The London Borough of Newham is situated in London’s eastern flanks and is well known for its ethnically and cultural diverse population, its collection of close-knit communities, vibrant workforce and more controversially, for its reputation as one of the poorest of Greater London’s 32 boroughs. Once home to part of the old east London dockyards and the crossroads between the East End and the county of Essex, Newham now has a population of over 310,500, according to the last national Census of 2011.
Traditionally, Newham was a working-class area, home to factory workers and dockers. Though demographics have changed a lot since the last century, the borough has largely remained true to its working-class roots. Politically, the borough’s working class profile and traditional ‘East End values’ of community and family has kept it a Labour stronghold, although the Conservatives and various smaller parties including the Greens, the Christian People’s Alliance and a mix of socialists and independents now also have wide support among some of the borough’s residents.
The current Mayor of Newham is Sir Robin Wales, who represents Labour. Born in 1955 in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, Scotland, Sir Wales was elected in 2002 and was the borough’s first directly elected Labour mayor at the time of his appointment. Wales also made another first as England’s first directed mayor from the party after mayoral reformations instigated in 2002, enabled Newham residents to have a direct say in who governs them. He has led Newham Council as a councillor since 1995. Sir Wales was elected twice more in 2006 and 2010.
While the Mayor has been lauded for his efforts in raising the borough’s profile, including new opportunities in education and training for Newham’s unemployed residents, helping the borough secure holding rights for most of the 2012 Olympics events and sites; and establishing reading, sports and musical programmes for the borough’s schoolchildren; he has also come under controversy. He tangled with traders in the Queen’s Market in Upton Park who protested against the demolition of their businesses for a housing development project and has come under fire for awarding himself a 4 per cent pay rise at a time when Newham Council has lost a significant amount of central government funding and has been financially pressured into forcing through devastating cutbacks in council services. The Mayor has also affected his political standing and overall popularity slightly with Newham’s ethnic minorities while realising his vision of ethnic cohesion. His bid to promote greater integration between Newham’s many peoples has seen council premises been closed to events celebrating individual ethnic groups and the removal of foreign language newspapers from all of the borough’s libraries in a bid to pressure immigrants into acquiring English skills. Funding for the borough’s highly regarded translation services has been slashed and Sir Robin Wales has been accused of veering to the right and suppressing diversity to attract white middle-class voters, while the Mayor’s office claims he is putting an end to ethnic ‘apartheid’ and has helped non-white residents and recent immigrants by tackling poor housing conditions for example. Recently, the Mayor has come out in support of working people, supporting residents’ desires to improve their lives and being accessible to locals in listening to their views and concerns. He aims to give people a better standard of living and spending appropriately council money on services people need, according to a statement published on the council’s website.
Newham’s next mayoral elections are scheduled for 22 May 2014. As many people grow increasingly weary of government cutbacks in services and financial support and the disillusionment among Newham’s working poor and unemployed remains as strong as ever, a new political party has began making its presence felt in the borough, while other mayoral candidates from parties big and small begin canvassing voters to appoint the possible successor to Robin Wales.
The Newham Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is an alternative newcomer to the borough’s political scene – it is a local branch of the countrywide socialist political activism group of the same name, as is the norm with the mainstream ‘big three’ parties. Their website and blog only began operations in February this year, and were formed as a political reaction to the government’s austerity cuts, including the benefits cap which has become hated by many Newham residents struggling with rising rents and prices and declining income, as Westminster tries to cut expenditure in public spending and the billion-pound strong welfare bill. The party made up of a coalition of locally based trade unionists and left-wing politicians who have united to fight via the ballot box what they call “the 100% New Labour council that has carried through the Con-Dems’ cuts”.
The TUSC have put forward Lois Austin as their candidate to usurp Sir Wales at the May local elections. A dyed-in-the-wool trade unionist and activist, she has supported working people’s rights since her teenage years and participated in protests against the despised Poll Tax instituted by the late Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in the Eighties. She has also being involved in anti-racism campaigns after the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence, a Caribbean-British teenager in 1993 and was a member of the Stop The War Coalition protesting against British involvement in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan at the turn of the 21st century. Just before joining the TUSC and throwing her hat into the Mayoral candidate race, Austin was working in a trade union campaigning against privatisation of government services and job cuts, while also a housing activist defending the need for social housing, ironically a policy established all over the country by the current Mayor’s ‘Old Labour’ predecessors.
Austin has been billed as the ‘Worker’s Mayor’. While Sir Robin Wales has awarded himself a pay rise that has pushed up his yearly mayor’s salary to £80,029, the TUSC candidate for Newham’s highest political prize promises to only award herself the salary of an average working Londoner which is around £24,000 as of 2012 levels. Both her and her party have championed themselves for the causes and representation of working people’s rights, which could well see her donning the Mayor’s robe and chains as mainstream politicians still reel from the recent expenses scandal and frequent accusations of wasteful spending. The TUSC condemns Newham Council for allegedly calling out bailiffs on almost fifty per cent of its properties to chase council tenants for rent arrears while at the same time spending £111 million of taxpayer-sourced funds on the modern Building 1000 office complex which aims to centralise Newham Council’s various services, which are currently dispersed across the borough. The Labour-led council has also been slammed by the TUSC for pushing forward the benefits and council funding cuts ordered by the Cameron-Clegg administration despite having a reserve funds kitty of £185 million, according to Austin.
While taking an average worker’s salary in solidarity with struggling average and low-income Newhamers, Austin will donate the rest of the mayoral salary to charity, especially campaigns for social justice for working families, and additionally has pledged to only claim the bare minimum in expenses needed to do her job as Mayor if she is elected in less than two months’ time. Her election manifesto for Newham includes a cap on private rents rather than benefits and a complete reversal of the Cameron austerity cuts alongside a war on rogue ‘rip-off’ landlords who charge above-market rents to desperate homeseekers. Austin also proposes to bring private rents in line with the council’s social housing rents. She wants to make housing more affordable and more available by building extra council housing stock on unused brownfield sites in Newham as well as acquire empty properties to house the borough’s rapidly growing population.
In a direct challenge to the Government’s programme of austerity cuts, Austin also plans to abolish the council’s policy of imposing the widely derided ‘ bedroom tax’ – where people with spare bedrooms and who claim housing benefits are forced to take a cut in their welfare payments – as well as the new council tax payments that Newham’s current adminstration have imposed on benefits claimants due to Whitehall’s decision to no longer fund Newham’s welfare bill – the same claimants who were previously exempt from paying any council tax pre-recession. She also plans to write off council arrears caused by austerity and to shield Newham’s NHS medical trusts from the government’s bid to outsource their services to private companies to save money. Her manifesto is also good news to the homeless and people trapped in ‘zero-hours’ contracts – jobs where only the minimum wage is usually paid and hours are arbitrary and given at short notice – who have particularly felt the post-recession austerity impact while their numbers have increased. Her manifesto proposes the introduction of a borough-wide minimum wage of £10 an hour, somewhat higher than the current London Living Wage of £8.80 per hour and resurrect the Educational Maintenance Allowance supplement for college students from poorer backgrounds, another victim of costcutting decisions from central government.
Lois Austin has already proved an obstacle for the current mayor, who may well seek a fourth term. Last week, at the Manor Park Library, she and a group of mothers from Focus E15, a Stratford-based charity for single parents and teenagers from deprived backgrounds, confronted Sir Robin Wales at a ‘Meet the Mayor’ event. In a blog post she is shown confronting the mayor with a group of mothers from Focus E15, who have allegedly been threatened with eviction while the Mayor, wearing a suit and his regalia, is seen in a photo discussing the council’s position. Activists from the TUSC have also commenced canvassing potential voters with brightly coloured leaflets. One was seen distributing the A4 sized pamphlets to commuters returning home at the exit of Plaistow tube station this past week and the TUSC are organising a meeting at the Katherine Road Community Centre in Forest Gate. The meeting is scheduled to take place on the 5th of April where Austin will be in attendance with other party candidates, which will also mark TUSC’s official election launch.
The official position of the Mayor’s Office on the new socialist challenge from Lois and the Newham TUSC is not clear, but the Socialist Party claimed on its website that the Mayor was seen behaving dismissively towards campaigners in a 2011 protest against the Labour-led cabinet at Newham Town Hall in East Ham. 150 trade unionists and local residents had assembled in front of the large redbrick Victorian complex and were petitioning the cabinet against the first wave of post-recession cuts – which included the loss of 200 council jobs and a seven per cent rise in council tax bills. Sir Wales was said to appeared on the town hall steps ‘smirking’ and was then alleged to have made ‘provocative gestures’ towards the protesters before ‘retreating behind police lines’.
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“London Borough of Newham” – Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. LINK
“Robin Wales” – Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. LINK
“Newham mayor accused of attack on immigrants after launching ethnic integration plan” – Joseph Watts, London Evening Standard/Evening Standard Limited (19 September 2013) LINK
“Elections – voting” – Newham London/Newham Council LINK
“About” – Newham TUSC Against Cuts/Newham TUSC LINK
“New UK Living Wage £7.65 New London rate £8.80” – Living Wage Foundation/Citizens UK (4 November 2013) LINK
“Newham TUSC mayoral candidate joins Focus E15 mums to confront austerity mayor” – Newham TUSC Against Cuts/Newham TUSC (22 March 2014) LINK
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” ‘One-party state’ Labour regime in Newham imposes cuts” – Socialist Party (2 March 2011) LINK
“Where’s our recovery? – FIGHT BACK AGAINST THE CUTS ” – Bob Severn & Lois Austin, Newham Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (leaflet)
“File:London Borough of Newham.jpg” – Atelier Joly, Wikimedia Commons (14 November 2004) LINK
“tmp_20140329_1149491578539522” – Vijay Shah/The Half-Eaten Mind, Flickr (29 March 2014) LINK
“File:Newham Town Hall.jpg” – Piolinfax, Wikimedia Commons (16 February 2005) LINK
“File:TUSC transparency.png” – Ben Robinson/TUSC, Wikimedia Commons (2 February 2010) LINK