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Fair game or one-party state? Battle lines drawn as Labour – and Jeremy Corbyn – target Greens in Highbury East

PUBLISHED: 09:00 09 February 2018 | UPDATED: 19:31 09 February 2018

Jeremy Corbyn canvasses with Highbury East Labour members including sitting Cllr Osh Gantly (front, centre). Picture: Alastair Harper

Jeremy Corbyn canvasses with Highbury East Labour members including sitting Cllr Osh Gantly (front, centre). Picture: Alastair Harper

Archant

Caroline Russell beat her nearest challenger by just eight votes in the 2014 council election, but it was enough to win her Islington’s only non-Labour seat. So the sight of Jeremy Corbyn canvassing for the ruling party on Sunday was almost too much to stomach for some of her supporters. The Gazette asks: fair game or one-party state?

Emma Dixon, the 2010 Green candidate for Islington North, appeared to be seething.

Highbury East Cllr Osh Gantly tweeted a picture of Labour members canvassing in Highbury East – with none other than Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader and Islington North MP of 35 years.

It just so happens Highbury East is the one Islington ward where a non-Labour candidate (Cllr Caroline Russell, Green) managed to win a seat in the 2014 local elections. So, for the past four years, she has been the sole opposition to 47 Labour councillors.

Ms Dixon tweeted back: “What Jeremy Corbyn and his constituency party want more than anything else is to get rid of something they hate. Opposition.

“In particular, opposition which stands up for what it believes in. Principled opposition. Passionate, hard working opposition.

“So, Jezza and that big crowd of red-rosette wearing activists you saw at the beginning of this thread are out in force to defeat the evil of... THE LONE GREEN COUNCILLOR.”

Ms Dixon accused Mr Corbyn, who beat her by 22,928 votes in the 2010 general election, of having the wrong priorities. Labour supporters, meanwhile, felt obliged to point out the basic fact: “They are trying to win an election they’re contesting.”

With just three months to go before the 2018 local elections, you can bet Labour will be doing everything it can to oust Cllr Russell and win 100 per cent of the seats. The Gazette spoke to Cllr Russell and Labour town hall leader Cllr Richard Watts for their take.

In the green corner: Cllr Caroline Russell

Cllr Caroline Russell canvassing in Calabria Road, Highbury, during last year's General Election. Picture: James MorrisCllr Caroline Russell canvassing in Calabria Road, Highbury, during last year's General Election. Picture: James Morris

First things first. Cllr Russell makes one thing clear: “Jeremy has every right to be door knocking in Highbury East. No one should say Jeremy Corbyn shouldn’t canvass in his constituency. That’s ludicrous.

“It was actually a funny moment. I bumped into Osh and went over to say hello to the Labour canvassers, wishing them luck getting rid of me! All’s fair in local politics.”

But Cllr Russell, who stood against Mr Corbyn in the 2015 and 2017 general elections, added: “We’ve had occasions, without Jeremy present, where the whole of Islington Labour has come to canvass in Highbury East. I don’t think they would do that in any other ward.

“Obviously they would love to take the whole of Islington. That’s politics. What I would say is that it’s very important to have opposition.

“Councils aren’t made for super majorities. Most Labour councillors, while not wanting to lose their seats, get that opposition is a good thing.

“I have tried not to be tribal, and have supported Labour on policies I agree with, but when stuff goes wrong, I am going to call it out.”

She concludes: “It’s a question of priorities. They don’t need my seat to control Islington. You could place a very safe bet Islington Council will continue to be run by Labour after the elections. But I think more Green councillors can make Labour better.”

In the red corner: Cllr Richard Watts

Cllr Watts regularly clashes with de facto opposition leader Cllr Russell. But he agrees with her on one thing.

Cllr Richard Watts has led Islington's Labour council since October 2013, and was originally elected in 2006. Picture: Catherine DavisonCllr Richard Watts has led Islington's Labour council since October 2013, and was originally elected in 2006. Picture: Catherine Davison

“Jeremy Corbyn,” he laughs, “should be talking to his constituents. He’s been a fantastic MP for many years going out and talking to them. It’s ludicrous to suggest anything else.”

On targeting Highbury East, the council leader since 2013 said: “Every political party – Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and Greens – will fight for every seat but it’s up to the electorate. We are taking nothing for granted.

“As a party, we have campaigned like we did in Highbury East in wards across the borough. Who gets the 48 seats isn’t a point for us to discuss.”

Asked about Cllr Russell’s claim that Labour needs a strong opposition, Cllr Watts said: “Islington has always had a vibrant political culture. Whoever is in control will always have civic groups, TRAs and trade unions holding them to account as well.”

What’s your take? Email gazette.letters@archant.co.uk to have your say.

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