Sadly, not the setup to a hilarious joke, but one of the most depressing questions in Medway politics for years now.
The whole sorry saga begins in January 2013, at a full Medway Council meeting where the Labour group put forward a motion in favour of equal marriage, as was topical at the time. When it came time for the vote, Labour Strood South councillor Isaac Igwe got up from his seat, and proceeded to go to the toilet, only returning once the vote was completed.
Inevitably, a number of questions were asked about the behaviour of then councillor Igwe at the time. It’s not entirely unheard of for someone to hold personal views that would make it difficult to support such a motion, yet when challenged on his position, Igwe flatly refused to answer any questions on the subject. This led to an absurd scenario where he was asked, again and again, for months while continuing to refuse, which could have been wholly avoided had he just explained his position at the time.
Igwe lost his seat on Medway Council in May 2015, when he managed to fall from 2nd to 8th place in his Strood South seat. In theory, this should have been the end of the matter. Once out of public office, the questions would stop, leaving us to never truly know where he stood.
At least, it was until a vacancy became available in Strood South, following the resignation of UKIP councillor Catriona Brown-Reckless. A slightly bizarre selection process for Labour began, involving six candidates, some odd infighting, and very few actual members, and the last minute result was Igwe fighting the seat for Labour once again.
Inevitably, this has again thrust his position on equal marriage into the public eye. Questions again began, which were again refused. Questions were put to other Labour councillors, usually champions of equal rights, who again refused to comment. The whole issue has dominated a bizarre campaign, one not helped by the frankly bizarre tweets appearing from Igwe’s Twitter account, clearly not written by the man himself. Much of the wider campaign from Medway Labour has also left itself open to ridicule.
Despite the wall of silence being put up by the Labour councillors, we’ve been hearing more and more discontent from local activists and members within the party over his selection. One member told us that Igwe had told a friend that he considered being gay ‘an affliction’, some complained that he refused to tell them whether he supports equal rights, and others flatly refused to take part in his campaign. The most damning came from one activist who wished to remain anonymous, and we have published their complete comments below:
As a Labour Party member and activist of many years and, more significantly, a member from Strood, I am deeply concerned to see my party put forward Isaac Igwe as it’s candidate in the Strood South by-election.
As a Councillor, Mr Igwe hid in the toilet at the time of a vote – which Labour called – urging the Council to support Equal Marriage. Since then, despite many attempts to ask him to do so, Mr Igwe has never clarified his position publicly.
The Labour Party is the champion of equality and I am ashamed to see my party stand by a man who appears to be both a bigot and a coward. If Mr Igwe opposes equal marriage then he should say so and the party should not accept him as it’s candidate. If he support equal marriage then he should say so. What I find most alarming is his – and the party’s – public silence on the matter.
For some time now, I, amongst others, have sought to confront Mr Igwe about his views. He has publicly failed to do so. However, I was enlightened in a recent private discussion with him to find that he ‘was happy to spend time with gay people through work and in his personal life’ but that he ‘was not entirely comfortable’ with equal marriage. My suspicions of Mr Igwe being a bigot were confirmed and his failure to declare his position publicly confirms him to be a coward as well. That the Labour Party would chose to endorse a candidate with such views is abhorrent. I am in no doubt that other figures within the party as aware of Mr Igwe’s views but I am appalled by the failure of figures to respond to questions about Mr Igwe’s views. The wall of silence is appalling but should not be surprising. Cllr Vince Maple, Cllr Teresa Murray and Cllr Tristan Osborne appear comfortable in ‘ignoring’ the matter and I am aware that they have encouraged activists to do so. I am disgusted in the behaviour of my party and it’s local leaders. What are we if we are not the party of equality? I will not be supporting Mr Igwe in this by-election because I refuse to support a bigoted coward. I would urge all other members, activists and voters to examine their consciences before they do.
It seems baffling that Labour would select a candidate that would be so controversial even within it’s own party, and it’s even more baffling because it’s so unnecessary. Igwe should have come clear long before now to set the record straight on where he stands on this issue, so both his party and the electorate can make an informed decision about him and his views.
Many councillors voted against the Labour motion in favour of equal marriage in 2013, and several abstained. The difference with Igwe is the manner in which he did so. If you don’t want to vote on something, then don’t vote on something. Just don’t run off and hide in the toilet in the hope that no one will notice.
Whether or not we’ll ever get an answer on where Igwe stands is questionable. If he loses the by-election on Thursday, this won’t come up again, unless he seeks public office again in the future. If by some miracle he wins though, we fear this sorry saga will drag on and on and on.
Following the resignation of UKIP councillor Catriona Brown-Reckless, the battle to replace her in Strood South is underway. With the by-election being held on 20 October, less than four weeks away, we’ve put together this handy roundup of the six candidates for the seat.
Conservatives – Josie Iles The first of two former Strood South councillors trying to win the seat back, Josie Iles represented the ward between 2011 and 2015, when she narrowly lost her seat to UKIP. Josie is a former mayor of Medway, and has lived in the Strood South ward for 30 years. She voted leave in the EU referendum, and while it’s unclear exactly what platforms she’ll be standing on, she’s off to a great start in the ‘having serious photos taken in front of things’ competition.
English Democrats – Mike Russell
The English Democrats continue their slow march on Medway, as once again Mike Russell is standing for the party. Mike has stood for Medway Council several times in the past, has campaigned to be the MP for Chatham and Aylesford, and even had a run at the European Parliament. This campaign is likely to be about as successful as all of those.
Green Party – Steve Dyke Steve Dyke is the current leader of the Medway Green Party, and unsuccessfully stood for election in Strood North in 2015. Steve has lived in Strood for 50 years, and intends to run on a platform based around sustainable housing, transport improvements, and the environment. You can follow him on Twitter.
Labour – Isaac Igwe The second former Strood South councillor trying to win his seat back is Isaac Igwe, who represented the ward between 2011 and 2015. Despite coming 2nd in the ward in 2011, he dropped to 8th in 2015. Given Labour only selected him at the last possible minute, it’s unclear what he intends to campaign on. Notably, in 2013, Isaac once fled a council meeting and hid in a toilet to avoid having to cast a vote in favour of equal marriage. You can follow him on Twitter.
Liberal Democrats – Isabelle Cherry By far the youngest candidate in the by-election, the Lib Dems have put forward Isabelle Cherry. Isabelle has lived in Medway all of her life, and is currently studying for her A-levels. Isabelle intends to run a campaign based around improving schools and public transport, and reducing litter. You can follow her on Twitter.
UKIP – Karl Weller Despite currently holding the seat, UKIP have put forward an unfamiliar face in Karl Weller. Karl has lived in the ward for 18 years, and beyond that, we know pretty much nothing about him. You can follow him on Twitter.
Return of the Igwe
After leaving their selection for the Strood South by-election to the last possible moment, Medway Labour picked former councillor in the ward, Isaac Igwe to contest the seat. Thanks to the archaic way Labour selects it’s candidates, it was left in the bizarre position of having six candidates, and barely more than that many members making the choice. Igwe is a curious choice though, not supported by the new left of the party, and plenty of others uncomfortable with his views on social issues like equal marriage.
Greens recycle candidate
The Green Party also selected their candidate for the Strood South by-election this week, announcing that local party leader Steve Dyke will fight the battle. The Greens didn’t stand in Strood South in 2015 (Dyke stood in Strood North), so the fact they’re putting forward a candidate indicates some improvement in local organisation.
Proving that Labour aren’t the only party wrapping themselves up in petty infighting, there seems to be a kerfuffle within UKIP locally over their Strood South candidate selection. Karl Weller announced himself as the candidate some time ago, while former local chairman Chris Spalding claimed no selection process had been followed and announced he also wanted to be the candidate. As it stands, Weller remains the candidate, but it seems unlikely the local party divisions will be healed anytime soon.
Huge news this week for the structure of Medway politics, as Medway TUSC announced that they will no longer field candidates against Labour. Aside from leaving a question of exactly what the point of a political party that doesn’t field candidates is, one has to wonder how much impact this will have on the upcoming Strood South and Rainham Central by-elections. Given they got a combined vote of about 300 in both seats, it would seem very little is the most likely.
Brace yourself, it’s good news from Kelly Tolhurst
It’s not often we write something positive about Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst, but she’s putting forward a Private Member’s Bill that seems to be doing something genuinely positive. She’ll be moving a bill in Parliament that will enshrine a 12 months ‘breathing space’ window for those in debt to be able to get themselves back on their feet. You can find out more about the bill here.
An interesting story that hasn’t received a large amount of attention about how Medway and Gravesham Council have combined their audit services to save £230,000 between the two councils. This kind of thing is seemingly becoming more common, and when savings of that scale can be made relatively easily, I expect we’ll be covering plenty more such changes in the future.
Reviewing the Boundary Review
On Tuesday, the Boundary Commission for England unveiled their proposed new constituency boundaries. There were no huge changes for Medway, but a fair number of little ones. Higham will be brought into the Rochester and Strood constituency, Lordswood and Capstone will move to Gillingham and Rainham, and Chatham and Aylesford is set to become Chatham and the Mallings. The proposed boundaries are now subject to a lengthy consultation period, so it’ll be next year before we hear any final plans.
In a rare bout of organisation, the Medway Lib Dems managed to be the first party to select their candidate for the Strood South by-election. In an even more unusual step, they’ve selected a new – and young – candidate, 18 year old activist Isabelle Cherry. Cherry’s campaign will apparently focus on issues like school improvement, litter, and public transport, so all fairly safe, but at the least the Medway Lib Dems are putting up a fight once again.
Return of the Iles
In perhaps the least surprising Strood South selection, the Conservatives have selected Josie Iles as their candidate for the Strood South by-election. Iles is a former mayor of Medway, and was the Councillor for Strood South up until losing her seat to UKIP last year. Going into the election, she remains the odds on favourite to retake the seat.
Other Strood South candidates Not much else to report on the Strood South by-election front, despite the fact that the election is a mere 31 days until the election takes place. UKIP have two candidates to choose between (one being former local chairman Chris Spalding), Medway Labour have about 800 people putting themselves forward, and the Greens apparently have a candidate, but are busy filling out the paperwork to announce who it is.
Councillor allowances As per their legal obligations, Medway Council recently published the details of councillor allowances paid for 2015-2016. The small problem with this is that they seemingly did a horrifically sloppy job with it, as Medway blogger Alan Collins covered in forensic detail. The sheer number of errors in the document raises serious concerns about the openness and transparency of Medway Council.
Following last week’s sad passing of Councillor Mike O’Brien, a necessary reshuffle took this week within the Cabinet. Councillor Andrew Mackness will take over O’Brien’s education portfolio, with new Councillor Martin Potter taking on the new portfolio of educational improvement. The former corporate services portfolio of Councillor Mackness will be split amongst several other Cabinet members.
Medway Council is set for it’s first by-election in several years, following the resignation of Cllr Catriona Brown-Reckless.
Cllr Brown-Reckless was elected to represent Strood South as a UKIP councillor last year, and was deputy leader of the UKIP group on the council.
As such, a by-election will now need to be held to fill the vacancy in the ward, on a date to be decided in the near future.
It also means that the UKIP group on Medway Council has now been reduced from 4 to 2 since their election last year, with Cllr Brown-Reckless’ resignation following Cllr Joy’s decision to sit as an independent.
Strood South has been a split ward for some time now, with Conservative, Labour, and UKIP councillors all representing the ward in recent years, so a fierce by-election battle looks likely for the vacant seat.
This isn’t about preferences which would have shown Medway sending a rainbow coalition of Green, Lib Dems and TUSC to Gun Wharf (again, no it wouldn’t – Ed), but rather based on our misunderstanding of numbers and how vote swings work. Also we understand that every party is working to win every seat, and every seat is(nt) a target. Also, anything is possible. But..
The first thing you discover when you look at the numbers is how many of the wards are held with relatively large majorities, large enough so as to make you question wether the wards are even in contest. Some contests there are though, and between a potential drop in Conservative and Lib Dem vote as well as an increase in Labour and UKIP vote means there are predicted changes. This will lead to the council being under No Overall Control, which I think will be a good thing for Medway after years of single party cabinet control and a lack of scrutiny. The two main groups will have an almost similar number of wards meaning co-operation is essential.
Wards Cuxton and Halling: Whilst I am predicting a Conservative hold, Monck, who is a parish councillor for UKIP is a big question mark. One to watch for 2019! Gillingham North: Whilst I think this will be an easy hold for Labour, the interest is an alternate universe where in 2011 Stamp and Cooper stood and won as Labour, rather then Independents before changing. In this universe Khan stood in Gillingham South in 2011 and won, leading to a different Labour candidate in the Rochester By-Election and a different 2015 campaign. Gillingham South: Back in this Universe 2 of the 3 current councillors are not standing for reelection. A busy polling card, will see Lib Dems reduced to one councillor, and I wouldn’t put money on that being Goeff Juby! 2 Labour Councillors, 1 of which you would expect to be Khan. A telling ward for the development of the smaller parties. Luton and Wayfield: This could have been a Labour seat loss but I think Osborne will gain a #GE2015 recognition bounce which will see him through to 2019. Peninsula: I was preparing to predict 2 UKIP councillors returned by the Penisula word, but with Irvine not standing in the ward, I think it is a big ask for two new UKIP candidates. Princes Park: Seems a site for an actual contest. Current Councillor Pat Gulvin not standing for the seat currently held, adds to the interest in this ward and a seat changing to Labour. Rainham North: Hewett’s choice to join UKIP is an interesting one, especially as it’s not with support of the seemingly better organised Rochester & Strood UKIP. Will it lead to UKIP taking the ward? Or Labour taking the seat? No. River: With Mackinley standing in South Thanet and Mackness, who had the smaller majority in 2011, busy deselecting Conservative councillors in Rochester & Strood, Labour must feel River is for the taking. With better candidates it might have been. UKIP to do well, but not well enough. Rochester East: To turn half purple! This is based on no rational look at the numbers. Only that the UKIP group leader has given up the Penisula seat he won with a healthy majority for a strong Labour ward. There MUST be something we don’t know otherwise the UKIP group are in serious trouble. Rochester West: I am going to predict a labour seat gain here, but I think Tolhurst will win a #GE2015 bounce which will keep her safe until 2019. Strood North: The two councillors contesting their seats, leaving a battle for the third seat. I’m going to say the UKIP surge won’t get them a seat, and Labour will win it. Strood Rural: UKIP are working well in Rochester & Strood and this will lead to seats being held here, and if Mason does hold his seat that will be embarrassing for the Conservatives who deselected him. Strood South: Had a low turnout in 2011, an increased turnout from the General Election, and a UKIP surge mixed with a Reckless bounce, means I am predicting a three way split of seats. Walderslade: Had a large poll card in 2011, and this isn’t the case in 2015 which will change the outcome to a Labour seat gain. Watling: This will be a very close battle, Smith will see her majority reduced by the collapse of the Medway Liberal Democrat vote, but will hold on. Chaplin will have a #GE2015 bounce but not enough to min a council seat. The battle for the second seat will see a Labour win.
I think it’s generally accepted now that Medway Council will be under No Overall Control following this election, it’s just the exact make-up that is up for debate. My numbers are perhaps more pessimistic for the establishment parties, with the Conservatives losing 8 seats, but Labour only being able to pick up 3. This does lead to UKIP being the main beneficiaries. While their poll numbers have slipped in recent days, they have built a good infrastructure in Medway, and relatively easily topped the Euro elections in May and the Rochester by-election in November. The problem is exactly where these predictions leave us. It’s difficult to imagine either the Conservatives or Labour working with UKIP in Medway, meaning the only viable route to a council that can get anything done is a ‘grand coalition’ of the Conservatives and Labour. If the parties do decide to go down this route, there will certainly be interesting times ahead.
Wards Cuxton and Halling: This is a tough one to call, but a combination of the incumbent Conservative councillor standing down, along with the local popularity of UKIP candidate Paul Monck means that I think he can just about pull it off. Gillingham South: Labour are throwing the kitchen sink at Gillingham South, as it’s a ward they need to even come close to taking control of the council. They almost managed it in 2011, but if the Lib Dems are ruthless enough in their campaigning, Juby’s name recognition should be enough to help him hang on, but I definitely wouldn’t put any money on it. Peninsula: Peninsula appears to be very fertile ground for UKIP, with them handily winning the by-election there in November. That said, their most recognisable candidate, Chris Irvine, is attempting to move wards, so they face a slightly tougher battle here, but they should at least be able to defeat the two new Conservative faces. Princes Park: A curious ward where both sitting councillors are standing down, with both Conservatives and Labour putting forward serious candidates. I’d be inclined to say Labour can take both seats, but the Conservatives are putting forward respected former councillor Tashi Bhutia, a split ward appears to be looming. Rainham North: The wildcard here is Vaughan Hewett’s defection to UKIP. Traditionally a safe Conservative ward, the question is whether his name alone will be able to see him through. I think it will, but it’s not entirely out of the question that the ward will turn completely blue again. Rochester East: The most baffling thing about this ward is the decision for Medway UKIP group leader Chris Irvine to stand here. This ward has been safely held by Labour for some time, so to give up a reasonably safe position in Peninsula to stand here is one hell of a gamble. Still, these things aren’t done lightly, so UKIP must be confident that they can win here. If not, the Medway UKIP group could well be thrown into chaos post-election. Rochester West: The Conservatives, Labour, and the Greens are all putting forward strong candidates here. Under normal conditions, this ward may well have been a strong contender to go red, but Kelly Tolhurst’s status as PPC, along with the Green’s Clive Gregory taking votes away from Labour, should be enough to see her home here. Strood Rural: The only ward that I’m predicting to go completely UKIP, almost wholly on the name recognition of sitting councillors Mason and Rodberg. They’ll face a tough fight, but they should be able to pull off the clean seat sweep. Strood South: An interesting one that the Conservatives, Labour, and UKIP are all fighting. The national winds should see Labour pick up a second seat here, and there’s a chance UKIP will come through and snag the third. The question though is which candidate will be able to pull it off? Walderslade: If Labour hadn’t spectacularly screwed up their candidate selection here, they might have been able to pull it off. But as they selected two candidates, both of which pulled out, leaving two late selections, they face an uphill battle here. Watling: I was originally going to predict the Lib Dems winning both seats here as a result of UKIP taking from the Conservative vote. UKIP have decided not to run here though, making the battle tougher for the Lib Dems. Sitting councillor Diana Smith is incredibly popular though, and combined with the name recognition of Gillingham PPC Paul Chaplin, if they are ruthless enough in their campaigning, they should just be able to pull it off.
Chatham Central (current: 3Labour) Keevil Prediction: 3 Labour
Jennings Prediction: 3 Labour