Local elections: What really happened in Haringey

The media has put the spotlight on London's Haringey council again – but what is the reality for local Labour activists? Alex Nunns interviews Seema Chandwani

May 6, 2018
12 min read


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns


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For months, the London borough of Haringey has been the most high profile of all the local election contests. Stories from Haringey have been splashed across the front page of the Sunday Times and other newspapers, largely due to the left’s success at selecting council candidates opposed to a controversial housing scheme, the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), being pushed by the outgoing administration. In the end Labour recorded a crushing victory, winning 42 of the 57 seats on the council. But while the party’s vote rose substantially, counter-intuitively it lost seven seats to the Lib Dems. Cue crowing from the usual suspects in the media, with one self-described ‘left’ columnist declaring it would take ‘a heart of stone not to burst out laughing’. So how do local activists view the result?

Seema Chandwani
As Agent, I was asked by the national Labour party what I felt the result would be, I predicted about a month ago we will win 39 to 42 seats from the 49 seats we had. Unfortunately my assessment was on-point and we won 42.

It’s obviously disappointing to lose any seat, but overall we’ve retained a substantial majority, and there are some fantastic parts of this election result we should celebrate, especially the rise in votes across the borough.

What made you predict this result a month ago?

The Lib Dems were at their lowest in 2014 when they lost councillors across the UK. Our neighbours in Brent and Islington (previously Lib Dem councils) saw a complete wipe out of Lib Dems, however Haringey retained 9 of the previous 19 of them. Retaining nine councillors enabled the Lib Dems to have a base to rebuild on.

The seven seats we lost were in four wards where in 2014 we were unable to win all three seats. Crouch End had three Labour councillors, but only because a Lib Dem defected to Labour last year. We won some of those seats in 2014 on really small margins. All seven of the seats we lost this year were non-Labour seats prior to 2014 and were vulnerable given our slim majorities.

Haringey has always had a two party divide with Labour taking seats in the East and either the Lib Dems or the Tories taking seats in the West. 2014 was a brief exception for national reasons. This time Labour retained many seats in traditionally non-Labour areas and we grew the vote share immensely.

If the Lib Dems won some of our safe seats in Tottenham, I would be the first to say that we were thrashed. But they didn’t.

If you could run the election again, what would you do differently?

The candidates in the seven seats we lost ran fantastic campaigns and we did not collapse in those wards – in fact in some of those seats our vote rose compared to 2014.

However, votes are not trophies to win every four years, you have to win the hearts and minds of people to earn their votes. We know this, but strangely keep reverting back to election strategy.

In the areas of the seats we lost, we had made many unpopular and unwanted decisions that residents were not happy about. Putting aside the HDV (which did not directly impact residents in those wards), we faced huge backlashes against the sale of Hornsey Town Hall, the threats to sell Muswell Hill library, the closure of Highgate library and the closure of Osborne Grove nursing home.

The Lib Dems capitalised on these unpopular decisions. The previous Labour leadership allowed them to position themselves as the party residents could turn to. It lost the trust of many of our residents and they let us know their feelings about those live issues at the ballot box. But despite this, the Lib Dems regained only a handful of seats, and with slimmer majorities than they had previously.

The Lib Dems say they are ‘on the comeback’ – would you say in Haringey that’s true?

The Lib Dems have not managed to regain their 2010 position in Haringey. Seats like Stroud Green, Hornsey, and Harringay (in Tottenham) were Lib Dem strongholds and they completely failed to regain anything like the strength they once had – and they certainly tried.

In Stroud Green, where the Lib Dems used to win on 2,500+ votes, in 2014 we won those seats with under 200 vote majorities. This time we won them with over 2,000 votes and the highest scoring Lib Dem achieved 1,003 votes. Likewise in Hornsey ward, where we won in 2014 with a 600 vote majority, this time we won with over 2,300 votes and the Lib Dems could not get more than 900 votes.

These seats, which were once Lib Dem heartlands, are now solid Labour.

I would not call it a comeback, more like a brief revisit – the Lib Dems have slim majorities. Soon, residents in those areas will realise the Lib Dems have nothing to offer. We know we have trust to rebuild; we’re confident they will like the revitalised Labour council and choose Labour in 2022.

The media aggressively attacked Haringey Labour for months prior to the election. What impact did that have?

It had the impact we planned it to have! Labour was very unpopular in Haringey for a number of years, some of it down to government cuts but some of it down to almost bizarre and complacent decisions the council leadership made.

Whilst queues in the Tottenham Foodbank were growing, our councillors were on yachts in Cannes, fully funded by taxpayers, sipping expensive wine and selling off public land. Whilst our care-homes were being closed, our councillors were spending hundreds of thousands on logo rebranding. Whilst our youth services were slashed, hundreds of thousands of pounds were given to a ‘hipster chicken shop’. Whilst our care workers were not even being paid the minimum wage by council contractors, we had consultants in the council being paid £1,000 a day.

We of course had the HDV, which was designed to remove over 2,300 council homes with bulldozers and replace them with high value homes for a ‘new type of resident’, and this was shamelessly promoted as reducing homelessness even though anyone who could use a calculator knew adding thousands onto the waiting list when you demolished their homes would do the opposite.

We did have councillors who opposed these ridiculous ideas. Members reselected them. And we had new candidates to replace those councillors who proudly backed these ludicrous policies. But how could we tell our residents that we were different? How could we convince our voters to trust us not to come out with ridiculous ideas again? Our brand was damaged and we didn’t have the resources to speak directly to everyone in a meaningful way to say we are different and we will do things differently.

And, right on cue, our friends in the media came to our aid.

They told our residents we would be different, they told them we would be more left wing, they told them we had new people who were not like those we currently had, they told them we would do fantastic things like free school meals for every primary school child, and they told them we hated the HDV just as much as they did.

The people of Haringey knew they were getting something different from Labour this time, and thousands of residents of Haringey told us they wanted what we were offering. Our vote share increased across the borough, even in some of the seats we didn’t win.

We could not have done it without the mainstream media – they were invaluable in helping our rebrand; especially [Evening Standard editor] George Osborne, his editorials were better than our own campaign literature!

The process of selecting candidates to stand for election was heavily criticised as a ‘Momentum purge’. You were the ‘Procedures Secretary’, overseeing the selections. What really happened? Did you, Seema Chandwani, purge all those hard-working councillors?

I would like to point out that our members are residents in the wards they live in. They are not this evil entity that has landed from Mars. In Haringey we have over 6,000 members – that means no one lives more than 5 mins walk away from a party member. They are ordinary people who you sit next to on the bus, who live on your road, who were behind you in the queue in the supermarket.

Most of the things I read were pure fantasy. All that happened was members, who are local residents, had the opportunity to choose their candidates to represent their party in their ward. That is standard across every area in the UK. That is it really.

It was one of the most watched, commentated and complained about selection process (although no official complaints about the process were lodged). If anyone could get away with cheating or foul play, it definitely would not be Haringey, given the level of scrutiny. Despite all of the accusations, the regional party and national party found everything was done by the book.

I am really OK with all of the scrutiny of the selections, because it has shut down every myth of bad practice. The process was watched, checked and double-checked so hard that there can be no doubt it was immaculately carried out. Members have full confidence in the process and the job I did. If I had done something dodgy they would definitely have found it by now!

Some may not like the outcome, but that’s not my problem really. That’s democracy.

Why was the turnaround so different in Haringey compared to other areas? There are many on the left that would have liked to have seen more left wing council candidates in their area.

Every area is different; it has its own dynamics and machinations. The focus should not be on the outcome but the process. If the process is run properly and you end up with council candidates who do not represent your views – you lost in a democratic process.

You need to debate and discuss your ideas, obtain support for them and build a group of like-minded people who want the same as you do. If you cannot do that, then you cannot expect to win in a democratic process.

But some would say that the process is flawed…

Yes, I have heard people say that. If you have evidence, complain. If it’s not a rule break but how things were done within the rules, i.e. who conducted the interviews, then ask yourself why you were not in the position to decide who conducted the interviews.

People on the Local Campaign Forum (LCF) are democratically elected by members; they make the decisions. Get yourself on the LCF and make different decisions. Can’t get members to get you on the LCF? Well that’s because members wanted someone else. Don’t know what the LCF is? Read the rulebook, it’s free and downloadable online. There is no excuse.

I know I am sounding harsh, but I think many on the left think change will happen by someone else doing it. You have decided to join the Labour Party, it’s a political party – it’s not a £3 charity appeal that comes out of your bank via direct debit and all is cured. It’s not a service you buy into and get a monthly newsletter – you are the party, get involved and shape it. Jeremy isn’t going to sort it out for you.

It’s not easy – if it was easy to gain governmental power, everyone would be doing it!

You have been cited as a ‘key architect’ of the turnaround in the Labour party within Haringey, but you didn’t stand as a councillor. So what role do you have in the project?

Key architect?! I’m just a working class woman from a Tottenham Council Estate, who has never watched an episode of West Wing in her life!

Something very special did happen in Haringey, it’s called ‘democracy’.

I am elected by Labour members to be the secretary of my local party and my role is to ensure that all of the processes and structures in the party work for members to access. The rest is down to members: you cannot control how people vote or what they think and believe.

I applaud those who stood to be a councillor and those who have served or continue to serve. But right now, it’s not for me. I enjoy the things I do for Labour and things I do in the community.

‘The project’ is to run local government to benefit local people – I will have no role in ‘the project’ as I am not democratically elected by residents to have a role. I will continue my role in the local party as long as I am elected to do so and that includes using the processes in the rulebook to ensure that residents get what they voted for on the leaflets hundreds of our members delivered.

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Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns