Sir Keir Starmer pledged to help clean up British politics hours before campaigning in a by-election caused by the resignation of a Labour councillor convicted of housing fraud, it has emerged.
The Labour leader visited the Polthorne estate in Plumstead with London mayor Sadiq Khan on Monday, pressing voters to endorse Labour in tomorrow’s Glyndon ward by-election and City Hall poll.
It was one of two engagements in south-east London for Starmer, who is facing his first big test at the ballot box since becoming Labour leader last April. But his choice of Glyndon ward – one of four where Labour is fighting to hold onto Greenwich Council seats – raised eyebrows as the by-election follows the conviction of its previous councillor, Tonia Ashikodi, for applying for and accepting a council house while owning three other homes in the borough.
Starmer’s visit came after he dropped in at the Evelyn Community Store in Deptford, where he said there was a “a shared, cross-party need to uphold standards in public office” – a reference to the allegations of cronyism and corruption enveloping Boris Johnson’s Conservative government.
In an open letter to voters published yesterday, he promised to “clean up politics”. The letter was briefed to The Guardian the previous day, which reported that Starmer planned to link allegations of corruption to “their effect on ordinary people”.
Ashkodi’s deception denied a family a council home and was estimated to have cost Greenwich council tax payers at least £67,000, Inner London Crown Court heard last year. She was given an 18-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and told to do 250 hours of unpaid work.
Her fraud was revealed by 853 in June 2018, and she was charged a month later. Despite being suspended from the party, she was allowed to sit with her Labour colleagues in council meetings while awaiting trial; she also posed for a selfie with Thorpe on the day of one of her court appearances.
Starmer’s visit left political rivals wondering why he chose Glyndon, with the baggage surrounding the by-election. The ward is a safe seat on a council where Labour enjoys an overwhelming majority, while Ashikodi’s fraud attracted national press attention. Greenwich has three other by-elections, which are being held in uncontroversial circumstances.
Both the Greenwich and national Labour parties were asked if Starmer was told why the by-election was taking place; neither responded. Their rivals, however, were quick to comment.
Naveed Mughal, the Conservative candidate in the election, said: “Whilst the Labour leader pops in for a bad publicity stunt, this whole by-election is only happening because the last Labour councillor failed to live up to the standards required.”
Greenwich’s Conservative leader, Nigel Fletcher, said: “If Keir Starmer wants to talk about cleaning up politics, Glyndon is a good place to start, given the former Labour councillor is a convicted criminal who shamefully defrauded local taxpayers whilst posing for selfies with the leader of the council.”
Matt Stratford, the co-ordinator or Greenwich Green Party, which is standing Leonie Barron, told 853: “Obviously it would be unfair to hold Keir Starmer accountable for offences committed before he was in office. But if he holds a stick with which to rightly beat the Conservatives about their chumocracy capitalism, he ought also to notice the splinter in Labour’s own eye.
“There’s no mystery why Labour failed to mention the reason there’s a by-election in Glyndon in the first place – but I’m quite sure that local voters will not have forgotten about it.”
The by-election has already sparked controversy when a residents’ group representative was barred from addressing a council scrutiny meeting last week because he was standing in the poll. Stewart Christie, who was representing the cross-party Positive Plumstead Group, is representing the Liberal Democrats in this poll, three years after being the top non-Labour candidate with the independent Plumstead Party, which has since been deregistered.
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) May 3, 2021
Christie said: “I’m amazed that Greenwich Labour had the audacity to invite Keir Starmer while he is busy campaigning on cleaning up politics. Never mind Tory sleaze, what about the housing fraud conviction of our previous Labour councillor which caused this by-election? Did they discuss this aspect of sleaze on the doorstep?
“Sadly, this appears to be a trend with the Labour Party not wanting to talk about certain subjects. Sadiq Khan is busy promoting his green agenda yet still presses on with his dirty little secret – the Silvertown Tunnel – which will increase pollution and congestion across the borough.”
“Voting in this by-election tomorrow should be about local issues. After many years of being under-represented while the Ashikodi case went through the courts, I hope the residents of Glyndon will see through this publicity stunt.”
Labour are represented by Sandra Bauer, a former Bexley councillor, while there is also a candidate for the left-wing Trade Union and Socialist Alliance, Lizzie Hedderly.
As well as Glyndon ward, there are by-elections in Greenwich West, Kidbrooke with Hornfair and Shooters Hill wards. Unusually, results are expected on Saturday, as ballot papers will be counted along with those for the mayor and London Assembly at the Excel centre in the Royal Docks.
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