A Labour council leader who was accused of sexual harassment and suspended before last year’s general election has revealed how he contemplated suicide during the ordeal.
Jas Athwal, leader of Redbridge council in north-east London, was reinstated last month after rebutting the accusation against him. However, he said he had been forced to wait almost a year for his case to be heard. During that time, he was denied the chance to compete for a safe parliamentary seat and spent more than £150,000 fighting to clear his name.
Athwal said he was the victim of a “politically motivated” process that saw him suspended just hours before the MP candidate selection for Ilford South, despite having responded in full to the allegation against him almost two months earlier. It took a further 11 months to have his case heard by the party’s top disciplinary committee. He said his lowest ebb came in the run-up to the election.
“In that two-week period, I thought of [suicide] often,” he said. “It was the darkest time. I’ve got four lovely children. I’ve got a lovely wife. I’ve got an amazing life.. And I’ve got so much to live for. But you almost feel you’ve dragged everybody down into the mud and that, basically, you need to finish it all off and walk away.
“They drove me, a successful human being who’s got so much to live for and so many things I need to do, to the point where I was thinking, ‘What have I done to deserve this’?”His dramatic suspension last October became a flashpoint in the infighting that has dogged Labour. Athwal, seen as close to figures critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, was the main opponent to Sam Tarry, who ran Corbyn’s 2016 Labour party leadership campaign.
Athwal said it was a “bolt from the blue” when he was informed of the allegation in mid-August. He replied within a week with an alibi, independent witnesses, photographic evidence and 15 character witnesses. “We felt confident, we felt happy,” he said. “As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the matter.”
He didn’t hear anything from the party until 4 October, the evening before the hustings to select Labour’s Ilford South candidate. “I remember speaking to a colleague and saying: ‘It’s over. They’ve basically blocked me from entering the room tomorrow.’ But the real tragedy was the personal turmoil it would cause me.
“A father of four children, my name plastered across national media. You spend your entire life telling them how to be decent human beings and suddenly I’m the one who’s let the side down. It took Labour 346 days to hear me and clear me.”
He explained how he begged the police to investigate the claim against him, while he also had to inform council safeguarding officials. No allegation was ever made to the police. Athwal even contacted Corbyn and John McDonnell, then shadow chancellor, for their help in securing a hearing. He criticised the way his case was handled by Jennie Formby, then the party general secretary. Formby did not comment, but allies said she had been undergoing cancer treatment at the time.
“Having threatened the Labour party with court action in January 2020, it took another nine months to actually get a hearing,” Athwal said. “There needs to be no factionalism in the disputes process, no political interference, no political manipulation. It needs to be free, it needs to be fair, it needs to be just. That’s what I really want. No one should ever have to go through what I’ve had to go through.”
Allies of Tarry said the saga was also frustrating for him. They claimed he had been well ahead in the contest for the seat and after Athwal’s suspension supported delaying selection. When Athwal announced he had been reinstated last month, Tarry said claims of a political stitch-up were “farcical”, warning that such complaints risked undermining confidence in Labour’s complaints procedure.
The party was contacted about Athwal’s claims, but did not comment.
A source familiar with the proceedings said there was “nothing factional” about Athwal’s case, adding that others from across the party had been suspended at the same time. They added that advice from independent barristers was involved and that care should be taken to ensure others are not put off from making the party aware of similar allegations.
• In the UK and Irish Republic contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• In the US the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
• In Australia the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.
• Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org