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I won’t miss the party’s factionalism, says council leader as he steps down

Race for the top job begins as Town Hall chief vows his political career has come to an end

26 February, 2021 — By Calum Fraser

Cllr Richard Watts has been Islington Council leader for the past eight years

ISLINGTON’S council leader has said he would rather “eat his own foot” than seek to become an MP, after he announced he would be stepping down from the top job at the Town Hall.

While the role has been a stepping stone to parliament in many local authorities, Cllr Richard Watts – the leader for the past eight years – said he could be counted out of any future speculation. Some of his Labour Party colleagues, naturally, do not believe him.

He said that he did not have a new job lined up but had a mortgage to pay and hoped not to be out of work for long.

“I have no interest in standing for parliament and this is the end of my elective political career,” he told the Tribune.

“I have done the best job in politics, which is leader of Islington Council, everything else would be a step-down. In fact, I would rather eat my own foot than become an MP.”

Asked why he was being so adamant, he said: “Increasingly it is not the process of the politics I enjoy but the actual stuff done for people which you can do at a local level. It’s far harder at a national level.”

One fellow councillor said that Cllr Watts would have been more suited to the chief executive role, which is apolitical. When the Tribune put this to the Labour leader, he said: “Yes, I think that’s probably true. I think that’s where my skills are, trying to get stuff done. I don’t enjoy political posturing and point-scoring and I don’t like factional politics. I find that boring and off-putting.”

His time as leader, however, has coincided with much party infighting nationally – often over the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn; fierce battles over the Islington North MP’s suspension last year rage on.

“You can’t always please everyone,” Cllr Watts said. “But I have always got on with people from a broad spectrum of views on the basis that if they want to do the right thing I’ll work with them.”

A cuddle from Arsenal mascot Gunnersaurus after a cup parade in 2015

The 45-year-old grew up in Nottingham. His father was a vicar before becoming a local council officer and his mother was a teacher. As a boy, he went to school with “coal, not dole” stickers as a protest against then Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s battle with mining unions.

After a brief stint working in a tights factory during his gap year, he studied politics at Durham University.

In 1998, he took a role in the Campaigns Office for the Labour Party and moved to Finsbury Park where he even­tually settled with his wife, who works as a civil servant.

He went up against the likes of former govern­ment aide and fellow Islington resident Dominic Cummings when he worked for Britain in Europe campaigning to get Britain to join the Euro between 1999 and 2003.

In the early 2000s the Labour Group in Islington was licking its wounds after two crushing defeats to the Liberal Democrats and Cllr Watts was part of a group that overhauled the local party and turned it back into an election-winning machine.

This group included Corbyn, Islington South MP Emily Thornberry, former Holloway ward councillor Paul Smith, former council leader and now Hornsey and Wood Green MP Catherine West, former councillor and now Ealing North MP James Murray and Caledonian ward councillor Paul Convery.

He took over from Ms West in 2013 and in the last local election in 2018, Labour won all but one seat on the council. Opponents warned the dominance made Islington similar to North Korea – with no opposition.

He saw the funny side of a famous, and slightly controversial, front page of the Islington Tribune which mocked up Cllr Watts as Kim Jong-Un and had it framed for his office wall.

The front page that Cllr Watts framed for his Town Hall

In a letter to the Labour Group chairman announ­cing his resignation on Monday, Cllr Watts spelt out the achievements he felt he was most proud of, including universal free-school meals and building hundreds of council homes.

But he wished there had been a Labour government during his tenure.

He said: “We are seeing more opposition to new council house building schemes. In 2010 we ran the Fairness Commission and for the two bits of Islington, the ‘haves and the have nots’ for want of a better phrase, there is very little understanding of the life the other leads.”

He added: “The biggest threat to Labour in Islington is a growing inequality. Quite a lot of our leafier areas are growing even leafier and the residents moving in are less inclined to vote Labour.”

In his resignation letter, he wrote: “I have found the challenges of the pandemic intense and, at points, draining,” adding: “Throughout the pandemic, I have been fortunate to spend more time with my family and as my children grow up, I do not want to miss out on more time with them, due to the pressures that come with leading a council.”

Who’s next to wear the crown?

THE race to become the next leader of Islington Council has started with the rules for the nomination process expected to be laid out next week.

Councillors’ phones have, however, already started pinging with messages, as potential successors weigh up their chances.

Housing chief Cllr Diarmaid Ward and deputy leader Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz are among the favourites to put their hats in the ring, while former finance chief Cllr Andy Hull and “economic development” cabinet member Cllr Asima Shaikh are also tipped to be in the running.

Cllr Michelline Ngongo, who temporarily holds the children and education brief, and crime chief Cllr Sue Lukes are considered to be possible outside bets in the process.

Both are known to have close links to Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn who maintains a strong influence on Labour politics in the borough.

The names of Cllr Sheila Chapman and Cllr Sara Hyde frequently popped up in the Tribune’s conversations with Labour insiders, but it is believed that as they both hail from similar political ends of the spectrum, only one will potentially stand.

Another name that has been mentioned is executive member for community development Cllr Una O’Halloran.

The next leader will be elected at a meeting of the Labour Group in May and she or he will then nominate the councillors they intend to fill the various executive roles.

It will all then be rubber-stamped at a full council meeting that same month.

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