CROYDON IN CRISIS: After winning a Labour group selection battle by 22 votes to 19 over Alisa Flemming, Hamida Ali tells her supporters ‘the hardest graft ever is about to start’. By WALTER CRONXITE, political editor
Hamida Ali has no illusions about the task facing her as the leader of cash-strapped Croydon Council, telling Labour colleagues last night that some of the details yet to emerge about the parlous state of the borough’s finances are “shocking”.
Ali was selected as the leader of the Labour group on Croydon Council after a shambolic virtual meeting last night, winning by the votes of 22 councillors against the 19 who voted for her sole rival, Alisa Flemming. As Labour is the majority group at the Town Hall, Ali therefore becomes the council leader.
Ali takes over the cash-strapped council as it is axing services and making around 400 job losses, as it grapples with a £70million covid-related overspend this year. Tony Newman, who had been leader of the Labour group for 15 years, resigned earlier this week.
Ali is the first councillor of BAME heritage – black, Asian or minority ethnic – to become leader of Croydon Council. She is the third woman to do so.
Congratulatory tweets had been received overnight from far and wide, including from political rivals and from Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London who is, for now at least, Ali’s employer at City Hall. Ali works as a diversity officer at the London Assembly, a job she may well have to give up as a consequence of accepting a task in Croydon that many consider a poisoned chalice handed to her by her predecessor.
Many of the public shows of support from Ali’s fellow Labour councillors in Croydon seemed to betray a touch of fawning, perhaps even obsequiousness: there are cabinet jobs at stake, which come with allowances of £44,000 per year. Ali is expected to announce her new cabinet over the weekend, as she and the Labour group have their latest “away weekend” (though because of coronavirus, they are going nowhere apart from their laptops).
“As a councillor and campaigner, Hamida Ali has shown dedication and commitment to the Croydon community over many years,” Mayor Khan tweeted this morning.
“Looking forward to working together to improve the lives of local residents.”
The borough’s two Labour MPs both posted similar messages of congratulation and encouragement.
Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Croydon North, sent “Warmest congratulations”.
“Our whole borough will wish her every success in leading us forward through these challenging times,” said Reed, Sir Keir Starmer’s front-bench spokesperson on local government who has remained completely silent on Croydon Council’s financial crisis for the past six months.
Sarah Jones, MP for Croydon Central, gave her own endorsement when tweeting, “I have worked with Hamida for years on knife crime and other important issues and seen how great she is.
“There will be difficult times ahead but she will steer us through them.” So that’s all sorted then.
And Peter Underwood, the Green Party’s candidate for Croydon and Sutton in the London elections, offered this message: “Congratulations on your new role. Politics should be about making people’s lives better and providing help and security to those who need it most – especially in this time of crisis. You know you will have my support in making that happen.”
But Jason Perry, the recently elected leader of Croydon’s Conservative opposition, failed to have the good grace, or manners, to make any similar public comment. Nor did Chris Philp, who is Croydon South resident Ali’s own MP.
For her own part, Ali has no misapprehensions about the task awaiting her. “Thank you so much to everyone for their kind wishes and support,” she wrote.
“As the cold light of day is dawning, the hardest graft ever is about to start…”.
Choosing her own cabinet team, and stepping out of the shadow of Newman and his clique, will be among the new council leader’s first and among the more delicate of tasks. Get this wrong at the start, and Ali’s administration may never recover.
Calllton Young, the cabinet member for finance for just a week, appointed when Newman’s friend Simon Hall resigned citing “family reasons”, went in to last night’s meeting convinced that he would be sacked in Ali won: he was the only cabinet member to openly support Flemming. But then Young has bitter experience of sackings under Newman for speaking out or acting according to conscience.
There have been urgent calls from inside and outside the Town Hall for the resignations or sackings of Alison Butler and Paul Scott, the husband and wife team in charge of planning and housing in the borough, both close friends of Newman.
The surprisingly close vote among the Labour group last night perhaps shows that Ali is in charge of a divided camp. Some who attended the meeting suggested it may have been that Flemming had made wide-ranging offers of cabinet jobs or ceremonial mayoralties to anyone gullible enough to believe her.
Another suggested that Flemming’s showing “was due to Croydon North councillors backing Alisa just because she’s Croydon North, while Hamida lives in Croydon South and represents a ward in Croydon Central”.
The conduct of the meeting left much to be desired. Indeed, the internal workings of the Croydon Labour Party were deemed so important last night by some councillors that, for the first time in six years, the planning committee was abandoned to be chaired by a Conservative.
The selection meeting had been due to start at 8.15pm, to give the Labour members of the virtual planning committee time to deal with the business there, log-off and log-in to their selection meeting.
But under the chairmanship of Labour’s long-winded Chris Clark, planning business ran over time. One senior Labour councillor, Sean Fitzsimons, quite rightly wanted to remain in the planning permission to see through a pre-application presentation on a scheme in his Addiscombe West ward.
When Labour councillors on the committee one-by-one logged off to attend to their party business, Tory councillor Gareth Streeter was made pro-tem chair of planning.
The Labour group then spent 20 minutes debating whether Fitzsimons should be allowed to vote if he missed the speeches and Q&A session. It was almost 9pm before the selection meeting proper began.
That was not the end of the meeting’s problems, however, as when it came to casting votes, at least one of the older Labour councillors struggled to cope with the technology.
According to one attendee, “Both Hamida and Alisa gave good speeches and gave good responses to the questions asked without actually providing answers. There was little to choose between them on the night.”
One councillor felt that, “Hamida made a far superior presentation.”
Another said, “Hamida lavished too much praise on Newman, which could be another reason why so many Labour Group members cast their votes for Alisa.”
And looking forward, they said, “The whole Labour group knows where the departures from cabinet are needed.
“I think we’ll get a very good feel for the leader Hamida’s going to be once we see her cabinet and the changes she might make.”
But however hard Labour tries to distance their new leader from the discredited regime under Newman, Ali’s close association and support for him – including voting against a no-confidence motion just three weeks ago – will provide Croydon’s Tories with a perfect campaign narrative all the way through to the next Town Hall elections in May 2022.
Ali, according to Coulsdon councillor Ian Parker today, “doesn’t represent change”.
Parker tweeted, “She’s supported Cllr Newman’s policies throughout and what a disaster they’ve been for Croydon.”
For Hamida Ali, the hardest graft ever has already begun.
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