In the coming week, a relatively small group of Labour Party activists will meet in Brighton and Hove at the inaugural meeting of the new Local Government Committee (LGC) for our City. Having taken the decision not to put myself forward for the LGC because of my state of health, all I can do is wish my comrades well for the work they have before them.
The LGC will have important work to do to draw up Labour’s manifesto for the 2023 local Council elections, and to coordinate the campaign to elect the largest possible number of Labour Councillors. One area of work which would normally be the responsibility of the LGC has been taken away from the Brighton and Hove LGC even before its inception - candidate selection.
The circumstances in which this has come to pass are circumstances in which a narrative is being promoted about the recent history of our Party in our city, and in particular about the predecessor body to the LGC, the Local Campaign Forum (LCF), which is inaccurate, misleading and untruthful.
Mark Twain reputedly said that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Since there is a real danger that the false narrative will come to inform not simply perceptions of the past but also conduct in the present and into the future, I thought I should find a shoehorn and help the truth with its boots by writing this blog post.
In addition to having served as Chair of Brighton Pavilion CLP since our CLP was re-established at the beginning of 2017, I also served as Chair of the Brighton and Hove Local Campaign Forum (LCF) from its inception at the end of 2017 and throughout its existence. Unlike many other commentators on this subject, I can tell you what actually happened.
In common with many other areas of the country, the Party in Brighton and Hove experienced a massive increase in membership around the 2015 and 2016 leadership elections. Following the loss of all three Parliamentary seats at the 2010 General election, and the Party being forced into third place on the Council in the 2011 local elections, the three CLPs had been merged into a single City Party, with an All Member Meeting structure and a small 10 member executive (which, among other things, took on the function of the LCF for the area).
Having obtained their first seat on the council in the late 1990s, the Green Party had gained support locally owing to the unpopularity of the Iraq War (in particular) and by 2011 they were the largest group on the Council and formed the first ever Green local administration, following on from the election, in Brighton Pavilion, of the first ever Green MP in 2010. Whilst Caroline Lucas consolidated her popularity, the Green Council most certainly did not. Therefore, in 2013, we won a seat back from the Greens on the local Council for the first time in the Hanover and Elm Grove by-election. This was followed by further Labour gains in the 2015 local elections and the establishment of a Labour administration, as well as by the Party winning back Hove and Portslade from the Tories in the General Election which took place on the same day.
The Annual General Meeting of the City Party in 2016 attracted a very large attendance, although this was only a small proportion of the approximately 8000 members which the party by then had throughout the City. Since the venue for the meeting could not accommodate the numbers who turned up, the meeting took place in three shifts.
A new Executive was elected, some of whom had been members of the Executive previously, but most of whom (including the Chair and Secretary) had not. The new Executive, in common with a large majority of those in attendance at that AGM, were broadly sympathetic to the then Party Leader.
Various allegations were promptly made about the conduct of the meeting by supporters of candidates who had been unsuccessful in the elections undertaken at that meeting. In response to these complaints the NEC declared the meeting null and void and suspended the City Party.
Although a subsequent investigation undertaken on behalf of the NEC did not, as I understand it, uphold any of the complaints made about the 2016 AGM, other criticisms were made, in particular in relation to postings on a Labour Party Members’ Facebook group for Brighton and Hove.
The NEC agreed, in consultation with local members who had been elected to both the old and the new Executive, and with the leadership of the Labour Group, to split up the City Party and reconstitute the three CLPs. As part of these discussions, a constitution was agreed for a new LCF for Brighton and Hove.
The three CLPs were constituted at inaugural AGMs is early in 2017, held in the presence of regional officials who oversaw the elections which took place there. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn were generally successful in the elections which took place at those meetings.
The inaugural meeting of the LCF, which was chaired at the outset by the Chair of the Regional Executive, and at which regional officials were present to conduct elections, did not take place until November 2017. Candidates of the left were successful. I, myself, was elected unopposed as Chair. This was reported in the local press with the sort of “balance” (and anonymous briefing from the right wing of the Party) with which we were familiar at the time.
The unfortunate legacy of the unfounded complaints made concerning the 2016 AGM of the City Party was that many active members of the reconstituted CLPs were very angry about the circumstances of the suspension and subsequent breakup of the City Party, which anger was compounded by what was perceived locally as an unnecessary delay in establishing the LCF (the only body which was seen as a successor to the previous citywide Party organisation).
For the best part of 18 months, there had been no citywide Party body which could relate to, and hold to account, the Labour Group on the City Council. This was regrettable, as the then Leader was widely perceived to have been associated with the unfounded complaints about the 2016 AGM, and went on, during Party Conference 2017 to announce that Labour Party Conference might well not be welcome in Brighton and Hove in future, apparently on the basis of equally unsubstantiated allegations (following which we had to ask him to allow elected officials of the party to have prior notice of any criticisms he wanted to make in public).
When I took office as Chair of the Brighton and Hove LCF in November 2017, along with other members of the newly elected Executive, I confronted a difficult situation in which relations between the Labour Group and the wider Party membership were poor and there was considerable contention between the majority of members at the time, who were supportive of the then Leader of the Party, and a hostile minority.
Since our LCF had come into existence only 18 months ahead of the citywide local elections for which we needed to prepare, our first priority was to agree a timetable for candidate selection. At this point, I should probably stress that at every stage, and as required by the Rule Book, we kept colleagues at the Regional Office informed and consulted them on every step which we took. At no point was it suggested to us as an LCF EC that we were doing anything wrong or inappropriate.
Although our work was interrupted somewhat by the resignation of our first Secretary, we soon had in place a replacement. Our EC worked well together as a team, and, with advice and support from our regional official, we organised briefing sessions for members interested in becoming candidates, with separate dedicated sessions also organised for women members and for black and ethnic minority members.
By the summer of 2018 we were ready to hold assessment team interviews with potential candidates in order to populate the panel. Every assessment team was chaired by a party member from outside Brighton and Hove, generally by volunteers from Worthing. Again, I should stress that we kept our regional official fully informed at every stage.
I was mindful of the damage which would be done to the best interests of the Party at the time if anything took place which could exacerbate the existing divisions between supporters and opponents of the then Leader. Unfortunately, some existing Councillors displayed a sense of entitlement not only to be on the panel but also to be re-selected in the ward which they currently represented.
This obvious sense of entitlement was offensive, particularly to some of the new active members. The most extreme example was set by a long serving Councillor whom we admitted to the Panel but who was not selected by the local ward party. She ended up standing in that ward (unsuccessfully) but as a Conservative candidate!
I was aware that if our assessment teams excluded any sitting Councillors from the panel this would lead to well-publicised contention and adverse media coverage which would have a negative impact upon our election campaign.
I therefore successfully persuaded comrades and colleagues on the LCF EC that our assessment teams should adopt an approach that it was not our job to exclude people for political reasons if they were otherwise eligible to stand as a candidate for our Party. We agreed that we wanted to have the largest possible panel so that members in branches could have the widest choice from which to shortlist and select candidates.
We asked all potential candidates the same questions, in order to ensure equality of opportunity and avoid discrimination. We did, of course, ask everyone if there was anything about them which could embarrass the Party. This was one of our standard questions.
I am aware that there are those who might say that we should have done more "due diligence" at this stage. In response to that observation I would make three points.
First, although we were in near constant communication with the Regional office we were at no stage advised that we should do any such checking of potential candidates. We were scrupulous in complying with the relevant provisions of Chapter 5 of the Rule Book and Appendix 4, which make no reference to "due diligence". Had we been given different guidance we would have followed it.
Secondly, and related to that point, there was (and is) no reference to "due diligence" in the Labour Party Rule Book. If there were such a reference it would presumably cover the important topic of how to avoid unlawful discrimination in selecting which candidates to scrutinise further, and also how to ensure compliance with The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) when collecting and using the sensitive personal data upon which such checking would depend.
Thirdly, as a group of volunteer lay activists who were also responsible for manifesto development and preparing the campaign, we did not only lack any guidance on this point, we also lacked the necessary resources to dig into the background of approximately 90 applicants to be on the panel.
The only potential candidates which were rejected by our assessment teams were those who did not have the requisite 12 months party membership. In a small number of cases, we sought, but did not receive, dispensation to place on the panel individuals who had fewer than 12 months continuous membership of the party. This serves to underline the fact that we were dealing with the Regional Office throughout, who were aware of our every step.
I think it is also important to point out that, having organised a dedicated event to encourage Black and ethnic minority members to come forward as potential candidates, we did approve every such candidate with the requisite period of membership. Having set ourselves a target of six candidates (based upon our reading of 2011 census data) we found ourselves with six Black and ethnic minority members on the panel. This wasn't nearly good enough but it is not quite the picture painted by recent media coverage.
Shortlisting and selection
Having populated the panel with more than 80 members we moved on to shortlisting and selection of candidates for the 54 seats on the Council. A majority of our candidates were women. We applied the rules in relation to the selection of women candidates in winnable wards with the exception of South Portslade Ward, where members voted automatically to reselect their two sitting male Councillors, and Woodingdean Ward, where the Regional Director intervened to authorise the selection of two male candidates (underlining the point, which I have already made, that the Regional Office was closely involved in the process at every stage).
In order to try and assist in the selection of Black and ethnic minority candidates in particular we recommended to all branches that prior to shortlisting and selection meetings they should play a training video about unconscious bias. As far as I am aware, this recommendation was complied with in every branch.
In the event, Black and ethnic minority candidates stood in Wish ward in Hove (two candidates), which we considered winnable . There was also one Black/ethnic Minority candidate in the winnable Woodingdean ward. Other Black/ethnic minority candidates stood in Patcham ward (safe Conservative) and Brunswick and Adelaide ward (relatively safe Green). Given that none of these candidates were eventually elected, this was a very disappointing outcome. However, we had required branches to address the question of unconscious bias and, whilst it is clear to me now that we should have gone further and implemented antiracist training at branch level, I must emphasise that we received no such guidance from the Region at the time.
It has recently been suggested that "factional" activity may have impacted upon the selection, or non-selection, of Black and ethnic minority candidates in safe wards, I think that I should address this point directly. By way of introduction on this point, I should add that I am not a member of Momentum or of Labour To Win (or either of its predecessor organisations). I am a member of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). The LRC played no active organising role in relation to candidate selection for the 2019 elections in Brighton and Hove.
I was aware that there was a “Momentum slate” in many wards, although (in spite of the fact that the great majority of members at that time were probably very sympathetic to the politics of that organisation) inclusion on that “slate” was certainly no guarantee of selection in a safe Labour ward. Less openly, I am aware that there were invitation-only meetings for potential candidates at the office of Peter Kyle, MP. So-called "factional" activity took place on both sides of the aisle within the broad church of the Labour Party, and if anyone has been given to believe that this was not the case and that it was only supporters of Jeremy Corbyn who were organising in this way, then they have been deliberately misled.
Issues with candidates during and after the selection process
Before the conclusion of the selection process, a (white, male) candidate who had been selected to fight Patcham ward for the Party circulated to ward members a statement which included stupid and offensive content. As Chair of the LCF I contacted the individual and expressed my opinions about his conduct. He promptly resigned and we were able to replace him. Patcham was a safe Conservative ward.
During the election campaign, some historic tweets which had been made by a (white, male) candidate selected to fight St Peter’s and North Laine (SPNL) ward came to light. These were drawn to the attention of the Regional Office rather than the local party and the Party (reasonably) viewed them as offensively misogynistic. The candidate was suspended from the Party, although he had already been nominated and therefore remained on the ballot paper. SPNL was a safe Green ward.
Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by our Regional Official who told me that the Party was suspending a Black woman candidate in the winnable Wish ward on the basis of some historic posts on Facebook, which were considered to be antisemitic. On behalf of the LCF I objected to this action, which I considered to be precipitate and unjustified. The candidate remained on the ballot paper, but neither she nor the other ethnic minority Labour candidate in that ward were successful. The ward was held by the Tories.
Election manifesto, campaign and results
In the run-up to the election, the LCF had organised three open sessions for Party members to contribute to the writing of the manifesto, following which a member of the LCF EC collated all the comments and contributions into a document which was subsequently edited by the Labour Group and became our manifesto. This manifesto was very popular within the Party and the process whereby it was drawn up was widely viewed as a successful model.
The LCF also coordinated campaigning activity across the city in the run-up to the elections and solicited support and donations, including significant and important support from the GMB. We focused support from the LCF on Labour-held and winnable wards, whilst also providing nominal support for other wards where members were keen to launch an effective local campaign (which would draw the resources of opposing parties to defend their wards).
I make these points in order to emphasise that the LCF and its EC were engaging in a great deal of work for our Party which is not recognised in the ill-informed criticism now being made in relation to candidate selection.
The results of the 2019 elections were not what we would have hoped for. Although we performed well against the Tories (with the exception of Wish ward to which I have referred above), we lost ground to the Greens, losing several of the seats which we had won back from them in 2015 (and 2013). We remained, at that point, the largest party group on the council (with one more Councillor than the Greens).
This was the first time in 20 years that the largest group on the council had continued to be the largest group after the quadrennial election. For the first time, the Conservatives were relegated to the third largest group on the Council.
Labour formed an administration and came to an agreement with the Green opposition about developing a strategic plan for the Council to reflect the considerable common ground between the election manifestos of the two parties. As Chair of the LCF I attended regular meetings between the two groups to monitor implementation of the memorandum of understanding which governed their cooperation on certain issues.
Issues raised about Councillors after the election
In mid 2020 complaints were made about three members of the Labour Group, which were allegations in relation to antisemitism. In each case these complaints were historic in the sense that they referred back to matters which had arisen when the individuals concerned were not sitting as Members of the Council. The complainant(s) had either sought out such historic information or had been sitting on the complaints for some time.
Two of the three Councillors concerned resigned from the Party rather than face investigation and still sit as independents. No one can know if the conclusion of the investigations which did not take place would have led to disciplinary action against either of these two individuals, nor if such action would have led to suspension or expulsion or in either case. Comparison with the one case in which the member did not resign rather suggests that they would not have.
In the third case a disciplinary investigation led to the suspension of the individual for 12 months, followed by a further period before they were readmitted to the Labour Group. Subsequent developments mean that the individual is now once more listed as an Independent Councillor.
To say that we lost three Labour Councillors "because of antisemitism” is, at best, a gross oversimplification. As I have explained elsewhere online the answer to the question of why Labour lost our position as the largest group on Brighton and Hove City Council in 2020 is considerably more complicated than that.
In any event the problems faced in these three individual cases in 2020 cannot be attributed to the work of the LCF, undertaken in 2018, to select candidates for the 2019 elections. The LCF followed all advice and guidance which we received from the Party, and did not fail to comply with any such advice. Furthermore, we involved the Region every step of the way.
If, which would not be reasonable, it were to be held that the LCF had been in any way responsible for the circumstances which led to the loss of three members of the Labour Group in 2020, then one would have to conclude that the Region were equally culpable. I should stress that I do not believe that the Region were at fault in this matter, because I do not accept that the LCF bore any such responsibility.
Over the past year, discussions have taken place between members of the 3 CLPs in Brighton and Hove about establishing an LGC. We had been working on the assumption that this LGC would have the full range of powers of such a body as set out in the Labour Party Rule Book.
However, at 16.42 on 26 May, the Regional Director of the Labour Party wrote to the senior officers of the three Constituency Labour Parties in Brighton and Hove. He expressed “grave concerns with the current situation in Brighton and Hove”.
He expressed concern about the candidate vetting process;
“To lose one councillor due to antisemitism allegations is unacceptable, but to lose 20% of the Labour group and control of one of the largest councils in the South East is appalling and cannot ever be allowed to happen again.”
He also reported that he had been having extensive conversations with prospective BAME candidates who attempted to stand in 2019 and the Brighton BAME forum, as follows;
“The reports back to me have been shocking.
It is bad enough that Brighton was highlighted by Operation Black Vote for having no BAME councillors but hearing some of the experiences faced by BAME candidates who attempted to stand last time, it is clear that the situation is indefensible.
Some told me that they attempted to stand in winnable wards only to be told “you can’t stand here because if you do an anti-Jeremy candidate may win” and some told me of the pressure applied to them by other members of the local parties and those within positions of authority which has been shocking to hear.”
He reported that he had referred these concerns to the National Executive Committee (NEC) and that it had been decided a panel will be appointed to conduct selections in Brighton and Hove. This panel will be made up of five members split from between the NEC and the Regional Executive Committee (REC), with at least two of the five members from BAME backgrounds.
On the same day, at 7:20 pm (before this recipient had even opened and read the email sent less than three hours earlier), this development was reported in the media, as follows;
“Labour leaders in Brighton and Hove, Sussex, have been informed they can no longer conduct election candidate contests, due to continued concerns over antisemitism, and a lack of Black and other ethnic minority representatives…
…It follows repeat allegations of antisemitism amongst councillors and members, which eventually contributed to Labour losing overall control of Brighton Council to the Greens…
…It is also comes after BAME members told Labour’s regional bosses they felt they were being excluded from being selected as candidates because they were not part of the hard-left pro-Jeremy Corbyn faction.”
One anonymous source reportedly said: “Despite all the welcome steps taken since Keir Starmer became leader, the Momentum faction still carries a lot of weight in some local branches.
“These people are overwhelmingly white and middle-class, ‘Posh Marxists’ is how some describe them.
“The problem is, they have contributed to the continued toxic atmosphere at some meetings, and have also succeeded in ensuring we having an appalling lack of BAME candidates at elections.”
Quite apart from any opinions which I might (and indeed did) have about the inaccuracy of the criticisms of our local party which were being made, and the thoroughly misleading way in which they were being expressed, I was quite struck by the similarity between the content of the correspondence, and of the press report which appeared within three hours of the email having been sent.
If the anonymous sources for media reports really exist, and are not merely figments of the imagination of lazy hostile journalism, then they either know nothing about the subjects on which they opine or they are deliberately lying.
It is a pity that the NEC have taken decisions without seeking full information from party members in a position to provide an informed account. It is also a pity that correspondence generated from within the Party, and then promptly and all too predictably leaked to the press, made unsubstantiated allegations against unidentified party members in a way which could only encourage hostile media coverage which would damage the Party.
Since criticisms of the LCF, a body which no longer exists, could not logically justify the recommendation to remove powers from the LGC, a body which does not yet exist, I have not written this blog post with any misguided hope of influencing the decision already taken about candidate selection for 2023.
My purpose in writing the above has simply been to set the record straight and to demonstrate that ordinary Labour party members in Brighton and Hove elected by and accountable to the local membership did the best job we could in the circumstances leading up to the 2019 local elections.
I was proud to serve the Labour Party as Chair of the Brighton and Hove Local Campaign Forum over recent years and to have been a member of its Executive. We were inclusive, tolerant and democratic. We didn't get everything right and there were things we could've done a lot better, but we certainly don't deserve to be traduced in correspondence emanating from the Party we served or in press reports based upon anonymous briefings.
I wish the members and officers of the new LGC the best of luck for 2023 and the future.