The UK’s first hijab-wearing mayor is threatening legal action against Labour after she quit the party citing racism, HuffPost UK can reveal.
Rakhia Ismail announced she was resigning after her year-long stint as Islington mayor ended last month. Writing on Twitter at the time, she described her move as an “escape” from the “oppression” of Islington Council leader Richard Watts and the “discriminatory behaviour” of some councillors.
Somalia-born Ismail, who had been a Labour councillor for eight years and now represents Holloway ward as an independent, told HuffPost UK she was pursuing a legal claim against the “dysfunctional” Labour leadership team at the council.
She is also calling for their resignation and says she was “shouted” at by a colleague for raising awareness of a knife crime issue in her area.
“I feel that they marginalised me – my voice and concerns as a Black, Muslim woman weren’t taken into consideration at any point,” she said.
“By speaking out, I want to let members of the public know what’s going on. Labour members also need to know this and scrutinise their own members. People need to be tried and tested. There should be accountability in every level, and no one should be mistreated at all.
“Above all, the leadership of Islington Council need to resign.”
Islington Labour said it was “committed to making the borough a fairer and more equal place to live” and that it had a “long history of fighting racism in all its forms”.
A spokesperson told HuffPost UK the allegations made by Ismail had been investigated and dealt with.
Following Ismail’s departure, Labour has 45 out of 48 seats on the council. She stressed her issue is with Cllr Watts and his executive team, not all councillors or the council as a whole.
She added: “The more we speak up – the more we make the change and people will realise and then all the unconscious bias will be dealt with. But if we keep quiet then we are actually supporting discrimination; that’s my view. With the Black Lives Matter movement currently ongoing, we all need show responsibility.”
It was around 2015 that Ismail “sussed that something wasn’t right” in her party – the problems ranged from being reduced to tears when told to be quiet in a white-majority group meeting to being shouted at by a colleague for flagging the issue of knife crime in the area to journalists.
The issue continues to blight the lives of many local residents in the area and Ismail is regularly contacted by worried mothers appealing for help – but the offended colleague accused her of “tarnishing” the area’s reputation.
Ismail raised a grievance about the incident to Labour management – but over a year later it remains unaddressed. Islington Labour said all grievances that were raised have been settled.
“This has been brewing for five years flat,” she continued. “Being the first female Somali to become a mayor, I just didn’t feel like I wanted to walk out at the first hurdle. I told myself: ‘Be patient’ and that things will change. But after five years flat I don’t think anything is going to change without speaking up.
“There are times when I’d take the longest route to walk home after a Labour group meeting to calm down and clear my head, as I don’t want my children and husband to see me unhappy.”
In February 2019, Ismail received an invite to Labour’s first national women’s conference. On it, beneath her address, was printed the word: “Somalia”. This came as a horrible shock to her.
“When I received the letter, I thought. ‘A: I’m a British subject. B: What does my postcode got to do with Somalia?’ Am I not welcome here? This clearly shows discrimination,” she said.
Ismail also claimed that Islamophobia among some colleagues was behind the decision by the council not to organise an event to mark the Muslim festival of Eid in 2019. Cllr Watts said at the time that a proposed park celebration didn’t take place due to community organisers failing to submit paperwork, such as food hygiene certification, on time.
An Islington Labour spokesperson said the party was “deeply saddened” by Ismail’s resignation.
They told HuffPost UK: “Rakhia has served our borough and the wider community admirably, both as mayor and as a councillor.
“While we are saddened that Rakhia has taken such a step, the allegations she has made were not pertaining to new or recent events. They had already been investigated and resolved in line with party procedures.
“Cllr Ismail attended a number of meetings as part of this process and many steps were made to support her in her role as a Labour councillor.
“We are sincerely sad that Cllr Ismail felt she was unable to continue as a Labour councillor despite resolution being reached.
“Islington Labour is committed to making the borough a fairer and more equal place to live, and we are proud of our long history of fighting racism in all its forms.”
During an interview with LBC on Tuesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer promised to meet Ismail, who had been a Labour member for more than 12 years before leaving the party.
“If Rakhia feels that notwithstanding all of that she has not been heard in this, then what I would say back to her on-air is I’ll meet her and talk it through with her,” he said.
Responding to this, Ismail told HuffPost UK: “I can’t say I’d meet with Keir Starmer; I’ve already left the party. I have to consider that... but it was very positive of him to say that.”
The Labour leader said in the interview that he has worked closely with the Somali community, both locally and nationally, and “listens a lot”.
However Ismail, who is vice-chair of the Labour Somali network, suggests his comments couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Keir Starmer is not interested in listening to people like me. I have contacted his officer after the leadership election and nothing has ever come back to me. I wanted to meet him. (...) I wanted to talk about numerous issues – not just to do with Somali communities,” she explained.
“I work with everyone and I also see constantly that the white working class are left behind, for example; so many communities are. I’m also a member of a large network of councillors and members of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) activists and so many are annoyed because Starmer is not meeting them, he’s not listening to them. Some feel that the party is not actually democratic.”
This comes after HuffPost UK published a two-part investigation which revealed that Labour is losing Black members over anti-Black racism allegations. Shortly after, Starmer appealed to Black voters not to leave the party and then thousands of party activists backed an open letter citing BAME voters’ “loss of trust” in Labour.
Ismail herself read our exposé and said it resonated with her.
“I found it really interesting; I’ve suffered similar things. Clearly there is racism and Islamophobia given [the HuffPost UK report] on it, as well as my own experiences. What is Labour going to do and what actions have been taken since the exposé and arrival of new party leadership?,” she asked.
“In a big establishment, you will find problems but you need to really zoom in and make a commitment to tackle important issues. It needs to be addressed inclusively and those within the party who are marginalised need to be supported. Why did it take me resigning for my people to be prepared to listen to me, for my voice to be heard?
“Labour is making the same mistakes as the last leadership and being very tribal; that’s not how to run a party.”
A spokesperson for the Labour Party said: “We regret Cllr Ismail’s resignation, especially coming so soon after her term as mayor of Islington, having served the borough admirably through an incredibly challenging time.
“Islington Labour has a diverse and talented group of councillors serving their community. The Labour Party takes all allegations of discrimination extremely seriously, which are fully investigated in line with our rules and procedures.”