Rokhsana Fiaz is an EastEnder, through and through.
Born in Mile End Hospital, she grew up in Newham and has lived there for most of her life. She worked in a local McDonalds, went to school and college not far from her current home.
No stranger to challenges throughout her career, she has now embarked on her biggest political task of all: replacing the UK’s longest serving Mayor, Sir Robin Wales, as the leader of the East End borough.
“I want to do it because I absolutely love Newham. It’s the place I obviously call home. I’ve grown up there, lived there all my life.”
Known as ‘Roks’ to her friends, she has been a councillor for Custom House ward for four years. But her frustration with the state of her local area – and of the council - has led her to seek the top job.
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“My experience of local government leaves a lot to be desired, especially in Newham, where there’s a lot of ossified thinking,” she says.
Fiaz doesn’t directly name Wales, but she doesn’t need to. As the ‘change’ candidate in the Labour selection race, she makes clear her impatience with the status quo.
Since putting herself forward as the person to end Wales’ 23-year reign, the former media and charity worker is particularly sick of being told she lacks the ‘experience’ of her rival.
“This idea that you need someone with experience. You just have to sit there and question ‘OK, this experience of 23 years and £52m has just been squandered [on the London Stadium]’, I’m not sure that’s good experience.
“It’s a quite facile line to throw out. Local government still is resistant to people from different backgrounds. There’s a reluctance to see the range of skills and competency that someone can bring to the table, because they just don’t look like you, because they may not necessarily have served 23 years in a specific local authority.
“I don’t have 23 years of blankness on my CV. I’ve got 23 years of very much being on the front line, getting my hands dirty.
“I’ve set up my own company, employed and managed teams, won contracts with the EU, I’ve spoken at the State Department. I’ve got an OBE [for her work on race, faith and identity]. You don’t have those three letters after your name if you don’t have much experience.”
Sir Robin Wales is undoubtedly proud of his record on jobs and homes and services. But Fiaz says that while the headlines may look good, the reality for some in the borough is very different.
“If people can’t feel it in a palpable, tangible way you need to question how real that actually is.
“My experience is of being a councillor representing one of the most deprived wards in Newham, notwithstanding the great strides we have made.
“It would be nuts to ignore the impact of having an anchor institution like Westfield, or there are all these wider drivers pushing regeneration towards the east.
“But to say all that success is uniquely down to one individual begs some questions about your collaborative approach. And your willingness to accept great things come from working with other people.”
Fiaz says that when she first became a councillor in Custom House she was “horrified” because “here was a community that had largely been ignored”.
“It was an area where the council had essentially just managed decline. I was dealing with residents who were hostile, pessimistic, had lost hope, couldn’t even believe the possibility they had councillors who would stick up for them and fight their corner. And I just remember thinking to myself ‘this is not what Labour is about for me’.”
Within two years she says she secured a £1m estate regeneration programme, took on the outsourced private sector management of empty council homes and secured backing of the whole council. “What is the point of being in politics and calling yourself in Labour if you cannot change this? If I had my way I’d end the contract.”
Fiaz says her deep roots in the area are what connects her most to her constituents.
“I’ve always been motivated around issues of equality and social justice. As someone growing up in Newham in the 1970s where it was the rise of the National Front, those things really touch you as a child and you can’t ignore that.
“Very early on I considered myself to be a community activist and wanted to change the world for the better.”
Before she went on to set up a community engagement consultancy, one of her early jobs was for the northern TV company Granada, and it was an eye-opener.
“I remember my first foray into media at Granada, a kid from the depths of East London coming from a very diverse community entering this corporate sector where everyone was white. It was that moment where I understood issues around social mobility, where because of your class or background you’re moulded.”
At this point, she can’t resist a comparison between her own experience of racial diversity and that of Wales, a Scot who grew up in Ayrshire before moving down to London.
“Individuals that come from a very narrow, monocultural space…I understand he grew up in Scotland. I’m not quite sure what the ethnic mix back in the day was. It wouldn’t have been half as diverse as what it was like for me growing up in Newham,” she says.
“So, I don’t find that mindset or that view in terms of entitlement surprising, I just think it’s a bit sad.”
East Ham’s local Labour party has been effectively suspended since early last year after allegations of irregularities.
But she can’t hide her anger at the Newham Mayor’s recent remark that ‘community politics’ was partly behind multiple sign-ups of Labour members opposed to him.
“I think ‘community politics’ is a really lazy attempt by some individuals to play pretty appalling dog-whistle politics. It’s disgusting.
“It’s too easy to create bogeymen and monsters and it’s irresponsible for any public figure to use that kind of language, given we live in an age of heightened racism, Islamophobia and polarisation. I think we should be doing as much as we can in terms of building bridges.”
“As a woman of colour, I have witnessed and I have experienced the way in which race politics is played to benefit existing hegemonies. For me there’s something fundamentally important about doing ethical politics.
“You can have different ideas on policy, but I would not tolerate this. I’ve heard the sentiment ’Newham is going to be the next Tower Hamlets’. Unpack exactly what you’re saying.
“For me, as a woman of colour, who is a Muslim, it just says ‘Tower Hamlets - Muslims’, ‘Tower Hamlets - Extremism’, ‘Tower Hamlets - White Flight’, ‘Tower Hamlets - We’ve Got To Be Really Vigilant’. I think it’s disgusting.”
Wales is well known by local party members and has strong backing among trade unions like the GMB. Does she have the depth of support needed to defeat a rival who has been around for decades?
“I’m 47 years old, I’m not a baby. I would not have gone for this if I wasn’t serious about my competences. And I don’t need anyone’s permission to step up to the top table.
“It’s a travesty that in London, a global, hyper-diverse city, only 15 leaders of councils in London are women. And only two of the 33 council leaders are people from minority ethnic backgrounds and they happen to be men.
“I think I would be the first directly elected woman of colour [in the UK]. That’s exciting. My aspiration isn’t just for myself it’s about breaking glass ceilings and making the way for other people to come through. I certainly don’t anticipate being around for 23 years…”
The longevity of Robin Wales is a constant theme. But Fiaz insists that she is as determined to challenge the whole policy of having a borough run by a directly-elected mayor.
Introduced by Tony Blair across the UK in the 2000s, the mayoral model replaced council leaders with an executive post and powers that Jeremy Corbyn has long criticised.
Fiaz is making one of her key pledges a promise to set up a democracy commission that she hopes will include a referendum in her third year, asking residents if they want to junk the directly-elected mayoralty and go back to a council leader and Cabinet.
She says that the fact that 59 out of the 60 councillors in Newham are Labour raises real problems of accountability and challenge.
“I’m chair of [the] scrutiny [committee] and I also sit on the audit board. And the system of governance that we have presently in Newham, the directly elected mayor model, in the context of a one-party state, I don’t think is particularly healthy,” she says.
And the issue has been compounded by Wales’ style of leadership, she suggests.
“In terms of democratic accountability, transparency and I think it has been compounded by the fact that you have had a very small narrow group of people at the helm representing the political hegemony.
“Their reluctance to look outward I don’t even think has got anything to do with politics. I think sadly it must have something to do with some innate fear and anxiety and insecurity. I would certainly be running a council that is outward looking.
“I would enhance residents in decision making. There is a very top down, hierarchical leadership style. We are going to have to go through an educative programme both in terms of ourselves as local party but also with our public.
“I will be setting up a commission to look at our directly elected mayoral model. I will be working toward and I will be hoping to hold a referendum on the model in my third year.
“Personally I’m agnostic on it, but I just think in the context of a one party state in Newham uniquely, it hasn’t worked. And I think it has led to the very polarisation that people will badge as ‘community politics’. Look at your culpability as politicians who have secured the levers of power and influence in our local party. How dare you use a dog whistle to cover what actually it is you’ve done.”
In the suspended East Ham CLP, where she is a member, the lack of party democracy is another issue for Fiaz. “I’ve not been to a GC [general committee] meeting since February 2017, which broke out in chaos. But it was engineered chaos…there was a lot of choreographing going on there to stop a constituency from functioning.”
Fiaz is clear that if she wins it will be because she has harnessed support from across the spectrum of the party, from Momentum to more traditionally ‘centrist’ members, and across all communities.
Like many members locally, she stresses it is “lazy” to look at the battle with Wales through the prism of left-right. “Newham, like its people, represents the full spectrum of opinions. There isn’t one dominant faction,” she says.
And Fiaz says that Jeremy Corbyn has united the party, even if only on the labels members attach to themselves.
“About a year and a half in to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, after much hilarity amongst a certain group of councillors, they all began to call themselves socialists,” she says, with a smile. “So that’s quite interesting to observe...”