Few Londoners, sad to say, know much about the London Assembly, the 25-strong elected body of politicians whose job is to scrutinise the policies and progress of London Mayors. Fewer still understand the arcane electoral processes by which Assembly Members (AMs) come into their salaries of £58,543 a year. But that tiny number includes seasoned Labour Party activists from the “moderate” part of their war-torn organisation, who are already fired up by the opportunity the forthcoming Assembly elections now provide to make gains in their ongoing internal battles against what they tenderly term the “Corbyn cult”.
Last night, there came victory cries from anti-cult warriors as early details of the outcomes of selection contests to become Assembly candidates leaked out: “Moderates have won everywhere” and so on. These were fully justified. But in the end, it wasn’t quite that simple. For although it is true that aspiring AMs endorsed by the Jeremy Corbyn fan club, better known as Momentum, were rejected in remaining battles to run for Assembly constituencies, the story was very different with those seeking to become Londonwide AMs, whose elections – there are 11 of them altogether – come about through a form of proportional representation.
This electoral mechanism, whose finger-popping moniker is “modified d’Hondt”, explains why the current Assembly line-up includes two Green Party AMs, two who were originally in Ukip (they now trade as Brexit Alliance) and a lone Liberal Democrat alongside 12 from Labour and eight Conservatives. All five AMs from smaller parties owe their Assembly seats to modified d’Hondt, though so do three of the Labour AMs and three of the Tory ones. And here’s where the Labour civil war story begins.
The hybrid “additional member system” by which the Assembly is elected involves a complex mathematical relationship between the number of Assembly constituencies a party wins and the number of Londonwide representatives it is allocated. Put simply, it means that the more of the first type of Assembly seat it secures, the lower the number of the second type it might get. A good example of this came at the last Assembly elections in 2016, when Labour AM Murad Qureshi lost his Londonwide seat because Labour increased its number of constituency seats on the same day.
From this, you can deduce what moderates are already talking about as the next phase of their turf war with the Corbynites: if on 7 May Labour can again increase the number of Assembly constituency seats it holds, its number of Londonwide seats can again fall; and because the constituency candidates are “moderates” and the London candidates are Corbynites, that means still fewer Corbynites and more “moderates” than there would otherwise have been.
This might seem petty and my focus on it rather niche. Maybe. But there is no doubt at all that Labour moderates in London, sick and tired of the damage Corbynism has done to their party at all levels over the past five years, are the more motivated to help their party’s campaigns in marginal Assembly constituencies because of the potential winning them creates for restricting the advance of “the cult” into City Hall.
That weird state of affairs reflects the continuing viciousness of Labour’s internecine struggles as its national leadership contest lumbers on. But do the moderates have reasonable grounds for concern?
Well, the current three Londonwide Labour AMs, all standing down this time, are of high calibre: Fiona Twycross is leaving to concentrate on her work as deputy mayor for fire and resilience; Tom Copley is to become Sadiq Khan’s new deputy for housing; and the experienced Nicky Gavron‘s knowledge about planning issues is almost literally irreplaceable.
If Labour again wins three Londonwide seats, their successors will be as follows: Elly Baker, a regeneration-sceptic who says she will bring “people powered politics” to City Hall; Sakina Sheikh, a Lewisham councillor whose previous involvement with a group called Take Back The City (which stood Assembly candidates in 2016) reportedly put her in danger of being prevented even by Corbyn’s Labour from seeking to become its candidate for the 2018 Lewisham East by election; and Liam Young, a fervent Corbyn supporter who acknowledges that scrutinising the Mayor is “important” but has had far more to say about his wish to “build a movement inside and outside of City Hall”.
As Copley has told On London, being an AM does provide a platform that can be put to legitimate campaigning use. But, as he stressed, the hard graft and grasp of detail that effective scrutiny entails are fundamental to the job of an AM – including to his or her credibility when arguing a case. And it may be that when faced with prepping for a two hour grilling of a TfL boss or having to recognise that sometimes there’s a hard choice to be made between having fewer “genuinely affordable” new homes than you would like or having none at all, even the biggest blower of “radical” hot air will forsake rhetoric and face reality. But for the meantime, Labour grown-ups can hardly be blamed for rolling their eyes and fixing their gaze the more firmly on, to pick the obvious example, removing Tory Keith Prince from the very marginal Havering & Redbridge.
So far as can be told it looks likely that the first two of the three “list” Corbynites will win City Hall seats, though the prospects of Young – who actually finished fifth in the members’ ballot, but moved up to third because two of those above him were withdrawn having been selected for constituency seats – are more uncertain. Fellow party members who take a dim view of him are not the only reason for that. Labour rides high in London, yet it lost 6.5 per cent of its 2017 general election vote share in the capital in December, which is unhelpful to its “list” candidates in a different way. The Liberal Democrats, eager to restore their former strength on the Assembly, will surely have detected that Labour’s Londonwide contenders might be profitably depicted as unqualified headbangers. The Tories will be taking a good look too.
The London Assembly might be under-recognised, under-powered and largely unknown to Londoners. But the battle to win its 25 seats on 7 May will not be without interest – or extraordinary layers of Labour intrigue.
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