Newham Mayor trigger ballot: the intriguing tale of the TSSA vote

by Dave Hill

Among complaints still being pursued by Labour members in Newham about how Sir Robin Wales was re-selected as mayoral candidate for next year – making him near certain to boss the Town Hall in that role for an unprecedented fifth term – is one concerning how the TSSA union came to give him its support. After all, the TSSA is a strong backer of Jeremy Corbyn while Sir Robin is generally held to be on the Right of the party.

In a letter sent in January asking Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to investigate the entire affirmative nomination or “trigger ballot” process, 47 unhappy Newham Labourites wrote that the TSSA’s political officer had “expressed surprise” that his union’s vote had been for Sir Robin to be re-selected automatically rather than facing a challenge in a “full selection process”. The letter also said that the political officer had not been sent any paperwork relating to the TSSA’s participation. Such paperwork would have included the ballot paper. I understand that when Labour in Tower Hamlets conducted its mayoral candidate trigger ballot last year, the political officer was directly contacted by its procedures secretary.

Why wasn’t the trigger ballot paper sent to the political officer or anyone else at TSSA headquarters by Newham’s procedures secretary in the same way? And why was the completed ballot paper – which I have a copy of – instead signed off by an officer of a single TSSA branch when nearly all the other ballot papers submitted in various other unions’ names were signed off by regional, area or national officers of those unions, including political officers, whose business such matters are? (The only other exceptions appear to be the two votes accepted from Unite, whose general secretary Len McCluskey is one of Corbyn’s most vocal supporters. Both favoured an open selection, but the interesting point here is that they too look to have been signed off at branch level).

The TSSA’s political officer is Sam Tarry, a Labour councillor in Barking and Dagenham and a well-known party activist who was a close aide to Corbyn at the time of the trigger ballot, which took place last autumn. TSSA standard procedure when such votes are to be cast is for Tarry, having ascertained the views of lay members of the branch in question, to make a recommendation to his union’s executive committee. The committee then decides which way that vote will go. For the committee to reject Tarry’s advice would be unusual. Given the TSSA’s recent record of backing candidates from the left of the party in various types of election, it would have been a big surprise if it had favoured Sir Robin’s automatic re-selection

So what journey did the TSSA trigger ballot paper make? The TSSA branch in question is its Euston one. That branch had had previous ties with the East Ham Constituency Labour Party (CLP) in Newham, and in May 2015 became affiliated to it again. A letter from the branch, which I have a copy of, informed the CLP’s then treasurer of this, said that affiliation fees and a donation of £50 had been paid by credit transfer from TSSA head office, and stated: “Our delegate will be Councillor Salim Patel.”

Councillor Patel represents Manor Park ward in Newham. His Labour Party profile describes him as a train manager with Virgin Trains. He is also one of Sir Robin’s appointees as a “community lead councillor” with additional children and early years responsibilities. For these duties he received in 2016/17 a special responsibility allowance of £8,433.39 in addition to his standard councillor allowance of £10,842.

The person in charge of running the trigger ballot was Councillor Patrick Murphy, chosen by  Newham Labour’s Local Campaign Forum in conjunction with the party’s London region for the task of procedures secretary. His duties included distributing trigger ballot papers. Councillor Murphy too was a mayoral adviser at the time, receiving a special responsibility allowance of £7,871.50. He is still on Sir Robin’s team, currently as a “delivery lead” councillor, with responsibility for environment policy.

My information is that the TSSA Euston branch received no direct communication from Councillor Murphy, unlike other unions entitled to vote in the ballot. Rather, Councillor Patel in person brought the ballot paper to a Euston branch officer, who signed it off without really appreciating what it was or giving it more than a moment’s attention. A vote was eventually added to the pile favouring Sir Robin’s automatic re-selection. The final result was 20-17.

What can conclusions can be drawn from this intriguing tale? Let us not jump to any. Pieces of it are still missing. I have contacted Councillors Patel and Murphy seeking their accounts of how the TSSA vote was handled. Councillor Murphy has referred me to Labour’s London region, which has so far maintained that the trigger ballot was run correctly. Councillor Patel has yet to reply. If a different account from the one above emerges, I will amend this article to reflect that.

In the meantime, it seems fair to assume that had the ballot paper been sent to TSSA HQ – which also happens to be in Euston – instead of finding its way to an officer of the local branch of the union, the total number of votes favouring Sir Robin’s automatic re-selection would have been one vote and the open selection total one vote greater, making the final score an even closer 19-18.

Labour Party members in Newham who were, and remain, unhappy with how the trigger ballot was conducted have claimed that a total of seven votes for automatic re-selection were questionable. They also argue that a conflict of interest arose from Councillor Murphy’s being in receipt of a special responsibility allowance thanks to the mayor and his role as procedures secretary.

The NEC has so far declined to conduct the investigation into the trigger ballot process that was requested back in January. The complainants contend that the NEC has a contractual obligation to do so, partly because, as they put it, “the procedural rules were inconsistently applied”. Exchanges continue between the respective legal advisers of the complainants and of Labour and its NEC. The progress of the dispute is being followed with interest.

More on this story here.

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