‘A growing divide’: Leicester East faces potential loss of second Labour MP

Conviction of Claudia Webbe could lead to byelection in seat where Tories have been gaining ground

The constituents of Leicester East have become accustomed to seeing their local MP in the news. Often for all the wrong reasons.

The former Labour MP Keith Vaz, who held the seat for 32 years, stepped down after he was caught offering to buy class A drugs for sex workers, and has subsequently been found to have bullied a parliamentary staffer.

Now his successor, Claudia Webbe, elected in 2019, has been found guilty of harassment, including a threat to use acid against a female friend of a partner, and is facing calls to resign.

Despite support for the former Jeremy Corbyn ally appearing to drain away on the party’s left and among constituents, no one is enthused by the idea of a byelection.

Webbe, who will be sentenced on 4 November, has insisted upon her innocence and intends to appeal. But the likelihood of her being forced from office increased when she was warned that she could face prison. Under parliamentary rules, any custodial sentence that is not overturned will lead to a recall petition. If 10% of the electorate then vote for Webbe to be recalled, there will be a byelection.

“I’m glad that it’s come to light, and it goes to show it doesn’t matter who you are or what position of power you’re in: harassment isn’t tolerated,” said Aman Singh Thind, 24, from his family’s online clothing retail business in the constituency. He thinks Webbe should step down.

Aman Singh Thind.
Aman Singh Thind. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

“Even if somebody else comes into her position, this has all just shown you can’t judge somebody by a few posters and pictures,” said a business owner on Green Lane Road who, like many in the area, was wary of giving her name. “Someone in that position has to be respectable; they’re working for the community. But as we’ve seen, it’s hard to judge someone’s character.”

Webbe won her seat with a majority of 6,019, down from Vaz’s more than 22,000 two years earlier. The Conservatives’ vote share increased from 24.2% in 2017 to 38.6% last time. “Leicester has generally been quite Labour-heavy for years, but I think there’s a growing divide. I think Labour would probably stay in though,” said Thind.

Vaz, a former minister and Labour fixer, remains a party member and has many supporters among the local party and its constituents. His Labour opponents fear he may yet have a significant hand in choosing any future byelection candidate because of an obscure rule change at this year’s party conference.

The new rule, introduced by card vote 15, means byelection candidates will be chosen by a five-member panel, three of whom will be selected by the constituency party executive.

One local party source said: “It is well known that Keith and his allies have great influence over Leicester East CLP [constituency Labour party]. This rule change effectively allows them to choose the next Labour candidate, if, as expected, Claudia is forced out.”

Party activists said half a dozen names of potential candidates had been raised locally, including Vaz himself, although last month he told the Guardian he would not stand again. Labour and Vaz have been approached for a comment.

The potential loss of a second Labour MP after serious allegations could encourage Tory supporters. Outside Webbe’s constituency office, 64-year-old Ellen Anderson said she would probably vote Conservative. “It wasn’t worth voting in Leicester when Keith Vaz was around; unless you were a Labour voter it was a waste of time. It’s different now,” she said.

Bernadette Martin, 60, said she voted Labour for the first time in 2019 because Vaz had finally left office.

Bernadette Martin.
Bernadette Martin. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Webbe’s seat is on the outskirts of Leicester’s centre, home to many of the city’s garment factories. According to the 2011 census, two-thirds of the population were minority ethnic and 48.5% of people described themselves as Asian, a third of whom were Hindu.

Poverty is the area is high, with 42% of children living below the poverty line. In the area to the west of Spinney Hill Park, this rises to 51%. “We’ve got to think about our kids’ futures. A lot of people around here still don’t get proper wages; where I used to work I never got a proper minimum wage,” said one woman, who asked to remain anonymous, as she sat in the park.

“I think a lot of people voted Conservative [across the UK] thinking they’d do something good, but that hasn’t happened. I’ve got my mother-in-law living with me and she’s over 85, she’s always cold but I’m scared to turn the heating up as we have to pay the bills. We need someone who really understands what is happening to people in Leicester,” she said.

Support for Webbe among the left in Leicester’s Labour party is ebbing away. Helen Lentell, a local activist who campaigned for Webbe’s victory in 2019, said: “I feel solidarity with Claudia as a person and she has been a good MP. But I cannot support someone who can make threats like that against another woman.”


Jessica Murray and Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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