I’ve written a series of pieces over the last few weeks detailing numerous irregularities in selection meetings across the city for the 2018 local elections.
Matters came to a head on Wednesday the 19th September, just before Labour Party Conference, when several members of the party’s National Executive Committee personally intervened, following what I have been told were over 50 complaints (at least two of which involved demonstrable dishonesty), to seek the suspension of all selection meetings across the city pending a review of the process and to allow outstanding panel applications and appeals to be addressed.
(I’m given to understand that much of the concern centres around the Harborne and Handsworth selection meetings – readers will be aware that I have covered the rollercoaster ride in Harborne ward in some detail.)
Furthermore, the planned Birmingham Board AGM and ordinary meeting on Friday September the 22nd was called off.
The AGM itself was called off also at the insistence of the NEC, although it is still unclear whether they instructed the whole meeting be cancelled entirely. Having such an important meeting of the Board when so many members were likely to be away for Conference was wholly inappropriate in any case.
The AGM, which hasn’t been held for years (despite the clue being in the name regarding frequency), was called at 6 days notice despite the rules making it clear that 28 were required for such an important event in the Birmingham Labour calendar.
There were also several attempted changes to the composition of the Board that have come to light in the week leading up to the meeting, which were, shall we say, interesting, and appear designed to ensure certain outcomes in certain votes (and will warrant further investigation by someone with the time…..) The most important of these was thankfully blocked.
And of course, all of this is set against the backdrop of the continued turmoil in the Labour-controlled city council, with the Group leadership election last week (that ordinary Birmingham party members had no say in at all, depressingly, despite clearly being the best judge of these things).
So all in all it wasn’t a terrific few days for the Labour Party hierarchy across our fair city and region.
In this context the seriousness of the National Executive Committee’s intervention cannot be exaggerated. For the NEC to get involved and suspend the selection process in the largest metropolitan council in the country, and just before Conference, represents an absolutely devastating vote of no confidence in the functioning of the local party apparatus.
I am told that several very senior individuals locally were in an absolute state of panic following the move – one feels that after a couple of decades of being allowed to act with complete impunity they suddenly realise that the repeated stitch-ups, irregularities and manoeuvrings are catching up with them. Not before time.
For many party members locally the NEC’s move is a welcome one and the vindication of a longstanding and at times demoralising campaign to democratize the city and regional parties. It is no more than a start, but nevertheless hugely significant.
It is clear to any objective observer of Birmingham Labour party politics that there is a serious problem, that the sheer scale and diversity of the irregularities across the city in the last couple of months suggests it is a huge, systemic problem, and given the sovereign power of the NEC within the party’s structures it probably required NEC intervention to try and address that systemic problem.
All that said, the decision does itself potentially pose a few problems. There has been some commentary on social media suggesting that the timing is disastrous and it could really hurt the party locally in May 2018, with candidates potentially not being in position for some time. There have been numerous delays already and selections were meant to begin a year ago.
I would argue however that doing nothing, and allowing this farce to proceed, would have been far more damaging. An attempt to clean this up was always going to be messy, whenever it began (and in many areas of the country selection meetings have barely started anyway).
The reality is that the West Midlands and Birmingham Labour Parties are rotten from top to bottom. There is no democracy and members have virtually no say. The Birmingham Board, on paper the ‘Local Campaign Forum’ which according to the rules is supposed to control candidate selection, in reality simply rubber-stamps decisions made by paid (or formerly paid) officials and senior MPs elsewhere.
Board meetings are months apart and no reports are provided to members unless huge pressure is applied. Minutes are impossible to get hold of and those that are produced are ludicrously brief.
For example, at the Board meeting that was due to be held on the 22nd, the minutes were to be handed out at the meeting and not circulated by email beforehand!
Many local members are still entirely unaware of the Board’s existence and in the last year the composition mysteriously has shifted before meetings where crucial votes may have been lost by the Regional Office.
That until recently four (now three with the lifting in Hall Green) of the ten Birmingham CLPs are in ‘Special Measures’, some for over 20 years and with seemingly no plan in the remaining three to lift them out, was and is used to justify the most Kafkaesque regime imaginable in the whole city.
The lack of democracy has real-world effects. There is no way that a Birmingham Labour Party more responsive to members would have treated the refuse workers so disgracefully.
A more democratic, member-led party would not have produced such a meek response to savage Tory-imposed austerity.
And a West Midlands Regional Office with any life and vibrancy in it at all would not have run such a spectacularly inept, and at times repugnant, mayoral campaign (if I wanted to give out leaflets with the Cross of St. George on the front I’d have joined the National Front).
Because of this we have a Tory regional mayor in a region that should comfortably have returned the Labour candidate. A more democratic regional party would have actually provided us with a choice of candidates and allow most members to participate in that selection – thus providing us with a final candidate who we could actually get behind rather than ending up campaigning, half-heartedly, for a candidate most of us (whether on the right or left) didn’t want, in an election the people of the region didn’t want in the first place.
The hollowed-out West Midlands party structures are what you are left with after decades of only sporadically interrupted and disrupted Labour First and right-wing control. The effects have been a disaster and unless and until things are cleaned up we will face repeat after repeat of the Sion Simon campaign.
Returning to Birmingham, Momentum members and sympathisers in the North and South of the city, along with members of all wings who just want a democratic, vibrant party, voted and campaigned for a more just and democratic freeze date for members to participate in selection meetings. Members were expected to have joined over two years ago to participate in meetings this year. The “freeze date” was set literally at the month when all the new members started joining to support the first Corbyn leadership campaign – July 2015. It was so blatant it was almost embarrassing.
The national rule is 6 months.
All the protests and resolutions were ignored; when it finally came to the Board for consideration (which in itself took Herculean efforts I understand) it was voted down by what I have also been told was an unconstitutional secret ballot.
It took a personal intervention by Jeremy Corbyn at an NEC sub-committee meeting to shift the freeze date to about a year. Far from perfect, but the fact that the party leader felt it necessary to intervene himself to protect members’ rights, over the head of the local party leadership, showed that something was seriously awry, and that the intelligent individuals in the West Midlands Regional Office would surely know that they were now on notice.
The recent developments would suggest that if there was a debate in the WMRO, however, it was won by the “carry on stitching-everything-up and bludgeoning through regardless” brigade.
The attempt to ram the AGM on the 22nd through at such short notice, the tin ears around the freeze date and the unending, clumsy, cack-handed attempts to manipulate the 2018 selections suggests a local party bureaucracy used to doing what it wants with impunity and incapable of reflecting on the mood shift in the party across the region and the country.
Members with any involvement in trying to assert and extend party democracy locally, in however small a way, will know the stock response they have always received from the machine: sullen, ignorant, po-faced, dishonest, indifferent and unbending intransigence every step of the way. No room for compromise. No meeting anyone half way or ever giving any ground on anything. Every setback, however minor, for the WMRO met with another attempt to force through what they wanted by another, invariably even less democratic route. Witness all the selection meetings held in August after they “lost” the freeze date battle.
The selection process in Birmingham has become the site of a civil war that the West Midlands Regional Office started. This mess is owned by them.