Labour candidate lost by only around 300 votes – the Conservative hold has seemed unshakeable.
However, some suspect a new challenger may appear next month, amid rumours that Reform UK – previously known as the Brexit Party – may be planning to stand in the borough’s Tory strongholds.
The party has yet to publicly state plans to run but, if true, it could either present a credible threat to the Conservatives, or else split the right-wing vote and give Labour a chance to make gains.
You must register to vote by Thursday, 14th April to have your say in our borough’s future
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated Waltham Forest Conservatives had finalised all candidates at the time of writing