WHO GETS TO DECIDE which candidates stand for Labour in the May local elections? At the time of the 2016 attempted PLP ‘coup’ against Corbyn, those opposing him seemed to have their strongest base among councillors. 1,000 backed his challenger Owen Smith. Only a handful backed Corbyn.
The old Labour establishment regarded local government as its natural territory, seeking to consign the radical local authorities of the 1980s to the history books.
This has been facilitated by a tight grip on the party institutions responsible for overseeing councillor selection that favour sitting councillors. The democracy of candidate selection is not simply dependent on properly conducted ward meetings, but ensuring politically representative and accountable structures at the two preceding stages. These involve a vetting procedure which puts considerable power in the hands of regional officials and the Local Campaign Forum (LCF) and which has been used to block left wingers before the ward-based membership gets to cast its votes.
In the north London borough of Haringey these tectonic plates dramatically shifted late last year. As a result, Labour candidates whose politics are more closely in line with the local party membership and community were selected.
The Labour council’s Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) project, involving the transfer of over £2 billion of council homes and other property assets to a joint venture, controversial international property developer Lendlease, had been a source of growing controversy.
The refusal of the Labour Group leadership to pause or modify this policy in the face of opposition from both local MPs, both local constituency parties, local unions and a vibrant community-based mass campaign made it inevitable that the issue would become a focus in the November selection process.
Other factors included a confidence boost from Labour’s June general election campaign, anger over Grenfell, and a left ascendancy across the wards and General Committee of Hornsey and Wood Green CLP. The last of these had in turn led to a change in the balance of power on the LCF. But more than anything it was driven by a massive growth in local party membership since Corbyn’s election as leader, spurred by a desire for a fundamental and radical change in direction.
The result was a huge month-long exercise in grassroots democracy. Ninety party members stood in the 19 Haringey wards for 57 council candidacies. Over a thousand members attended 36 meetings – many of which lasted over two hours on dark, cold winter evenings. Four wards had meetings well in excess of a hundred. Twenty four councillors were reselected and 33 new candidates were selected.
Where incumbents were defeated, this was either in scrupulously fair and democratic contests or because they chose resignation. The whole procedure was conducted strictly according to the rules and supervised by party officers.
This mass grassroots democracy has resulted in a shift from the current Labour Group in which only 40% oppose the HDV to a candidate list that is 45 to 12 against the HDV. The new Labour Group will be a broad church but it is likely to be more aligned to the national party leadership, to be anti-austerity, and to seek to defend the interests of the community rather than pursuing neo-liberal, ‘easy council’ policies that are the increasing norm.
The Tory media responded by a hostile propaganda offensive based on a false counter-narrative of a supposed ‘purge’ organised by Momentum, as though mass democracy and an independent active membership played no part.
In fact, the left’s success lay in local activists organising in ward-based caucuses, democratically deciding which candidates best represented the interests of the local community. No outside organisation could possibly have manipulated or engineered an outcome involving so many members, in so many meetings, based in so many separate units, all according to strict national rules. A new Labour Group with radically different policies will replace the current one after the May elections. The current Labour regime should be preparing a smooth transition and, in particular, calling a halt to the HDV. But not thus far.
The anti-HDV struggle is likely to intensify. January and February will see the local parties, their members, trade union affiliates and the local community engaging in a massive debate - deepening the process of democratic accountability - about what should be in the manifesto, the role of Labour councils under austerity, and how councillors should be accountable to the Party and to those who elect them. Haringey may be just the tip of an iceberg. There are signs elsewhere that the radical ‘Corbyn surge’ is working its way through at a local level.
At London regional conference in November delegates warmly welcomed the developments in Haringey and overturned regional board attempts to prevent the discussion of motions to democratise the region. Local activists in other boroughs are challenging selection processes that have involved the exclusion of left candidates. There are significant lessons to be learned.