Saturday, 6 February 2016

"Stick It Where the Sun Don't Shine" (Misogyny in the Labour Party, that is)

There are copies of candidate statements available. Can you return them at the end of the meeting, to save on copying for other meetings?” said the officiating party representative. There was no need – the pile remained untouched and un-read at the end of the meeting.

It was no surprise that others had ambitions for our ward – that became clear when the recently-victorious candidate failed to thank any of her campaign team but managed to name-check a couple of people from outside the ward at her victory party.

One of the criticisms our opponents threw at us for years was that our candidates weren't local – that they didn't live in the ward and until selection had little or nothing to do with it. For the 2015 campaign, the branch had two strong potential candidates from within the ward. Both with experience in campaigning and local activism, who were (or had been) union reps, school governors, local authority workers; who knew the area, whose children were educated in the local state schools, who had demonstrated commitment to the branch and to the campaigns of previous candidates. The branch was newly-energised, with a core group of dedicated members who regularly attended branch meetings, strong distribution networks for leafleting and a mission to engage with all sections of the local community, in one of the most diverse wards in the city.

Selection is a two stage process: shortlisting enables branch members to decide who to invite for interview (based on their candidate statements), and the selection meeting interviews all those shortlisted before voting for a candidate.

The shortlisting meeting had been booked at a local community centre, and all branch members were invited to attend. They were reminded that membership cards would be required on the night, to establish eligibility to vote. The shortlisting meeting is often the first opportunity ordinary members get to assess the capabilities of prospective councillors.

When the regular members arrived, they found that the meeting had been moved to a larger room than the normal one used for branch meetings and the AGM, and a sea of unfamiliar faces were already seated some 20 minutes before the meeting was due to start. There were two party officials present as observers but it was felt, as the Chair and Secretary were both potential candidates, that one of those observers should chair the meeting instead.

The procedure for the meeting was explained, membership cards checked (although some people were 'vouched for', having not brought their membership cards, despite this being clearly requested in advance) and it was agreed that the two potential in-ward candidates present would leave the room once the nomination process was due to start.

At this point, someone from the floor asked that any shortlist be restricted to just two names. The chair explained that the size of any shortlist was something that could determined once all nominations had been received. The two local potential candidates then left the meeting.

A total of 5 nominations were made; the two local candidates and three from outside the ward. At this point the size of the shortlist would normally be determined before discussing the merits of the nominated candidates and voting to determine which should go forward to selection. The proposal for a two person shortlist was voted on and accepted (without, apparently, any discussion of the rationale behind it) and the meeting then proceeded to a secret ballot; no discussion of the candidates' merits, just the vote.

A few minutes later, the meeting broke up. Two out-of-area candidates had been selected for interview; one of them, the person who'd been “thanked” by our new councillor....

Regular, active members, those who had been out knocking on doors and delivering leaflets in all weathers, were visibly upset at the outcome. That with two good local candidates to choose from, they had again been landed with an outsider. The one big campaign issue that could have been neutralised immediately (“You don't live here!”) would now once again be a fight campaigners would have to have before even starting on policy differences.

And this had been done on the basis of the votes of people who had never involved themselves with the branch, had never joined in campaigns, but had simply turned up to vote one one occasion, without any discussion of alternative candidates and seemingly no wish to hear what the other 3 nominees might have to say to them at the selection meeting. Notably, few of them have been seen since.

For a branch without a sitting councillor (which was in itself contentious, as the incumbent was not included on the panel of candidates, effectively de-selected by the party without reference to the branch who originally selected him, and whose appeal to the NEC was still pending on the night of the meeting), it would not have been unreasonable to have interviewed all five nominated candidates. While no rules had actually been broken, the selection was conducted in an unethical (and yet clumsily obvious) way. Active members had been left in no doubt that their hard work and commitment counted for nothing, and they would simply be given a favoured candidate for whom they were expected to campaign.

Nor was this the first year in which this had happened. When selection took place for 2014 candidates, the branch again had two candidates from within the ward (both male), but it was declared an all women shortlist (not that there is anything wrong with those). The branch was also the very last to hold its selection meeting, so the shortlist voted on by the branch diminished as other candidates got selected until on the night, there was only one remaining candidate to be interviewed. When this was questioned from the floor, the response was that if the branch did not make a 'selection', a candidate would be imposed.

The two local candidates in this case (the branch Chair and Secretary, don't forget) were not, and have never been, formally notified of the outcome of the meeting. Not that they had failed to be shortlisted, nor the names of those who had. As branch members, they should have been invited back into the meeting to discuss the final agenda points (timing of speeches, questions to be asked of candidates, etc for the selection meeting next week) but they were not, and were left outside until the meeting broke up. No commiserations from the two councillors present, both of whose election campaigns had been reliant on these people's hard work and enthusiasm. A very shabby way to treat good people. And if they treat their own activists with such contempt, one has to query what they think of the local electorate?

The party 'machine' had been used before the shortlisting to try and preclude one of the in-ward candidates from standing, on the grounds that he had a substantive job within the local authority. It had to be pointed out to them that under the rules a) local authority employees were entitled to stand as long as they resigned at the point of nomination (this has also, on occasion, been extended to resigning if elected) and that b) the person in question had disclosed his employment status at the initial panel interview without it being questioned. The machine then cranked up a gear, with a story being circulated that the other in-ward candidate had stood down from the process prior to shortlisting, an (incorrect) fact that was happily passed around the party.

After the selection, relations between the elected councillors and the branch executive worsened considerably. Laughable appeals for 'unity' which appeared to mean the branch supporting councillors' actions without question, failure to respond to reasonable requests for information, while accusing branch officers of inaction (when the officer in question was on holiday) regarding councillor actions/activities, discussing a significant issue about a branch officer privately with another officer on a matter which affected the branch more widely, seemingly appointing a campaign manager without reference to the Executive Committee and arranging a campaign meeting at 24 hours' notice during August, when most of the EC were unable to attend. There was also a (hastily withdrawn) threat from the CLP to suspend the branch for questioning councillors' actions, with the accusation that the branch was “trying to impose its will” on the councillors. A formal complaint to the party about the conduct of one of those involved has not given any response some sixteen months after it was made.

The smears continued. The first branch meeting of the autumn was held at a new venue, but some people turning up at the old one were told that it had been cancelled as 'trouble' was expected. Only mischief-making possibly, but deeply unprofessional. The next leaflet omitted the sitting-but-deselected councillor (whose term of office did not run out until May 2015) from the 'team' contact list, effectively air-brushing him from the branch.

In the next few months, both the branch chair and secretary resigned; a branch fundraiser attracted only about 15 people; activists stopped going out on the doorstep. By the time of the AGM, it was felt necessary to put forward a motion declaring that the branch had “complete confidence in its councillors and candidate” which, in itself suggested there might be a problem.

This is not an isolated case. There are reports of similar things happening all over the country. The Labour Party has many fine, committed activists, but increasingly, they were not being given the chance to serve their communities. It is a profoundly worrying trend and will ultimately do harm to a party already accused of ignoring its core vote and parachuting candidates into seats with which they have no connection.

In the last 24 hours, there have been news stories about muslim women being prevented from standing as candidates. Sadly, this is all too credible, despite the party's reassurances as to the robustness of the selection system. This system can be, and is, played to the advantage of the party machine. And it's not just muslim women, but all women (and some men) whose faces don't fit, for whatever reason.

Of course, there's a right of appeal. But when no actual rules are broken (just twisted to within an inch of snapping), what would be the point? As many of us have discovered, complaints disappear into a black hole. And, as we're always being told, party unity is important, so why would 'ordinary' members want to cause embarrassment?

Suggesting that other political parties don't have ways of influencing candidate selection would be naive. Other parties may  be "worse". But I expect better of the Labour Party. Women members have had enough of 'keeping quiet' for the good of the party. This is wrong, and we shouldn't have been putting up with it. As one comrade puts it:

"We, us, the gobby, loud, opinionated bintz in the Labour Party are ready, willing and prepared to shout from the roof tops; shove your misogyny where the sun don't shine."