Tom McLaren is a former councillor for Redbridge and a current councillor for Brentwood Borough Council. He stood for the Conservatives for the Eastern Region in the 2019 European Elections.
As a former Redbridge councillor, I read of the suspension of Labour’s Ilford South candidate (and Borough Council Leader) Jas Athwal not just with shock, but also with a wry smile. Whilst no specifics have been released about the charges that he faces, their seriousness is such that following an independent anonymised review, the Labour Party chose to suspend his membership and hence his candidacy for Ilford South. According to LabourList the only disciplinary cases handled by independent investigators are ones concerning sexual harassment, meaning that should the accusations be upheld against Cllr Athwal he could face expulsion from the party.
The campaign amongst the candidates for former Labour MP Mike Gapes’ seat (majority 31,000) has certainly been intense. I have read with a kind of fascinated horror the stories emerging from the branch level campaigns, with allegations of ballot stuffing, invalid voting and aggressive behaviour at more than one meeting. Perhaps the stories seem more lurid when you know the actors, but what is certain is just what this “job for life” selection means for the candidates. With Momentum desperate to secure the seat the timing of the suspension, the night before selection meetings, seemed questionable to say the least; in a stroke it turned the competition on its head, seemingly handing an almost certain victory for the Momentum candidate, Sam Tarry. Until, of course, under tremendous pressure, Jeremy Corbyn stepped in and ordered the selection process suspended.
Beyond just the Ilford South selection, however, the scandal has much more significant ramifications.
Since taking control of the council in 2014 as Labour group leader, Cllr Athwal has benefited greatly from the “Strong Leader” model that the council operates. In opposition, our Conservative group has been forced to fight numerous campaigns alongside thousands of concerned residents, at times successfully mitigating some of the worst excesses of their policies. The Save Our Suburbs campaign I led in 2015, for example, brought together thousands of residents from the west of the borough, forcing the council to redraw their draft Local Plan, whilst a similar campaign led by Conservative Group Deputy Leader Howard Berlin in the east was instrumental in preserving the vitally important sports clubs and playing fields at Fairlop Waters. Even now Redbridge Conservatives are working with residents from across the borough who feel powerless and voiceless when dealing with a council, and a Leader, who show scant regard for their concerns.
And now, the Council has a leader who has been suspended by his political party and is facing serious charges. He should be given every opportunity to clear his name, and should certainly benefit from a presumption of innocence, but the distraction of this case will surely impact on his ability to continue his day to day role. Should he choose not to resign, under the Strong Leader model there will be little opportunity for his removal. A vote of no confidence is possible and could be introduced by the leader of Redbridge Conservatives Cllr Linda Huggett, but would only succeed with the support of Labour members. Whilst Momentum may have no love for their rival Ilford South Candidate, it seems even less likely they would vote with the Conservative Group to remove him.
This issue raises broader questions than just those at a borough level, calling into question as it does the appropriateness of the “Strong Leader” model. Introduced in the dying days of Tony Blair’s government, it bears some of the hallmarks of his premiership, particularly the lack of accountability and the assumption of the benign dictator. The lack of ability to remove a leader who is facing serious allegations is a significant failing of the act and one which should be reviewed.
For the time being, in Redbridge the choice of how this will proceed lies with Cllr Athwal. In reflecting on his position, the responsibility that comes with it, and the role that he plays as a key representative of the people of Redbridge, I hope he will choose to put the interests of the people of Redbridge first.