This is an extended version of an interview which appeared in the May 2022 edition of Newham Voices.
For the first time in 12 years, Newham’s Labour local councillors will have company. The Green Party came second across the east London borough at the May local elections, putting them ahead of the Conservatives, and won over 50 per cent of votes in the Stratford Olympic Park ward.
This breakthrough came as a surprise to many – not least to the two newly elected Green councillors, Nate Higgins and Danny Keeling – who thought this campaign would be more of an effort to prepare the ground for a potential win in 2026.
The crack that brought down Labour’s wall
“When we started out a year ago, we genuinely thought this was going to be a five-year process,” says Higgins. “Nobody in the team thought we’d come second across Newham, keep our deposit for the mayoral election, stand a full slate of candidates and get councillors elected” – all of which they managed to do. “There wasn’t a team” interjects Keeling. “There were only four of us!”
Danny Keeling has been chair of Newham Greens for four years. For much of that time, in part due to the pandemic, the local party has been in a quasi-dormant state. The newly established ward of Stratford Olympic Park provided an opportunity for a fresh start, which the Greens seized upon, first by a process of consultation with local residents. Their local survey results suggested an opportunity to break Labour’s grip. “It suggested we might have been overestimating the strength of the Labour Party in Newham,” explains Higgins, “We thought we were up against a brick wall – but it turned out to be a half-open door, and we booted it down.”
The campaigners sensed a strong disillusionment with the Labour Party. On the doorstep, Keeling says, “people said they never saw their councillors, they didn’t know what they were up to or even who they were sometimes […] I spoke to people who had problems with bins – emails went unanswered for weeks until just before the election. At the end of the day, we’re just talking about bins here – the easiest problem to solve!” they say, with some measure of disbelief (Keeling is the first openly non-binary member of the council, and uses they/them pronouns).
The perception of Labour from many residents they spoke to was one of an inward-looking party, too preoccupied with its own internal struggles to properly listen and respond to residents. Yet the two speak very highly of the Labour candidates they were up against and lay the blame firmly with the “labour machine” in Newham.
They are also keen to emphasise that their campaigning did not hinge on attacking Labour. “We didn’t spend our campaign talking about Labour, but about Nate and Danny, the work we want to do, and why being in the council chamber will allow us to do more for the people we want to represent.”
The councillors promise no negative or mud-slinging politics. “Good relations will be important for us to be able to do what we want to do,” says Higgins. “We don’t want a slanging match, we want to get things done.” – a turn of phrase which resonates with Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz’s pledge after Labour’s win that the new cabinet would “get stuff done”.
Despite being in a minority of two out of 66 councillors, the Greens see themselves as the ‘official opposition.’ “We’re Green councillors but we’re also the representatives of everyone who didn’t vote Labour in this election,” says Higgins, pointing out that 40 per cent of the votes in Newham went to parties other than Labour. “Over the next four years, we have the chance to prove that politics with an opposition is vastly better and more effective than without.”
For Higgins and Keeling, the damaging effects of the lack of diversity on the council are already plain to see, for instance in the recent closures of Stratford Circus, a cultural hub and arts centre, and Newham city farm, both of which were deemed to be beyond salvaging as a result of extended mismanagement, despite their importance and value to the community. The Green councillors argue that this deterioration was entirely avoidable. “When one party runs everything, there is nobody with the incentive to ask questions, so the council only gets involved when it’s too late to fix the problems,” explains Higgins.
Striking the balance between working constructively with Labour and taking a firm position as Greens is likely to throw up its fair share of dilemmas for the pair. For Keeling, the needs of residents come before any longer-term party considerations. “I’m a councillor first,” they say, “In the end, it’s about what residents want.”
But as Greens, they remain campaigners to the core. “Not every problem can be solved at the council level,” says Higgins “but people aren’t interested in local representatives saying ‘it’s nothing to do with me guv’.”
The pair regard their new positions as an important boost in terms of the resources it provides, the tables it allows them to sit at, and the people whose ears they will now have. But they are aware of the limitations they will face too. “Being a councillor doesn’t bring lots of prestige or money, the title just gives us a hi-vis jacket but it also gives us a toolbox we didn’t have before” says Keeling.
Higgins and Keeling clearly have very different personalities, temperaments, and communication styles – something which they feel has been an asset to their campaign. But aside from their politics, they share another point in common; both share a profound anger that can be summarised in a single word. “Austerity is such a small word for the huge harm it causes, especially to those most vulnerable, most reliant on government-run services,” says Higgins.
Both of the councillors come from deprived backgrounds, having watched their mothers struggle to make ends meet as children. For Higgins, this experience is what continues to drive his political work today. “I can see now how the choices that others were making affected my family,” he says. For Keeling, it is not a struggle they can put behind them yet. “I used a foodbank this week,” they explain. “All my bills have gone up and I’m on universal credit. I’m actively having to make choices about eating or heating.”
There is nothing abstract about the politics the two councillors aspire to bring to Newham, and their backgrounds give them an acute understanding of the crucial difference local politics can make to people’s lives. “Local politics isn’t sexy to your average Joe or Josephine,” says Keeling, “it’s bins, it’s papers, it’s planning permission […] people’s priorities are what is in front of them.” In Newham, the councillors will have their work cut out for them when it comes to improving life for residents. “Newham wins all these awards,” says Keeling with irony, “second worst for recycling rates in the whole of the UK, [worst] air quality, tree cover, poverty, homelessness – this council has outdone itself for all the wrong reasons.”
Green shoots in east London
The councillors are quick to dismiss any suggestion that the ward is an outlier, unrepresentative of the rest of the Borough in terms of its population and demographics. “That’s the story Labour would like it to be, and it would be really convenient to say that Stratford Olympic Park isn’t real Newham,” says Higgins, adding that the Green results in other parts of the Borough, such as Beckton, refute this hypothesis.
The Green Party also saw gains in neighbouring boroughs, including Hackney and Tower Hamlets for the first time, as well as elsewhere in London. Higgins attributes these wins to “a quiet revolution in the Green Party in terms of our electoral professionalism and how we work together” as well as a “huge growth in our ambition in London thanks to the local party taking seriously the idea that we can actually win elections.”
As a result of these gains, the councillors will have a broader network on which to draw for support and advice during their mandate. “This network already exists and we wouldn’t be here without it,” says Higgins. “It’s through those internal conversations that create the organisation and the movement itself,” adds Keeling. “Without it, we’d just be a load of people shouting at brick walls in our own houses – which is how a lot of people feel – that’s there’s no support, no voice for them.”
The local party has seen membership increasing by 10 to 20 per cent in recent weeks, which the councillors regard as further proof of the attractiveness of the Green alternative. Besides bringing about lasting change in Newham’s politics, they hope to nurture this growth by getting Greens elected in other boroughs of the capital in the future.
The councillors are adamant that they will continue to defend their positions on social justice issues just as strongly as before their election. “We won’t communicate differently or water things down,” says Keeling. “That’s why I’m a Green, I don’t need to settle for half of human rights, I want full equality.” Higgins adds: “We want to be on the side of the most vulnerable in society and tell the truth. No one could accuse the Greens of being afraid to tell the truth.”
This unwavering commitment to principles and values, combined with a determination to do everything possible to make a tangible difference to people’s lives, is what may make all the difference and help Newham’s new Green opposition stand out. As Keeling sums up: “We want to project an idealist world that would work”.