The Claire Kober affair: Was Haringey council chief really forced out by sexist Momentum bullies?

Claire Kober resigned earlier this week

Supporters of Claire Kober (l) feel Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour NEC meddled in Haringey's affairs to further their own agenda

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

It's like something out of a Blairite nightmare.

A venerable, moderate Labour politician being ousted from her job by hard-left bullies, as they seek to implement a utopian fantasy which will only worsen the lives of everyday people.

At least that's how Claire Kober tells her story. The leader of Haringey Council, an OBE no less, has resigned from her position after a dispute with pro-Corbyn pressure group Momentum over a controversial regeneration scheme.

Kober, the most senior woman in Labour local government, announced her decision to quit with a damning letter of resignation, in which she condemned "sexism, bullying, undemocratic behaviour and outright personal attacks."

To moderate Labour folk, Kober's resignation is the clear and inevitable consequence of a Momentum coup in Haringey, which saw several centre-left councillors leave their roles.

They also condemn the perceived interference by Labour's ruling National Executive Committee, which has encouraged Kober and her council to reconsider the £2 billion regeneration scheme known as the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV). The scheme, which would result in 6,500 new homes, is a partnership between the council and private developer Lendlease.

The plan has already been approved by the council, and its representatives have assured local council tenants that they will be rehoused. Kober's supporters argue that the NEC's intervention is an affront to democracy, and suggest the Corbynist aversion to public-private partnerships will only increase social housing waiting lists.

Senior Labour figures, on the other hand, have said Kober is wrong about HDV - local tenants don't want it and it was actually the local Haringey councillors who urged the NEC to step in. They say that there is a real chance that residents will be displaced, and that people on the ground don't want to see public property privatised - a point evinced by the creation of a pressure group called Stop HDV, whose mission is, well, self-explanatory.

It's a dispute which distils the Blairite-Corbynite division to its first principles, and has left both sides battered and bruised.

Mass change

In the eyes of Kober and her fellow moderates, the HDV is absolutely essential. There are 9,000 households on the social housing waiting list, and a further 3,000 living in temporary accommodation. The new plan, they said, would alleviate this crippling bottleneck by creating 6,400 homes, yielding thousands of new jobs and adding a health centre, school and library to Haringey's municipal offering. With social tenants being promised a guaranteed right to return, the 'Koberites' thought there were no downsides.

To the hard left of the Labour party, however, the Lendlease deal was anathema. They view such projects as nothing more than "social cleansing," the most toxic part of the Blair legacy. The collapse of Carillion, which declared itself insolvent last month, has only hardened this conviction.

Nonetheless, Kober thought she had won the argument when her council voted through the HDV plans on July 3 last year. Two Labour MPs, David Lammy and Catherine West, had made a last-ditch attempt to block the scheme, and the vote was soundtracked by angry protests outside the building. But the ayes had it, just.

Then the problems really began, with Momentum-backed councillors flooding into the Haringey council. In November a string of Kober's loyalists lost reselection battles, and several more have opted to jump before they're pushed.

The upshot is that the pro-HDV majority on the council will evaporate in May's local council elections. The council voted to press ahead with HDV at the start of this month, by a margin of 24 to 22. But according to the Stop HDV blog, 19 of those in favour are going to quit in three months' time.

A Labour source quoted by the blog said: “The issue is 19 councillors lost their seats because of their support for the HDV. It’s clear the next administration will not support the HDV and the current administration has lost its mandate.

“The next administration could be forced by sitting councillors into doing something it doesn’t want to do.”

Leading issue

The fact that a Labour source was even talking to the Stop HDV blog demonstrates how strongly the party leadership feels about this issue. Corbyn himself, who began his career on Haringey council, had declared himself opposed to HDV. Just days after that council vote, two crucial events made central intervention even more likely.

On January 15, Carillion, recipient of a number of public-private contracts, declared itself bankrupt. On the same day the three hard-left, pro-Corbyn candidates were elected to Labour's NEC, giving the leader an iron grip on his party's key decision-making body.

Eight days after those twin events, Labour's NEC voted - unanimously, it might be added - to urge Kober's council to reconsider the idea of Lendlease.

This intervention pushed Kober past the point of no return. She claimed it was “democratically unsound” as well as “legally dubious." And resigned.

Bullying 

Kober has not replied to talkRADIO's request for further comment, and she has not revealed any of the alleged sexist abuse or intimidation she received.

She has, however, published a letter rejecting the NEC's offer of mediation, condemning the body for allegedly not contacting her before they met for last week's vote. 

Kober has been praised by Sadiq Khan, while 15 other London council leaders have signed a letter expressing outrage at the NEC's interference.

One of the signatories, Southwark Labour leader Peter John, said: “Whilst I don’t worry about the NEC passing other motions or resolutions on my own council, this sets a dangerous precedent.”

Lambeth leader Lib Peck added: “It is an affront to democracy for a central committee to interfere with the democratic decisions of elected Labour councillors.”

However Kober's resignation has also been welcomed by many, including local Haringey residents. 

One such resident, Sam Leggatt, whose Northumberland Park home is earmarked as a priority regeneration area, told talkRADIO that Kober's attack on Corbyn and the NEC is simply "an attack on anything that challenges her plan - we have not been offered alternatives to HDV, in her mind that is the only option."

Leggatt, who says she is not affiliated to any party, added that "Kober felt herself backed into a corner after the selection process" but this was not evidence of Momentum or NEC intimidation. Rather "many councillors didn't even have enough belief in their own track records or in this plan to even try to reselection. And the NEC simply recommended talks and mediation, not total abandonment.

"She will never admit she was wrong about HDV so has to use bullying and sexism as the reason for leaving. Seriously - since when has democracy been bullying? You can't describe yourself as the 'strongest woman in Haringey council' in one sentence and cry 'sexism' the next.

"HDV would mean seeing our homes and community destroyed. Demolishing our homes is not the answer - people are scared what will happen to them, frightened there is no future for their children either.

"This plan has always been about changing the community, never about improving it for current residents."

The dust may now be settling on Kober's resignation, but we've certainly not heard the last of it. Many observers - notably those in the right-wing press - are hyping up Haringey as the first set-piece battle between Blairites and Corbynites, and warning moderates to gird themselves for similar battles. The London councillors' letter shows that cards have been marked across the capital.

However bitter and unseemly the Haringey skirmish has been, the next battle is likely to be far, far messier.

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