The beleaguered Labour leader of Ealing Council, Julian Bell, narrowly survived a leadership challenge at the Labour Group’s AGM last week, as ongoing controversy over his domestic housing arrangements and fallout from the London borough’s candidate selection process for the May local elections took their toll.
At the annual meeting to select the council leader and cabinet positions on 8 May, Bell survived a challenge by Councillor Theresa Byrne to win by 34 votes to 21. Last year, Bell won the vote for leader by 41 to 9 against the same challenger.
But the night was to get worse for Bell, his Chief Whip Yoel Gordon and Political Assistant Joseph Brown as the council rejected Bell’s favoured candidate in successive votes for the two Deputy Leader positions.
These went instead to Cllr Yvonne Johnson and Cllr Bassam Mahfouz. Both Johnson and Mahfouz had rejected overtures made by the Labour leader Bell for them to stand aside in favour of his choice.
Bell’s personal housing arrangements have long been a source of controversy within Ealing’s ruling Labour Group, as a 2014 Mail article shows:
Failure to deliver on a promise made 18 months ago to resolve the situation appears to have lost him support among senior Labour councillors. The controversy concerns a social home provided through property group A2Dominion, which Cllr Bell has kept alongside a £1m plus private family home also within Ealing borough.
Local councillors say that the Bells have regularly ‘flipped’ the names of family members registered on the Electoral Roll at these two homes – with no fewer than eight changes over the course of 11 years – including two years where Cllr Bell and his wife were registered simultaneously at both homes and four years where no one was registered at the social home. Since 2016, Bell is registered at the private home, while his wife is registered at the social home:
Providing false information to the Electoral Registration Officer is an offence under the Representation of the People Act.
According to activists, the fallout from the local Labour Party’s recent selection process for councillor candidates has dealt a further blow to Cllr Bell’s support base – when 18 of 19 (95%) applicants from the left of the party were rejected at initial interview stage, compared with an overall acceptance rate for all applicants of 66%.
The rejected candidates claimed that negative ‘Campaign Reports’ written by a Labour organiser in the borough played a key part in their candidacies being rejected. The same individual is now a Political Assistant to the Leader’s Office at Ealing Council, reporting directly to Bell in what is a politically restricted role.
The selection process has been condemned as ‘unfair’ and ‘manipulated’ in various motions passed by branches and CLPs across Ealing, and submitted to Ealing Labour’s Local Campaign Forum (LCF) and Labour’s London Region office.
A senior source within Ealing Labour said:
Julian Bell is weak and weakened leader of Ealing Council, whose old-school efforts to control the councillors and paid positions on Council are at odds with a dynamic and increasingly democratic member base. We had a good result at the May local elections, with the hard work of grassroots members adding four Labour councillors to take us to a total 57 on Council. On Council itself, however, Bell’s cronyism and personal circumstances play into the hands of local Tories.
An Ealing Councillor who was at the Labour Group AGM said:
Julian told Labour Group that he would sort out his frankly immoral housing situation in 2014, after it was first exposed in the Mail on Sunday and he repeated that promise 18 months ago. He hasn’t. He lied.
For him not to relinquish the tenancy of a housing association property when he owns a five-bedroom house in a neighbouring street is unacceptable against the backdrop of a social housing and social care funding crisis. His judgement and integrity are in question and he is still compromising Labour Group.
The SKWAWKBOX contacted Julian Bell for comment and provided the full text of the complaints against him. Labour group chief whip Yoel Gordon responded on his behalf, saying:
Julian Bell has overseen three record-breaking elections in his time as Leader of the Labour Group. We now have more seats in Ealing than at any time in our history.
The Labour Group re-elected him with over 60% of the vote, not dissimilar to Jeremy Corbyn’s own leadership landslide. Moreover, the AGM endorsed every single one of Julian’s appointments.
These comments are clearly ill-informed as none of the topics mentioned by Ealing Labour for Corbyn were referred to at the AGM at all.
Julian has made it clear repeatedly at Group meetings and across the Borough Party that he seeks to build a broad church. It’s worth remembering that he is John McDonnell’s former Agent and he invited the Shadow Chancellor to be involved in our local manifesto process as part of this ongoing commitment.
In contrast to this anonymous internal party sniping, Julian made clear in his speech to Group that he intends to focus on uniting the party to fight the Tories, get Jeremy into 10 Downing Street and working to do all we can to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
Ealing is not the only borough with issues concerning the housing arrangements of key figures. A centrist councillor in Greenwich is facing internal investigations and potentially police action concerning the possession of three homes allegedly owned but not declared in the register of interests until complaints were made, also while occupying a council property. Details on that situation will follow when available.
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