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London: The constituency of Leicester East in the United Kingdom is an urban seat which has a high Asian population. The 2011 British census recorded that two-thirds of its population was non-white and nearly half, or 48.5% of the people here, described themselves as Asian. Leicester has been described as the “most ethnically diverse” place in the region. But it has been in the news for all the wrong reasons for a couple of years now.
Its previous high-profile MP, Keith Vaz, was forced to step down after the scandal involving underage boys and cocaine. Then last month, according to an official report, the former Labour minister was reprimanded for having engaged in “sustained and unpleasant bullying” towards a parliamentary member of staff. Vaz was in the news in India too in 2015 over the circumstances of Lalit Modi’s escape out of the country. The allegation centred around Vaz using the name of then foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to put pressure on the head of the UK visa and immigration department to grant the Indian Premier League founder travel papers for the UK.
Claudia Webbe (56), the Labour MP and the first female MP of the constituency, who replaced Vaz after getting elected in 2019, was last week convicted by a court in Westminster of harassing Michelle Merritt, a friend of her partner’s, with phone calls and threats. Extraordinary scenes played out in the court last week as Webbe held her ground. Local newspapers have carried allegations of her threatening Merritt (who has not been revealed to the public) with an “acid attack”. But in the one call that was used on the record and played out in court, there were none of the words allegedly used by her according to the accuser (“slag” among them) or any mention of an “acid attack”.
Webbe though found herself suspended by the Labour party even before the conviction on September 27. She has stood her ground and said the judge was wrong and she will be appealing the verdict. “Not even when I lost my temper on 25th April 2020 at the height of the National Lockdown did I use any derogatory terms to refer to women. Or use any expletives or threats of violence. I did not make any silent calls or withheld number calls and I did not make a call in 2018 or in March 2019. There is no evidence of any of this,” she said.
The judge acknowledged Webbe’s good character – or what he termed in court, “positive good character” – but said that was not enough to cast off his belief that the allegations stood, even in the absence of proof that it was Webbe that actually made several silent calls that came from an undisclosed number. That there was no proof that Webbe made those calls was admitted by the Crown Prosecutor in court on October 13, 2021. But the chief district judge, Paul Goldspring, found her guilty and said, “I found Ms Webbe’s evidence to be vague, inconsistent and at times to be illogical. It was shaped around the overwhelming evidence against her she could not innocently answer, but ultimately I found it to be untruthful.”
The judge in the court stunned Webbe’s team when he stated summarily that she had ceased to be an MP. The law in Britain is that if an MP is convicted and sent to custody for less than a year and her appeal fails, a recall petition would be triggered in the constituency and if 10% of them agree, only then would a by-election be conducted.
A Labour spokesperson said; “The Labour party strongly condemns Claudia Webbe’s actions and she should now resign.” But things are not as simple as that. Webbe is seen to be in the Jeremy Corbyn camp in the party and is drawn into the larger struggle within the party currently. Also, there are undercurrents of resentment among sections in the constituency over the seat going from Indian-origin Vaz, who had held it for 32 years, to a person of African descent. Webbe’s sentencing will be on November 4. But she does not appear to be giving up anytime soon. “The judge had a choice to believe someone who happened to be white or me. Despite my many many years of public service the judge chose to believe my accuser,” she said.