Recent internal Labour Party elections in Haringey resulting in a string of wins for candidates backed by Momentum, the group formed to back Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, have refuelled talk of big shifts in the Labour grassroots landscape, perhaps changing the complexion of Labour-led boroughs after next May’s council elections. There is also talk that nothing nearly so dramatic is taking place. So what is the true picture?
Good question, to which I have no full, neat or robust answer. But I do have a few soundings from a handful of boroughs, which I am happy to share among consenting adults. Readers with helpful, well-informed information are welcome to contribute helpful, well-informed comments below or to email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
First, to Camden, where, according to a website called The Pileus, “Blairites” are breaking party rules “in order to prevent Corbyn supporters from becoming Labour Party candidates in the 2018 local elections”. The website’s claim is that Camden’s Local Campaigns Forum, the Labour body that decides who may seek selection as a council ward candidate, have been unfairly preventing Corbyn-supporting hopefuls being approved.
The story has been strongly refuted. It is pointed out that Laura Murray, local Momentum luminary and daughter of Andrew Murray, one of Corbyn’s team, has sailed through the forum and I’m told that only one applicant out of around 60 altogether has been turned down. James Schneider, another core Corbynite, is understood to have applied to be approved but dropped out before the interview stage. Meanwhile, some Corbyn-friendly sitting councillors have, I’m told, already been reselected. If there is a “Blairite” blocking plot, it seems not to have been working very well.
In Hackney, where Labour membership has soared with Corbyn’s rise in the party, a slate of his supporters won a clean sweep of elections at the AGM of Meg Hiller MP’s Hackney South and Shoreditch constituency party in June. Yet this surge has not translated into mass de-selections of sitting councillors. Most of them will defend their seats in May, despite some individual votes being close, and new candidates are described by an experienced councillor as “sensible”. Some local members will have joined too recently to have participated, but even so Hackney Labour’s broad church appears to be a broadly tranquil one.
Brent, whose Labour administration is generally rather low-profile – “managerial”, according to one dissatisfied member, normally portrayed as being on the right of the party – has completed its re-selections without turbulence, despite Momentum adherents reportedly bringing a sometimes strident presence to Brent Central CLP in particular.
Two reasons tend to be given for the resilience of councillors described as “moderate”, the word now seemingly used to encompass all shades of Labour opinion except Momentum’s.
One is that if, as a new member, you’ve got to know a councillor personally, maybe gone canvassing with them or been helped by them in some way, you are less likely to want them gone for not sharing all your views.
The other is that being a branch secretary or CLP officer is one thing, but being a councillor is a more demanding and more sobering one – the more you learn about the day-to-day demands of residents and the practical hard graft of local authority business, the more you appreciate that there’s more to politics than rhetoric.
In Southwark, whose history of ructions over housing and redevelopment policies offers parallels with what is unfolding in Haringey, the bulk of sitting councillors have come through re-selection, with just a few ward votes still to take place. Half a dozen Labour councillors are standing down and two were not re-selected. Both of these had won their seats at by elections, which can mean they are less well-established. Three newcomers are Momentum picks, but at least one of these is said to have a solid grip of how the council works, and isn’t yet advocating what an older hand describes as “daft ideas like burning through our reserves or taking stands on points of principle over issues we can’t win”.
Let that be a lesson to us all about glib left-right stereotyping, negative or otherwise. But does the above suggest there will be a large and possibly transformative influx of Corbynite councillors into Labour-run Town Halls across the capital next spring? Not really. And yet, who can be sure what might occur? I asked one adjacent source to tip a winner of the Lewisham mayoral candidate selection race, which is about to end. “From what I hear, Paul Bell is the one to beat,” came the reply. Councillor Bell has the backing of Momentum. The result will be announced on Wednesday.