Walsall 'shamed' as Tories block Labour candidate over mental health problems

Angry Labour members walked out of a full council meeting in a dramatic protest in Walsall after accusing the Tories of ‘shaming’ the town.

The Conservative leader of the council Mike Bird, left, and Labour's Sean Coughlan, right
The Conservative leader of the council Mike Bird, left, and Labour's Sean Coughlan, right

The incident happened after a vote to block Councillor Sean Coughlan – one of the longest serving councillors on the council – from becoming deputy mayor.

Labour leader Aftab Nawaz said the decision to block Councillor Coughlan from taking up the civic role was a vote against people with mental health problems and led his group out of the town hall on Monday.

Councillor Coughlan said that none of the opposition could ‘look in my direction when they were voting’.

He was selected to replace Harbans Sarohi, who died suddenly in May, and said he was better and ready for the role following treatment for depression which resulted in him almost taking his own life.

But council leader Mike Bird informed Councillor Nawaz the Conservatives intended to vote against him ahead of the meeting, citing Councillor Coughlan’s mental health problems.

Councillor Bird said he and his party colleagues had been accused by Councillor Coughlan of pushing him towards suicide and didn’t want to be in that position again.

Councillor Nawaz and Councillor Lee Jeavons praised Councillor Coughlan as they endorsed his nomination and urged everyone to vote in favour.

But, following a named vote, all the Conservatives along with independent Peter Smith voted against him.

Councillor Nawaz announced: “This shames Walsall. The message we have given out today to all those people who have suffered and are suffering from mental health is they have no chance in Walsall and they’ll be written off.

“We won’t stand for this and we’re not going to take any more part in this meeting tonight.”

Councillor Lee Jeavons, right, endorsed Councillor Coughlan's nomination

Labour members, including the Mayor and chair of the meeting Rose Burley then left the chamber, forcing an adjournment. It eventually resumed with Councillor Smith taking over as chair.

As no alternative nomination was put forward, the issue of choosing a new deputy mayor was deferred.

After the meeting, Councillor Coughlan said: “It is what I expected. It wasn’t nice to sit there, I have to say.

“But I looked around and none of the Tories could look up and look in my direction when they were voting.

“It wasn’t political as there is no political benefit for the Conservatives in any shape way or form whether or not I’m deputy mayor. But it was very personal.

“The walk-out was a massive vote of support. I didn’t suggest it. The group had decided they couldn’t support a process that treated people with mental health issues the way the Tories were proposing to treat me.

“So we agreed to get up and walk out. It was fantastic support for me as an individual but more importantly it was what I’ve tried to stand for – it’s about the people who are suffering on a daily basis.

“I find it sad people who should lead by example chose to vote they way they have.”

Councillor Coughlan said he intended to remain as Labour’s nomination for the role and this was backed by his group leader.

Councillor Nawaz said: “They voted against someone who has had mental health issues and has publicly spoken about it very bravely and comer out the other side in a stronger position.

“Councillor Coughlan has been very brave putting himself forward for that position and he had the unanimous and strong support of the Labour group.

“We couldn’t remain in a meeting that decided to vote against him on the basis of his public health.

“We found it a horrendous decision by the Conservatives. It is a vote against all those people who suffer and it told them that in Walsall there is no place for them.

“The Walsall Conservatives, together with Peter Smith, have shamed this council and shamed the borough.

“What are they going to say to the next staff member who comes forward to say 'I’m suffering'? People will be too scared to speak up.

“I have no intention of stepping back. We won’t walk out of the next meeting but we will still put Sean forward. For us, nothing will change and if they continue to vote against him ,that is their decision.”

During the meeting, Councillor Bird said: “The abuse from the public gallery to me makes no difference. The abuse to me on social media makes no difference. The abuse to my family makes a difference.

“This was a democratic group decision. Wasn’t my decision but 37 members of my group made their decision. I am mandated as leader to put that decision to the council. That is the situation and remains democratically the process.”

Later, during a discussion on Covid support, he added: “Others have struggled with mental health in lockdown.

“This council will invest an additional £1 million over the next three years to support mental health wellbeing in the community, contrary to the comments in the outburst of the Labour group.

“We do take mental health seriously and we’re investing to prove that and will continue to do so.”

Following the meeting, Councillor Smith said he found the accusation that he had shamed the council "grossly offensive".

He said his decision to vote against Councillor Coughlan for deputy mayor had nothing to do with his mental health issues and was down to his previous "poor performance" as council leader.

"I do not want to see him messing up as Mayor (which position he would take after becoming Deputy Mayor) given his track record as Leader of the Council and hence I could not support his nomination," he added.

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