The recent Labour Leadership contest in Waltham Forest: a tale of Grace Williams, Liaquat Ali…and Clyde Loakes

As local news outlets have reported, in the election to find a new Council Leader following Clare Coghill’s resignation, the Labour Group has plumped for Grace Williams, with Liaquat Ali a close second.

The general feeling on the Labour benches is that Ms. Williams will provide short-term stability, though many also believe that after the 2022 local elections, there will be a further Leadership contest, with both of this year’s candidates very likely to stand again.

Given such a scenario, it’s a good moment to put Ms. Williams and Mr. Ali under the spotlight, and try to understand who they are; their achievements, inside the Town Hall and out; and perhaps even whether they are a good fit as Leader.

Starting with Ms. Williams, she is something of a dark horse, but a search of the public record reveals the following.

After studying sociology at university, Ms. Williams initially worked in the civil service and what she describes as ‘a challenging school’, before finding her vocation as a coach, and thus employment from 2013 onwards as a ‘Star Partner’ with registered charity UnLtd (‘the leading provider of support to social entrepreneurs in the UK’), plus various volunteering roles with local community organisations. 

First elected to represent William Morris ward in 2014, Ms. Williams became Portfolio Lead Member for Children and Young People in 2016, and continued in the same post until her recent victory (though ‘Children and Young People’ became ‘Children, Young People and Families’).

Looking back over these years shows that Ms. Williams rarely missed council committee meetings; unlike some of her peers updated her successive declaration of interests forms without issue, openly providing all the information required, including her non-pecuniary interests (in January 2021, ‘Labour Party Co-operative Party National Trust King George Sailing Club Unison Children attend Winns Primary School & Frederick Bremer School’); and as to her ‘Registered Gifts and Hospitalities’, recorded ‘Five small compact mirrors offered by Chinese delegation from…Chengdu; distributed among staff members ; Value £25’, but nothing else.

However, whether Ms. Williams track record as Portfolio Lead should be judged a success is debatable. On the plus side, she can point the fact that while in 2015 Ofsted warned that LBWF was ‘not yet delivering good protection, help and care for children, young people and families’, and needed across the board improvement, four years later the same agency rated ‘Services for children in Waltham Forest’ as ‘good’. 

But – and it is a very big but – on the downside, since 2018 LBWF social services staff have been involved in three cases where a child they had some degree of responsibility for died in tragic circumstances; while at a recent court hearing concerning another two children who for many years were abused at home, the judge commented ‘“On the face of it there appears to have been an overwhelming failure by the local authority”’ (for specifics, see link below).

Finally, as regards her wider politics, and in particular where she stands on the Labour Party’s rifts and travails, Ms. Williams remains relatively discrete. 

In 2016, it is true, she signed a round robin calling on Jeremy Corbyn to stand down as Labour Leader; and five years later she retweeted Keir Starmer’s commendation of Kim Leadbeater, the victor in the Batley and Spen byelection, for facing down ‘the politics of division’ (conveniently overlooking  the fact that, while in search of the Muslim vote, Ms. Leadbeater downplayed the predicament of a local teacher who was hiding in fear of his life for showing his students a cartoon Prophet Mohammad, and distributed leaflets which openly played on inter-faith tensions). 

But when it comes to touchstone issues like the far-left infiltration of the Labour Party, and the associated growth of anti-semitism, unpleasant developments that are as evident in Waltham Forest as elsewhere, she seems to have remained completely silent, whether because of ignorance or fear of inflaming the rank and file, it is difficult to tell.

Turning to Liaquat Ali, he is a well-known and highly experienced councillor, who has sat on the Labour benches continuously since 1994; held several important Cabinet portfolios; served as a member of  the London Fire Authority, the London Councils Grants Committee, and the London Councils Leaders’ Committee; and, on the basis of this record,  earned an MBE for ‘services to local government in Waltham Forest’.

In his life beyond the Town Hall, Mr. Ali has been a JP, and director of three companies, two ex-offcio, and one he founded in 1998 and ran until 2009, Star Mortgages & Insurance Services Ltd..

He now describes himself as a private landlord.

So far so unremarkable. But Mr. Ali is in fact a more contentious figure than at first sight might be imagined.

To start with, he has sometimes given the impression that, though rules exist, they do not apply to him.

Thus, in 2008, while both Mayor and Portfolio Lead Member for Children and Young People, Mr. Ali was prosecuted by LBWF, and then fined, because he had flouted local school attendance requirements (prompting one of his peers to quip, ‘Only in Waltham Forest could…[a] councillor convicted of keeping his own child out of school illegally be put in charge of children’s services’).

And four years later, Mr. Ali was in trouble with LBWF again, this time over planning legislation, which led to him being ordered to reduce the height of his front garden wall. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Ali’s time at Star Mortgages & Insurance Services also saw him dicing with the regulations, such that the authorities threatened to compulsorily strike off the company on no less than three different occasions.

Turning to Mr. Ali’s dealings as a private landlord, there is further reason for disquiet. 

Over the years, both the Guido Fawkes blog and Private Eye have alleged that some of the properties he is letting are of unacceptably poor quality (see links, below).

Moreover, a case that surfaced in 2014-15 gives such criticism a degree of credence.

At that time, Mr. Ali’s successive LBWF declaration of interests forms included the following:

Cross-checking with the Land Registry shows that Mr. Ali often shared ownership of freeholds with his brother, Mr. Shokat Ali, also a Waltham Forest Labour big wig.

That’s the background, now for the substance.

In September 2014, LBWF was alerted to ‘a possible bed in shed’ situated at the rear of 305 Higham Hill Rd., which appeared to have been built without planning permission, and was blighted by three ‘Category 1 hazards’, ‘Excess Cold, Damp and Mould Growth and Fire risk’.

 Shortly afterwards, LBWF decided that the structure was beyond repair, and obtained the relevant prohibition order to have it demolished.

Piqued, ‘the owners’ of the property then appealed via the HM Courts housing tribunal service, but after a lamentable performance at the hearing, they lost, and LBWF was awarded costs.

So who exactly were ‘the owners’? 

The tribunal revealed all. One (as Mr. Ali’s declaration of interests forms also confirmed) was his wife, Zainad, the other, Mr. Shokat Ali’s wife, Shamin.

Furthermore, the family connections didn’t end there, as Mr. Shokat Ali himself had ‘handled his wife’s affairs’ in relation to the property; while at the tribunal, Zainad and Shamin were represented by Mr. Hather Ali, Mr. Liaquat Ali’s son, said to work for the agent involved, ‘Star Lettings’.

Needless to say, in normal circumstances it would be unfair to criticise Mr. Ali for the choices made by his close family.

Yet, in this instance, it seems permissible, because his close family were also his business partners or associates, and (as the tribunal heard) they had owned 305 Higham Hill Rd. with its ‘bed in shed’ for at least 12 years, all of which makes it unlikely that he was unaware of the events just recounted. 

The bottom line is that Mr. Ali was a senior member two organisations – LBWF and the Labour Party – which actively promoted good housing standards. And yet here he was, entangled with those who appeared be to be following a markedly different agenda.

Perhaps Mr. Ali has learnt from this episode and mended his ways. But he can hardly blame local residents if they remain somewhat sceptical.

Finally, what of Mr. Ali’s wider political activities? 

In terms of the Labour Party’s recent convulsions, Mr. Ali has kept quiet about the issues of the day, including anti-semitism, and if he has joined any of the competing internal factions, there is no overt trace of it. The fact that, over the years, he has supported leadership candidates as dissimilar as Ken Livingstone and Stella Creasy speaks for itself.

However, beyond narrow party politics Mr. Ali’s record is less anodyne, with a 2016 story about his antics, in particular, prompting significant media comment.

 Private Eye provided the best encapsulation:

‘Such is racial harmony in Waltham Forest, claims one councillor, that it hasn’t suffered any of the post-referendum unpleasantness experienced elsewhere.

The Labour council’s cabinet member for “community safety and social cohesion”, Liaquat Ali, tells the Waltham Forest Guardian: “our sense of community and of belonging, and the need to always treat others with respect…helps to make [it] such a great place to call home”.

Last year Cllr Ali took part in a ceremony in the mayor’s parlour in honour of visiting Pakistan senator Siraj ul Haq, at which the visitor was presented with a plaque bearing the borough’s coat of arms.

In Lahore earlier this year Haq, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, chaired a conference at which he claimed that Pakistan’s Women’s Protection Act, aimed at combating violence against women, should be repealed as it “is totally against Sharia law” and “part of a western plot to destroy Muslim families”. Last year he told a rally that thousands who protested in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo murders were supporting “Satan’s agents”. In 2014 he revealed that the UN is “a tool of the Jewish lobby”. And so on.

Just the kind of chap who deserves to be honoured by a Labour London borough!’.

Here’s a picture of the event. Cllr. Ali is extreme front left, Siraj al Haq next to him in white:

Once again, Cllr. Ali’s judgement seems suspect. The senator had long been a prominent politician and tireless orator, who openly espoused far-right values and policies, diametrically contradictory to those of both LBWF and the Labour Party.

So, to put bluntly, when Mr. Ali turned up at the mayor’s parlour for the ceremony, what exactly did he see in Siraj ul Haq that was worth ‘honouring’? 

In conclusion, whether either Ms. Williams or Mr. Ali are cut out to lead LBWF is disputable. It’s clear why Ms. Williams is seen as the safe choice, but, having only ever held one portfolio, there is a danger that, more often than not, she will be led by the senior officers, an unhealthy situation all round. Besides, the child safeguarding cases already cited may come back to haunt her, not least because up to now she has been reluctant to comment about them in public.

As for Mr. Ali, his record in local government ostensibly looks impressive, but is undermined by a series of worrying gaffes. Whether, if Leader, he would (or could) change is a moot point.

Mention of gaffes neatly leads on to Clyde Loakes, here seen celebrating Ms. Williams’ recent triumph:

Many predicted that Mr. Loakes would stand in the recent election, and are now puzzled as to why he didn’t.

One possible explanation is that, having been Leader previously, and thus experienced the highs but also the lows, Mr. Loakes knows better than most the level of public scrutiny that the role brings, and is content to keep his head down and exert influence behind the scenes.

However, it is equally likely that Mr. Loakes is just too busy elsewhere to care. Some of his current appointments are listed on his LinkedIn page:

In addition, he recently joined the board of waste management specialist, Londonenergy Ltd., and that’s notable because its directors earn good remuneration, an average of roughly £100,000 each in 2019, a year when the company as a whole made a £1.4m. pre-tax loss.

Finally, Mr. Loakes always has possessed good political antenna, and it may be that he has picked up on the incontrovertible fact that in Waltham Forest, at least, goodwill towards him is waning. Local critics of the North West London Waste Authority are increasingly vocal. His pet Mini-Holland scheme remains controversial. Where once Labour backbench councillors were in thrall to his power, the mood has changed, his bluster irritating rather than intimidating. Little wonder that, at public events on the web, he looks alternatively peevish and bored, never a good sign. 

Perhaps the Loakes era in Waltham Forest is finally drawing to an end?

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