Cardiff council’s Labour leader Heather Joyce faces a fight for survival after confirmation of a leadership challenge by a backbench councillor.
Cardiff Riverside councillor Phil Hawkins – who was elected in Cardiff for the first time last May – is standing against Coun Joyce for leadership of the ruling Labour group.
Canton’s Ramesh Patel is running against council deputy leader Ralph Cook in a contest that thrusts the deep split in Cardiff Labour into the spotlight.
The leadership challenge comes just 12 months after Labour took back control of County Hall in a stunning election victory.
Cardiff Labour’s 46 councillors will vote in a secret ballot at the group’s annual general meeting (AGM) on MondayMAY13 evening.
Labour sources in both camps suggest the vote is likely to be “very tight”, with perhaps just two or three votes deciding the result.
Should Coun Hawkins succeed, he will be paid £52,000 a year as the new leader of Wales’ biggest local authority.
He will also have the power to select a new cabinet, potentially casting doubt on the council’s policies and priorities during Labour’s remaining four years in power.
Opposition groups labelled the contest “hugely embarrassing” for Labour, claiming that even a close victory for Coun Joyce would undermine her leadership.
The Echo yesterday contacted Coun Hawkins to ask why he was challenging for the top job, what he would differently should he win and where he stood on key issues.
But Coun Hawkins said he was unable to comment, as did Coun Patel. The incumbent leaders in the administration, Coun Cook and Coun Joyce, also refused to comment.
The Echo understands all Labour councillors have been threatened with sanctions if they discuss the leadership contest with the press.
In an email, the group’s chairman, Ben Thomas, who himself was elected by a margin of just a couple of votes in March, told councillors that all discussions surrounding the AGM were to be kept confidential.
In a statement, group secretary Keith Jones said: “Elections for officer positions are internal matters for the Cardiff Labour group and the group does not intend to provide a running commentary on internal group matters. Once officers are elected this shall be released into the public domain.”
Conservative group leader David Walker said the challenge was “hugely embarrassing” for Labour and the gagging order was a “democratic deficit”.
“I don’t think Heather Joyce was ever going to be a long-term leader and if you have an interim leader that position is going to be open to change,” Coun Walker said.
“I think this is a ‘stalking horse’ and the serious challenge will come next year, this is just an attempt to rattle the cabinet. And what if Phil Hawkins did win? It would be a total joke. He has not got the experience, certainly in Cardiff, to lead the council.
“It should be an overwhelming victory for the incumbent and if that does not happen it suggests a serious lack of confidence in Heather Joyce.”
Liberal Democrat group leader Judith Woodman added: “This confirms how divided the Labour group are that they cannot sort this out face-to-face.
“Phil Hawkins has only been a councillor in Cardiff since May. Does he really think he knows Cardiff that well?
“It’s damaging for Heather Joyce and it’s going to carry on until they have a strong leader who is up to the job – and I don’t think these two are up to it.”
Splott’s Gretta Marshall, known to be a supporter of the incumbent cabinet, is challenging for the chief whip job against Plasnewydd’s Sue Lent. And former council leader Russell Goodway faces a challenge for the group treasurer post from Plasnewydd’s Mary McGarry.
A Welsh Labour spokesman said: “Welsh Labour is proud of its internal democratic structures. Labour group leaders right across the UK face annual re-election by group members.”