“Well as Sir Robin says,” came the reply. “We're really fighting the election after next. The cuts that are coming are that bad.” Incredible.
Labour candidates in this borough effectively become councillors-elect as soon as they are selected: the lack of any credible opposition makes victory a certainty. They also know that between their election and May 2018, they are expected to provide unquestioning support to cuts of £41million in 2015/16 and another £53million in 2016/17 – and evidently Mayor Sir Robin Wales isn't terribly confident his own party nationally will reverse the cuts if it wins the General Election next year.
So is Newham Labour really worried that the devastating impact of cuts could trigger a change in local politics? Casting an eye over Labour's current opponents, it would represent less a shift and more a major seismic event. What's really noticeable is just how barren and marginal municipal activism has become in the borough, after years of control by a single party dominated by a powerful Mayor.
At one time Newham had the Respect Party, which was relaunched at the end of December 2012 by its divisive, opportunist leader, the MP George Galloway. It has since vanished without trace: Galloway's pledge to field a Mayoral and councillor candidates in 2014 has failed to emerge. He was back in February 2013 in support of the woefully misnamed Newham People's Alliance (NPA), essentially an attempt to organise a distinct Muslim voting block. “This is the beginning of the Newham revolution,” blustered Galloway. The following month, the NPA announced its intention to trigger a referendum on Newham's mayoral system. That failed to emerge too. It hasn't updated its website since August 2013.
Meanwhile, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (essentially the Socialist Party) became the latest in a long line of far-left groups to parachute in, launch themselves on the electorate six weeks before the election and hope for the best. Around the country, the TUSC has barely attracted more than 5% of the vote (you can look here for their own analysis if you're so minded). Even though I personally quite like their Mayoral candidate Lois Austin, who I'm working with on a campaign concerned with police surveillance of activists, the stubborn perseverance involved in repeating the same failed tactic over and over again frankly amazes me.
As for the Greens, Newham is one of the few London boroughs that has no local party. Its Mayoral candidate Jane Lithgow, who seems like a nice person and encouragingly describes herself as a Green Socialist, stood in the General Elections of 2005 and 2010 in West Ham but saw her vote drop to just 1.4% - coming in eighth place behind both UKIP and the National Front (quite an achievement in multicultural Newham). This May, she will count herself lucky not to lose her deposit.
What does this tell us? Perhaps that the opposition to cuts in Newham, if it emerges at all, will not happen through the ballot box but through dozens of small acts of resistance. I hope so. But it also suggests that Sir Robin's rhetoric about “fighting the election after next” is really about scaring some discipline into future councillors for when the cuts start to bite hard, as well as encouraging some of the more complacent candidates to turn up for door-knocking now there's an election approaching.
And given the calibre of most of them, it will probably work too. No wonder local politics is so depleted and dysfunctional.