WALTER CRONXITE on the lacklustre contest among Labour councillors to become the Town Hall’s new chief
Croydon Council should have a new leader as soon as tomorrow night.
But the appointment looks as if it could present the borough with a member of the council cabinet team that has brought the council to its knees financially, with the 41 councillors in the Town Hall Labour group only offered “continuity candidates”.
Hamida Ali, a member of Tony Newman’s cabinet for most of her six years on the council, is the favourite to win the ballot to be held among Labour councillors tomorrow night, from a very uninspiring field.
By the time of publication, Ali’s confirmed rivals were Stuart Collins, a loyal deputy leader to Newman since 2014, and Alisa Flemming, who in her time as cabinet member for children, schools and families presided over the borough’s children’s services being rated as “Inadequate” by Ofsted.
Ali has been a Woodside ward colleague of Newman and Paul Scott since she was first elected to the council, and in that time she has been a loyal defender and beneficiary of the previous regime.
If elected, Ali will have to work very hard to convince many of her colleagues, never mind the Croydon public, that she is not a stooge of Newman.
Collins is well-liked, but is also considered something of a lightweight. “He’s not a proper politician,” according to a colleague.
In the unlikely event of Flemming winning the votes of a majority of her council colleagues, she would have an even tougher task in proving she was capable of doing the job.
The end of an error
ON TUESDAY morning, for the first time since 2005, Tony Newman was no longer the leader of the Labour group on Croydon Council. His resignation from that position had been forced through sooner than he wanted, despite Newman’s public denials.
Newman’s announcement at Monday night’s council meeting had been vague and unclear on the details, and even suggested that he might hang on for a while.
But yesterday Newman acted more speedily than usual only because the Labour Party’s London region office sought a speedy resolution of his increasingly untenable position.
Inside Croydon understands that, after the opposition Conservatives’ motion of no confidence in Newman failed two weeks ago, a letter was circulated among Labour councillors expressing concern over the deteriorating situation with the council leadership. Some suggest that the letter attracted 18 signatures. It would take 21 Labour councillors to depose Newman.
Newman, at last Wednesday’s virtual meeting of the Town Hall Labour group, invited his doubters to wait until next May and to put up a challenger to his leadership then. At that point, he was in no hurry to stand down, convinced that he might ride out the storm.
But around the same time, his deputy leader, Alison Butler, was conducting a ring-round of Labour councillors to sound them out about the strength of support for her friend. After Wednesday, when news of the council breaking financial regulations got out, the answers coming back spelt the end for Newman.
“Tony was seen as being increasingly toxic for the ‘brand’, a real electoral liability,” a source said.
“London Region pushed things through, insisting that group should hold an election meeting this Thursday.
“They sprayed the Fabreze to get rid of the lingering smell,” they said.
With a deadline of noon tomorrow for nominations to go it, by time of publication there seemed to be at least three candidates to succeed the autocratic Newman: Ali, Stuart Collins and Flemming.
But all three have been cabinet members in an widely discredited administration which has run up £1.5billion in debts, has failed to force Westfield to honour its promises on the town centre, received a damning Ofsted report on its failing children’s services department, delivered only three purpose-built council flats in five years, and which has now been exposed as having broken financial regulations in pursuit of its speculative investments.
“Anyone in the current cabinet, with the exception of Callton who has only just been appointed, is simply a ‘continuation candidate’,” another Katharine Street source said.
“They might even have the approval of Newman.
“That will do nothing to convince the voting public that we have learned from the mistakes of Tony’s time in charge, or that there is any real appetite to change and improve. It will be just more of the same.”
The source was concerned that, even with three candidates standing, there would not be a wide enough choice for the Labour councillors to choose from, with a need for someone with some distance from the Newman regime.
“We need to consider this from the perspective of voters in 2022. Someone else needs to step up,” they said.
Stuart King, another cabinet member and a former Labour parliamentary candidate who is thought to be among one of the more capable members of Newman’s team, was quick to rule himself out of contention on the grounds of “having a young family who I already see too little of”, according to a friend.
This morning, Flemming sent out a round-robin email to colleagues, confirming her candidacy.
She seemed to be offering herself as the Star Wars candidate. “I offer a new hope,” she wrote, channelling her inner Obi-Wan.
Extraordinarily, Flemming’s pitch to her colleagues included claiming success for the £30million spent and three years taken for the borough’s children’s services department to reach a “Good” Ofsted rating.
“I believe that I can provide unifying leadership to deliver the outcomes desired… I turned around children’s services and gained a lot of experience from achieving that success. I can do so again on a broader scale as Group Leader,” Flemming wrote.
“It’s a shame that Alisa’s ambition isn’t matched by her ability,” one sceptical colleague told Inside Croydon.
“It’s a wonder she was never sacked over the shambles of that ‘Inadequate’ report from Ofsted. Children were judged to be at risk of harm in the council’s care, on her watch.
“Claiming the credit for turning the children’s services around is like an arsonist taking credit for calling the Fire Brigade after they’ve set the building on fire.
“Alisa’s been out of her depth as a cabinet member and owes her appointment solely to Tony Newman for being ultra-loyal to him.”
In the same manner, Collins’s record in the past six years is hardly covered in success. In charge of the state of the borough’s streets, Collins promised to fix the scourge of fly-tipping. While more fines and prosecutions have been made, the vast majority have been for minor offences of dropping gum or cigarette butts in the town centre.
Having willingly been Newman’s deputy for six years is also hardly a big tick in the positives for Collins’ candidacy, though he is well-liked by colleagues on both sides of the Town Hall chamber and is an experienced and competent public performer.
Were either Flemming or Ali to be selected as Labour leader, they would become the first BAME council leader in Croydon’s history.
‘We won’t operate by clique any more’
FACED WITH a very weak field, sources within the Labour group seem to favour Ali.
“She’s what we need,” according to one of Ali’s supporters in the council cabinet.
“Serious, committed, inclusive. We won’t operate by clique any more.”
Which, if sincere and implemented, would indeed make a change.
But those who have known Ali in the local party longest, since before she was a failed candidate in Waddon at the 2010 local elections, have doubts about her ability to step out of the shadows of Newman and Scott.
“She’s smart, but she’s not a leader,” they said.
Ali is a member of Croydon South CLP. “She hasn’t stood up to the leadership once in 10 years,” the source said.
“Recently, she has only ever turned up to meetings to defend Tony, to oppose the democratically-elected Mayor or for annual meetings. There’s no chance that Hamida will ‘clean the house’, when the whole cabinet needs disinfecting.“
Ali’s commitment to being council leader is also questioned, the source suggests, because of her full-time job working at the Greater London Authority.
When Collins faced a challenge as the council’s deputy leader four years ago, he was persuaded by Newman and colleagues to relinquish his job in the civil service as a demonstration of his “commitment” to his council duties.
“Someone needs to be asking about Hamida’s intended time commitment to the council, especially as Croydon is in the middle of two crises at the moment, with the finances and also the second wave of coronavirus seemingly inevitable.”
In her early 40s, Ali is workforce equality, diversity, and inclusion manager at the GLA, a role she has pursued from jobs in local government, at the Crown Prosecution Service and Metropolitan Police Authority, at the BBC and Equity, the actors’ union.
In the 2013 round of council candidate selections, Newman and Scott bumped out established councillor Karen Jewitt out to make way for activist Ali to stand in the safe Labour ward of Woodside, and the following May all three were duly elected to the Town Hall.
Ali was quickly promoted, being asked to chair the Fairness Commission (what do you mean, you’ve never heard of it?).
That whole exercise quickly transpired as being simply a means of transferring £200,000 of council money in the form of a contract to manage the commission to The Campaign Company, run by David Evans, the former aide to Tony Blair who had done much work on Newman’s 2014 election campaign.
The Fairness Commission job was only the first of a series of consultations which the council, under Newman, would award to Evans’ organisation in the coming years.
Perhaps significantly in the chaos and crisis surrounding Newman and Labour in Croydon, Evans is now the Labour Party’s general secretary, and it seems likely that he will have been taking a keen interest in the fate of what was once such a generous and regular source of work for his company.
For most of Ali’s time in the council cabinet she has been in charge of what they entitle “Safer Croydon and Communities”, which means handling the council’s relations with the police, some elements of trading standards and dealing with issues including domestic violence and knife crime.
Now, it seems, Ali could be on the verge of taking over the task of setting the policies for the borough at a time of the greatest crises in its history.
But her toughest task could yet be to convince the Croydon public that she is not Tony Newman’s puppet.
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