Sir Robin Wales Interview: Newham's Mayor On Leading ‘The Most Radical Council In The Country’As Sir Robin Wales sits in Stratford Old Town Hall, a short walk from the former Olympic stadium, the political history of his surroundings is unmissable.
As Sir Robin Wales sits in Stratford Old Town Hall, a short walk from the former Olympic stadium, the political history of his surroundings is unmissable.
In the building’s foyer is a bust of Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour party who made his first speech as the local MP from the balcony above, way back in 1892.
As another Scottish-born politician who represents the East End of London, Wales can be forgiven for a fellow feeling with Hardie, not least as they are both from the same Ayrshire village of Cumnock.
“My gran is actually buried 20 yards from him. When we went to her funeral, we walked near Keir Hardie’s grave and everyone went ‘shhhh!’,” he recalls, putting his finger to his lips.
“Cumnock is a small village. It used to be hung, it wasn’t always Labour. We had to fight against the Communists,” he smiles, a knowing reference which quickly becomes clearer.
Wales is facing the political fight of his life right now, after local members opted for an open selection for the directly elected mayoralty of Newham, which he has held since 2002.
Whereas he had previously been automatically selected, this month party wards voted unanimously for a contest and he now has to beat rival councillor Rokhsana Fiaz in a one-member, one-vote ballot to stand in May’s election.
Locals are at pains to point out this is not a Left-Right battle, although Wales makes clear that ‘Trots’ have long been his local enemies and critics.
In fact, he has almost legendary status among party stalwarts for his role in the fight against Militant in the 1970s.
Wales was a key passenger on the so-called ‘Ice-Pick Express’, a coachload of Scottish students who travelled to a key Labour student conference to ensure the Trotskyite group was defeated. Labour MP Mike Gapes, who represents nearby Ilford, was elected as the moderate chair of the national student body.
“I was involved in the battle against Militant, yes. I was chair of the Scottish Organisation of Labour Students, but I have to give credit to a chap called Bill Spears [who went on to become General Secretary of the Scottish TUC]. He changed my politics, he was the one who organised the decoration of the coach: the ice-pick toting, trot-beating…Ice Pick Express”.
“Militant was a specific set, different from some of the other Trots around. In the end we won,” he says. “For the time being.”
Wales grew up on a council estate, and joined Labour at the age of 15. After university he got a job with British Telecom and then headed down to one of its London bases.
“I came down here because BT were in Commercial Road, and one of the guys rented us a room out this way. And I liked it and I liked the place.
“I ran the warehouse. Best job I ever did, fucking brilliant. I loved it, it was like I was with people I grew up with.” He then moved into what he calls a ‘white collar job’ with the utility.
He had a short stint on Newham council, in the 1980s, but “I didn’t know how to change things” and opted instead to focus on his career and family. He came back to politics in the early 1990s, mainly because he was dismayed at the state of his local borough.
“We were one of the three worst councils in London. Us, Lambeth and Hackney, in 1992. The council’s performance was terrible, its delivery terrible. We nearly got a BNP candidate for crying out loud, it was only 30 votes in it, in a by-election. It was inept, it was incompetent.
“The [free] masons had been in power in the 1970s and 80s, they’d been kicked out and the people running it were inept. And some of those people running it were people opposing me now.
“In 1994 we said let’s make it better. We challenged and fought, but we had an agenda. One example was in housing, they had this one-offer policy [for council rented homes] and we said ‘that’s barbaric, why can’t people have choice?’ We introduced choice-based lettings.
“And by the time we had finished we made the case for saying we were the best in London. And so I was coming off in 2002 and going part time.”
It was then that Tony Blair’s drive for directly-elected mayors was really getting into gear. Ken Livingston was running City Hall in the capital and a string of boroughs wanted to follow suit. Newham was among the first wave.
“Friends of mine said if we get a Mayor would you stand. I thought ‘that would be interesting’. Probably a bad financial decision because I was in BT with a pension and all the rest of it. But it’s been fun, changing things. The only reason to be in politics is to make things better.”
Wales says that one of his proudest achievements is the ‘Workplace’ scheme that matches local people to job vacancies, declaring that it has helped 35,000 people into employment over 10 years.
Newham has gone from the third poorest borough in London to the 25th poorest, out of 33 councils. One of his favourite graphics is a colour-coded map showing how poverty rates have changed from 2010 to 2015.
“Tower Hamlets got Canary Wharf, it didn’t make any bloody difference to the people there,” Wales says. When the Olympics came to Newham, he says the council ensured local people got their share of the jobs and housing in the resulting regeneration. Some 85% of the jobs have been filled by locals, he says.
Wales is as evangelical about ‘Moneyworks’, a credit scheme to help residents avoid falling into the hands of loan sharks and firms with punitive rates of interest. “We think we are the only council in the country actually giving loans to residents,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I want to finish this…. So we can undercut the model of [loan firm] Brighthouse and the rest of them.”
“We think we are one of the most radical councils in the country. The first to give free school meals to all primary kids, every child gets to play a musical instrument, we did a reading guarantee scheme. We are the only council in the country where if you go to school, those people who are disadvantaged start at the same level as those who are not.”
Newham also has a scheme to find homes for the homeless. “Jeremy [Corbyn] wants to buy 8,000 new homes for homeless families. We bought 1,800 and we are buying another 1,200.” The borough has also set up a council-owned housebuilding firm, ‘Red Door’, that ploughs market rent profits into new homes.
“Jeremy says we should spend money on housing. Abso-bloody-lutely right. We have put a quarter of a billion in. You build and get your affordability, but then you take the profit from the market rent and you put that into housing. Our plan is to hypothecate all the money that we get back into housing. And that’s what I want to finish. I want them building thousands of homes a year.”
And there’s more. “We have the biggest private sector licensing scheme in the country. 60% of all prosecutions in London are done by us. But bloody Barking are ramping up! They are getting stuck in, well done to them,” he says.
“It’s a difficult job, we’ve got Brexit, we’ve got austerity, we’ve had £100m off our budget and we haven’t cut front line services and we’ve held council tax for nine years.
“When I started 41% of people thought the council was doing a good or a very good job. Now it’s 81%. MORI said this should be the place that should have least support for the council given the demographics.”
Again and again, Wales says that he wants to see through his various projects. But he insists that if he should be selected and elected again, this is his last hurrah. He also says he would within two years try to hand over the reins for his successor.
“I won’t stand again, this is my last term. I think there’s a couple of years to do things and big things on housing.
“What I want to do is bring people in who have a shot at being Mayor, I’ll give people executive positions, show people what you’re like, then let’s make sure things I’m doing fit into where you think we should go. I think after two years I’ll be asking the Labour party to select a candidate, an early candidate.”
But what is it that makes him think he is uniquely the person to continue all the works set in train?
“I think it’s the approach we take that makes us different from anyone else. I was trained as a scientist, a chemist, but the scientific method and that approach is absolutely right.”
So he adopts Blair’s ‘what works’ mantra? “I think what works is only half the equation,” he says. “You have to ask ‘what do I want to achieve?’ and then ‘what works?’ I’m trying to get people into work. Great, what works? I’m trying to build more affordable housing for residents. Great, what works? The what works thing is a mistake otherwise. And what are the unintended consequences of what works?”
But if he’s done such a great job, why is there a mood among party members to make him face an open selection? Does he think he can win the selection?
“The longer you’ve been in the party the more likely you are to support me because you’ve seen the changes in Newham.
“One of the problems with some of the younger people coming in is they don’t realise how radical we are. So it’s great we are having a debate now and I have a chance to say ‘we’re really radical’.
“Yes I’ve been criticised by some of the Trots and also by people to be fair where I’ve said ‘I don’t think you’re good enough to do this job’. I have to do what I think is right. As for Momentum, lots of people want to do good things. My comment to many of these people would be ‘you want a better society, how are you going to do it?’”
He has suggested in recent weeks that a party trigger ballot contest - to assess support for a challenger to him as candidate - was fixed against him in some areas. Is he saying part of it was rigged?
“There were certainly a number of people signed up to the party at various points. I expect to have an argument on policy, I was brought up like that. I did not enjoy the debate was ‘should we trigger or should we not trigger?’
“Show us what your arguments are. One of my constant criticisms is nobody’s come up with any proposals. It’s no good saying I want to spend money, but what’s that going to lead to?
“You can chuck money at something that’s not working very well and nothing happens, as I think we learned with some of the things under the Blair government. It didn’t give us the value we should have got. And that brings public investment into disrepute and public investment is how we keep a civilised society.”
Wales has described his unease at what he calls “community politics” locally. What does he mean by that phrase?
“Look at Tower Hamlets, people will get a group of people and bring them in. My policy is we will not fund single ethnic or single religious groups unless they are doing something for everybody. If a mosque wants to do something for everybody, I’ll fund that. Bringing people together is our job.
“Obviously if you look at Tower Hamlets, people want to separate people. Ninety per cent of people get on together here.”
“We know there was a whole bunch of reduced members signed up in time for this selection. We’ve done an analysis before.”
How does he respond to those who say that referring to ‘community politics’ is just dog whistle racism?
“Go to Tower Hamlets. See what happened in Tower Hamlets, we’ve got to oppose it, we’ve got to say we are together as one. I don’t care where you’re from, if you have an argument on policy that’s what I want, brilliant. We are progressives, we are radicals. But let’s now focus on the debate.”
He then reels off what sounds like Monty Python’s ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ sketch.
“I’m confident that the record we’ve got, best on employment, we can make a case for best on education, best on debt…now tackling housing, looking at the skills agenda and we can really do something on mental health, and we will rebuild our primary care estate.
“And by the way we are doing all our roads and pavements and all our lights for more energy efficiency. And I’ve increased our next asset base against liabilities by £1.7bn over the last seven years. I’m not quite sure what else people want me to do!”
Yet with Labour making up 59 out of 60 councillors in Newham, there have been criticisms that it has turned into a ‘one party state’. Does he see that as cause for embarrassment or celebration?
“The fact that people vote for us is something to be critical about? I just want to get my head around this. A good example, in the last election we came eight on turnout in London and we are second poorest place in London. You wouldn’t expect us to come high. The reason? People like us.
“I plead guilty to having people like Newham Labour. I plead guilty that I try to persuade people to vote for Newham Labour. I recognise that having 60-nil means we have to think about how you then make sure you’re listening to people. As a result we spend a lot on surveys. We want to know what our residents think of us.”
But is he satisfied that the accountability in Newham is working. There have been concerns that auditing and scrutiny of decisions such as the £52m in spending on the London Stadium, which helped West Ham turn the Olympic venue into its new home, were inadequate.
“London Stadium was voted by [the whole] council not by me. I thought we’d make money out of it, if truth be told we didn’t.
“But we spent about £52m and we will get something between £120 and £160m worth [back].” He points to a string of 106 housing deals, a £40m grant from the Mayor’s office (“no one else has been given that much”), 211 new homes from the old West Ham site in Upton Park, plus a community running track and a relocated school. Westfield and other developments have brought in extra council tax and business rates
“I’m sick to death of the East End being treated as second best. We’ve got the best stadium in the world and they wanted to knock it down to 25,000 [capacity]? Sod off.
“We wanted to have a stadium that said ‘this is the place to be’. Result? Loads of housing in Stratford, loads of businesses, loads of jobs. Our land values are shooting up, we are going to really make something out of that and put it into housing.”
And yet his critics continue to ask why, after four terms in office, he needs another one. They point to the fact that the council-run magazine has its pages stuffed with his photo, to his use of the Mayoral chain, and to a recent batch of posters that hailed his record. The posters had to be pulled down after complaints.
How did those posters, paid by the taxpayer, end up all over the borough just days after the Labour selection contest was agreed? “That was a mistake. Our officers made a mistake, I certainly wouldn’t authorise that,” he says.
“Yes it’s true that when you have a Mayor, instead of being ‘them’ that’s to blame, it’s ‘him or her’ to blame. Mayors are more visible. For me being a Mayor means saying ‘there I am, I’m responsible, if you don’t like me, don’t vote for me’. It’s the people’s decision, you can directly say I don’t like what you’re doing. Mayors have lost elections if they don’t get it right.”
And the countless photos of him, many of which are satirised by the Twitter account ‘Newham Labour WTF’?
“I think it’s part of the job, saying to people this is who’s running your council and your borough. When I was leader [rather than Mayor] I didn’t have any pictures. If people don’t like it, it’s up to them.
“The arrogance of people to say they should tell electors what to do. It’s up to the electors to make the decision.
“We serve at their pleasure. And we don’t remember that nearly enough. They are the people who are in charge. And the minute you forget it, they’ll kick you and quite bloody right too.”
As for that Mayoral chain? “Sometimes I wear it, sometimes I don’t. I wear it for community and for kids because if I’m doing something people should be able to come up and say hey Mr Mayor why have you done this?”
Many in the party are watching Newham following the resignation of Haringey Council leader Claire Kober after the NEC criticised its public-private development scheme. Is there something bigger at stake in this Labour selection race?
“My view is we have a radical socialist council that is doing things that makes a difference to people. We are doing exactly what the Left would want. We are about delivering what both residents want and what the party was set up to do.”
Corbyn has been praised for his general election campaign, but Wales says that becoming a government is the key.
“Without power you can’t do anything. Obviously we didn’t comment on defence and foreign policy, but much of what we do here was in that manifesto. The best example, what sort of idiot says we’ve got austerity so we can’t pay for housing? The Tory government are morons, morons. It’s obvious we should invest in housing.
“I think there are other policies which are difficult to explain.” Does he mean defence and foreign policy specifically? “Those are all things that matter. You have to talk to people where they are and you have to get enough people together to win. That means inevitably compromising and that’s a difficult thing in politics.
“That 1945-51 Labour government? Fabulous what it did and yet we lost power in 1951. Sometimes people forget that.”
Wales also wonders why the party is not ahead of the Tories in the national polls. “We should be. We need to worry about that. I would argue a good example would be Newham. If a council is doing left, socialist things, thoroughly supported by residents and is not supported by the Left of the Labour party, then you ask, well what do they think you can do?
“There’s a belief growing that once Jeremy gets in well everything will be fine. No, it’s complicated, doing things is difficult. You can’t just build houses, you’ve got to get people to do it, and get everything together, that’s not easy. “
So, given his background in fighting Militant back in the 1970s, why does he think that some of the old Left have returned to the frontline and prospered?
“I think the failure came from people like me in my part of the Labour party. We fudged and mudged. It’s retail politics, ‘I’ll give you a microwave if you vote for me’. No. We need a vision that says this is what we are.”
One fudge under Gordon Brown springs to mind. “A great example was at the end of last Labour government. We said we want to enforce the minimum wage, we’ll do it for free. I’m sick to death 20% of my population not being paid the minimum wage. We were turned down.” He adds, hastily: “But we got private sector licensing out of the last Labour government.”
Wales defines his own brand of politics as “working class politics”. “I’m a socialist desperate to end poverty, it’s a pestilence. We should be doing that and saying we have a practical programme to do that,” he says.
As for the role of the private sector, he doesn’t rule out it having a role but points to the fact that Newham has many services in-house and has plans to set up co-ops too. “I was in the private sector, it brings a set of skills. Markets will work but if you let them go free you have unintended consequences. For me you let markets do some of the work and you pick up the rest.
“We have massive public sector reform here. But we are one of councils least out-sourced. I don’t believe in it, the profits don’t work particularly well.”
Which brings us back to why Sir Robin Wales is running for a record fifth term. He has a literal answer, saying he’s 63 but can still run a decent 10k. “My best 10k time was 54 and a half minutes - last year. Just saying. We finished in the Olympic track. Who’s this Mo Farah?”
The loneliness of the long-distance politician certainly doesn’t appear to bother him. He points to Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who stepped down after 27 years.
“Alex Ferguson left and then we went ‘oh, this is a bad thing’. The question isn’t how long I’ve been here, the question is what I’ve done and what I plan to do. That’s the debate we should have. Who cares how long anybody has been in. But also you need succession, I’ve been clear this is my last time.”
And he points to other Scots who showed their staying power. “Look at our proud history, Keir Hardie, Brown and Blair…” And with that, he’s off to yet another Mayoral duty.