Labour’s London Assembly trigger ballot tensions – a fairly soothing guide

Labour’s London Assembly trigger ballot tensions – a fairly soothing guide

For some months there have been tensions within London Labour circles about the selection of candidates for next year’s London Assembly elections (which will take place on the same day as the election for London Mayor). Rule changes, similar to those brought in for MPs, have made it harder for Labour Assembly Members (AMs) who represent GLA constituencies and wish to defend them to be re-selected as candidates.

There is also disquiet about a new process for choosing and ranking candidates for the Assembly’s list of “London-wide” AMs, who are elected through a form of proportional representation. But it’s the early stages of one of the constituency selections that has been making news this week.

Florence Eshalomi was elected AM for the Lambeth & Southwark constituency in 2016 and is, by general consent, an able and industrious member of the Labour Group and the Assembly’s transport and police and crime committees (she has just become chair of the former). Like all Labour constituency AMs who wish to fight their seats again, she is required to win an internal “affirmative nomination” or “trigger” ballot in order to be automatically reselected as the candidate.

The process is fairly complex. Members of each parliamentary Constituency Labour Party (CLP) contained within a GLA constituency area exercise a “trigger” vote among themselves, as do members of organisations affiliated to those CLPs, which tend to mostly be unions.

Sitting AMs need to secure the support of more than two thirds of both parts of this electoral college in order to go forward automatically to defend their seats. If they fail to do so in either section of the college – the CLP or the affiliates – they are placed on a shortlist with other potential candidates and an “open selection” contest ensues, with party members making the choice on a one member, one vote basis.

Under the old rules, the winning threshold was 50 percent, so reaching it has become significantly harder. There are five CLPs in the Lambeth & Southwark constituency area, which means Eshalomi needs to secure the nominations of four of them to avoid being triggered.

The first two of the CLPs to hold their re-selection meetings did so last week. Vauxhall CLP endorsed Eshalomi, but members of Streatham CLP decided by the narrow margin of 88 votes to 81 not to. This means that Eshalomi has to win the trigger votes in the other three CLPs in her constituency – Dulwich & West Norwood, Bermondsey & Old Southwark and Camberwell & Peckham (and would still need two thirds of the affiliates to back her as well).

Some Streatham members took to Twitter to express their horror at their CLP membership’s decision. “Absolutely shocked that @StreathamLabour chose not to automatically reselect @FloEshalomi as our Assembly candidate,” wrote one. “Apparently, being a hard working, local, working class BAME woman in an Assembly dominated by men isn’t something we stand up for right now.”

But Streatham CLP, like much of the Labour membership in Lambeth, has seen a huge expansion in membership in recent years, especially of admirers of Jeremy Corbyn. Their fervour seems if anything intensified by the decision of Streatham’s MP, Chuka Umunna, to depart from the party over Brexit and become a leading light of Change UK.

In March, Corbyn supporters were elected to nearly all the CLP’s executive positions, an outcome hailed by The Skwawbox, an “alt-left” outlet for Corbynite propaganda, as “embarrassing” for “the Right” in what it termed a now former bastion of the Progress wing of Labour. The same website attacked Eshalomi at the time for “supporting the Right wing slate of candidates”.

Since the Streatham vote, the Evening Standard and City AM have reported claims that proper procedures were not followed as part of an alleged “plot” by local Momentum members to oust Eshalomi and get someone more to their liking installed in her place. Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell was reportedly present at the meeting. Labour’s London Region has said that its director will be conducting an investigation into the allegations. A need to get on with this quickly is said to be fully recognised.

Another current Labour AM with grounds for concern is Onkar Sahota, who has represented Ealing & Hillingdon since 2012, when he became the first Labour AM to win the previously Conservative-held seat. Sahota, a GP who has campaigned hard on local health service issues, won his trigger ballot with ease in Ealing Southall CLP, which he chairs, and also won in Ruislip & North Pinner.

However, he didn’t win in Ealing Central & Acton, where the margin against him was a considerable 43 to 11. On London has been told that Sahota was not actually informed that the trigger ballot was due to take place on the evening in question and therefore did not attend to make his case in person or organise supporters to endorse him. It’s understood that he is to raise the matter with the London Region. Sahota has three other CLPs in his constituency and if one of them fails to endorse him he will be triggered – the rules say that a full (or open) selection process will take place if a third or more of a constituency’s CLPs vote for it. Two out of six would, of course, be exactly one third.

Other Labour AMs to face trigger ballots so far have had easier rides than Eshalomi and Sahota to this point. Unmesh Desai, who represents City & East, recently got green lights from three of the CLPs in his area – Bethnal Green & Bow, Poplar & Limehouse and Dagenham & Rainham – with three more to go. And On London has been told that Assembly Labour Group leader Len Duvall, a senior London Labour figure who has represented Greenwich & Lewisham since the GLA was founded in 2000, has won ballots in two out of two of the six CLPs on his patch. Leonie Cooper, who gained Merton & Wandsworth from the Tories in 2016, has been congratulated on Twitter for being “unanimously supported” by Putney CLP. The sixth Labour constituency AM intending to stand again is Enfield & Haringey’s Joanne McCartney.

The decisions of the affiliates are equally important to the overall outcomes of these selection processes. However, although there can be many more affiliates entitled to vote in constituency ballots than there are CLPs in them – one local member estimates at least 25 are eligible in Ealing & Hillingdon – its how they vote as one half of the college that will matter. Intensity of participation may vary, and some predict that most will go the same way as the CLPs, following their lead.

There will be no trigger ballots for three of the Assembly constituencies Labour currently holds, as their incumbents are standing down. In those, and the constituency seats currently held by Conservatives, the candidate selection process will be presided over by an eight person committee dominated by the Left. They will decide which seats should have candidates from an all-woman shortlist.

Up to two prospective Londonwide AM candidates will be nominated by CLPs and London Labour Party affiliates, at least one of whom must be female. To get on the ballot paper, list hopefuls must receive a minimum of five nominations. Sitting Londonwide AMs will be included automatically, though there will only be one of those, Tom Copley, as the other two are standing down. The names to appear on the list and, crucially, the order in which they appear, will be decided by London members on a one member, one vote basis.

The London Region says that the changes to the selection processes have been made to align them with the new rules for MP candidates at Labour’s conference last September with the aim of “improving accountability and increasing member engagement with the process”. Others characterise them more ominously as a stage re-set for Left-Right faction fighting, with the odds tilted against so-called “moderates” deemed insufficiently keen on Corbyn.

Competing visions of what Labour should be about have undoubtedly been present under the previous arrangements, but the stakes feel higher and the some of the passions rather fiercer than before.

All the London Assembly Members mentioned in this piece and others from the Labour Group are contributors to On London. This piece was amended at 12:25 on 3 May 2019. It originally wrongly said that Onkar Sahota would go forward automatically as a candidate if he was endorsed by four out of six CLPs in his constituency (two thirds of them). In fact, he will need to win in five out of six.

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