THE first candidates for Labour’s council elections team will finally be selected this week. It’s always a bit of a bruising process and even before it kicks off there’s been some rumbling discontent about how it has been handled. Roger Robinson, the long-serving councillor and former mayor, for example, was not put through after the basic interview stage – to the dismay of nearly all of his colleagues who knew about it – and was only cleared to stand again after an appeal to Region last week. There was heat coming here had it gone the other way, as anybody who remembers when he was temporarily deselected in Somers Town before the 2006 elections, and the anger it caused, can attest.
In the wider scheme of these selections, one of the key internal grievances, essentially from left-wingers, is the decision not to re-open the candidate application process after the general election in June. A timetable to select the line-up had been suspended once Theresa May called her snap general election. When it resumed, the door was kept shut on new applications. This, pro-Corbyn types say, meant anybody who felt enthused by Labour’s performance at the election, which saw the Tories lose the majority they held in the Commons, could not take that excitement and transfer it into an application to become a local councillor.
A further irritation is that some sitting councillors only announced that they would not be standing again after the deadline for applications had passed. Naturally, some more reserved newbies have no interest in potentially forcing a deselection by standing against someone already in the chamber, but would have come forward if they knew there was a natural vacancy in their home or favoured ward.
These gripes are set against the backdrop of the left caucus generally being outnumbered within the Labour group at the Town Hall and knowing that the only real way that they can change the numbers is to get more sympathetic councillors elected. As far as I can see there is not a real revolution of former Socialist Worker Party members ahead, but the horror show for the modernisers, centrists, again we are going to have settle on a better label, and so on would be for Momentum members, fans of Corbyn, to take over seats where councillors are departing in West Hampstead, Gospel Oak, Highgate and King’s Cross, while potentially producing winning candidates in the target wards of Swiss Cottage and Belsize, where they feel emboldened enough to challenge Conservative leader Claire-Louise Leyland and the sitting Conservatives. All of this won’t happen. Not every new face on the list you are about to see is a Corbyn cheerleader… and see what answer you get if you ask CLL whether she is going to let go of her territory without a fierce defence.
Such changes in the Labour line-up at the council would alter the complexion of the annual general meeting, though, where the most left-wing councillors have largely been overlooked for cabinet places when the group votes in secret each year and some of the biggest roles – including leader – have been populated by members who supported Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Owen Smith in the party’s national leadership contests.
To all this, organisers say they are working hard, just trying to do their best and that complainants are seeing conspiracy theories. The party held open days to cast the net for as many candidates as possible and the view was that enough had come forward to pull together a decent squad. It’s not their fault, it has been said several times, that May jerked the timetable around by calling the June 8 election.
There has been a bit of to and fro about whose version of events is most accurate and, as night follows day, there are several other stories about Labour’s local elections candidate selection process floating around. But let’s stick with this one for now, because the circulation of a final list of approved candidates to come through interviews and appeals has caused more consternation about why the door was not re-opened after the general election and Corbyn’s surprisingly strong performance. The list suggests Labour has essentially ended up with 54 interested and approved candidates for the 54 slots on the ballot paper; as the critics say this morning, hardly the gigantic choice you might have expected given the reluctance to allow more people to join the process.
The talk now is that new applications will be considered at some stage after all, although only from women, to improve the gender balance. Given the first picks are being made in West Hampstead tonight, any new candidate may already be too late to apply for some of the more appetising wards and could find themselves making up the numbers in Tory-held seats. This last line should be tempered with the view among some of the most confident Labour councillors that the party could, with the right wind, scythe the opposition down to around four or five councillors next May, a pattern which could move us closer to the near one-party state in neighbouring Islington.
The list of approved contenders for the Labour selections, sitting councillors in bold
Phil Turner (pictured above with Lib Dem councillor Flick Rea)