In late October, Labour Party members in the London Borough of Newham were informed of the launch of a trigger ballot process for the selection of the Labour candidate for mayor in the May 2018 local elections. The hearts of those hoping for a regular and transparent selection process sank when they heard it had been arranged at a meeting between an official of the London Regional Party and the Executive Committee of Newham’s Local Campaign Forum, with the chair of this forum appointed as procedures secretary.
The reasons for this dismay were threefold. The trigger ballot was set four months earlier than for the 2014 Elections, thereby disenfranchising hundreds of new members. The process was led by an LCF EC, unconfirmed by the full LCF, that consisted entirely of associates of the mayor. The procedures secretary was a community neighbourhood lead councillor, appointed by the mayor with a special responsibility allowance.
There is mayoral history in Newham dating back to 2002. Since then there has been no opportunity for Party members to compete with Sir Robin Wales for the candidacy. Previous trigger ballots were low key affairs with few branch members attending selection meetings. Then, most members felt uncomfortable about speaking out against Sir Robin’s automatic candidacy in the presence of his supporters and were fearful of being suspected of voting against this when small turnout results were announced. Now, however, things have changed.
Among an enlarged and emboldened membership there is a strong feeling that 16 years as mayor, following seven years as council leader, is too long for one individual. Many are indignant that the mayor’s powers of patronage have prevented the Labour party from functioning properly, In parts of the borough, branch meetings are not called regularly, GC and LCF delegates have not been elected by branches and the East Ham GC has met irregularly. Many are also concerned about the limited debate about policies in Labour Group and Council and the lack of scrutiny of council finances and operations. Even among Sir Robin’s supporters, some believe he should take part in an open contest to legitimise an extension of his long reign.
The Trigger Democracy campaign was unlike any previously seen, appealing to a wide section of the membership. Both the Yeses for Sir Robin’s automatic selection and the Noes for an open selection lobbied to an unprecedented extent. After the first week the Yeses were on the brink of victory, leading the Noes by nine branches to three. After three weeks the Yeses were on the brink of despair, with the Noes having won all the remaining branches to head the party members’ vote by eleven branches to nine.
However, the results from the union affiliates were unknown until the count on December 5th, as was even the identity of some of them. I was one of a handful of branch officers who managed to gain access to the count, in spite of being denied information about its time and place. We discovered the London Region representative, the procedures secretary and several of the mayor’s associates in the community centre used by the Labour Party seemingly hiding in a room on the first floor. We learned that the overall result of the trigger ballot was 20-17 in favour of the selection of Sir Robin Wales as candidate, but a nervous silence reigned rather than an atmosphere of triumph or relief.
A cursory examination of each branch’s declaration forms revealed several oddities. Most notable was a vote cast by the Newham Fabian Society which had not met for four years, while three of the four forms submitted by the GMB affiliates were identical and could only be distinguished by unsigned attached information sheets. Other apparent irregularities came to light and are currently being investigated with the help of these organisations’ officials. West Ham CLP has asked each affiliated union and socialist society to produce an account of the rules and procedures used for their trigger ballot vote.
The Labour Party NEC has consequently been asked to call for an open selection process on the basis of one member one vote. As things stand, many members are not prepared to accept Sir Robin Wales as candidate, and the only way to begin to heal the deep divisions in Newham is by a fair contest.
The Labour Party must ensure that its rules are properly followed and that elections and other processes are conducted transparently, whatever the power of those involved. At a time when there is a groundswell of democratic renewal in the party it can afford to do nothing less.