Branch life (2)

Earlier this year our Labour Party branch held its AGM (online). The main business of the evening was electing officers, or rather re-electing officers: of nine elected positions, seven office-holders were re-elected and an eighth position was taken by someone who had held other positions in previous years (eight other positions, to be precise, in the previous five years). Even the sixteen positions of delegate to the constituency party were mostly taken either by officers or by people who had served as delegate multiple times before.

The secretary, in particular, was elected to the post for the fifth successive time. Back in 2017, when the Left took a run at getting some positions in this branch, we stood a candidate for secretary, but they didn’t really have a chance: incumbents have many advantages over any challenger, and an incumbent secretary has more than most. Everyone who goes to so much as one party meeting knows the secretary; everyone knows he’s efficient and even-tempered, keeps things running and doesn’t wind anyone up. Which is all true. He’s also a member of a clique dedicated to keeping things much as they are, with offices shared between a rotating cast of familiar faces and with the Left kept firmly at arm’s length – but it’s hard to get the vote out on that basis, not least because any Left candidate would need to be able to show that they had the qualities to be a competent secretary. Which I’m sure lots of people do, but it’s difficult for any of them to demonstrate it to members of this branch without first getting elected to something.

A few weeks ago the branch was called on to re-select – or de-select – one of our three councillors. (The ward used to be competitive between Labour and the Lib Dems, but then came the Coalition, which had the usual effect on the Lib Dem vote; our councillors have all been Labour since 2011.) It was the turn of a long-serving, well-liked and not particularly right-wing councillor, and nobody was very surprised when reselection was a formality. What did come as a surprise was the announcement soon afterwards that one of the other two councillors was standing down for personal reasons; a by-election would be called, and we needed to elect a candidate to stand in it. Word was that the favoured candidate was our secretary.

A shortlisting meeting was duly announced to the membership, with a lead time of a few minutes over 96 hours; the same email also announced a selection meeting, to take place four days after that. Seven days, not four, is the minimum interval laid down in party rules; however, the rules also stipulate that the Manchester party hierarchy – like the NEC nationally – can waive requirements like this if it sees fit. I was surprised to see that a list of six candidates emerged from the shortlisting meeting – our secretary, a Left candidate and four others – but less surprised to hear, on the night of the selection meeting, that three of them had withdrawn.

In the mean time candidates had been given an opportunity to send out emails to all members – and, two days after the shortlisting meeting, our secretary and the Left candidate both did so. The Left candidate set out an impressive record of campaigning and activism, both in the party and in the local community. Our secretary for his part offered us a double-sided full-colour flyer, complete with pictures of himself out and about in the area, testimonials from colleagues within the party (“he will be a fresh face on the council and a brilliant councillor”) and five pledges to his (future) electorate – although on closer inspection these consisted largely of itemising the people he intended to “work with” (“our current councillors”, “local traders, businesses and the local Traders Association”, “officers at Manchester City Council”, etc). We also learned that he had been a caseworker for the local MP for the last six years. (A friend asked the Manchester party whether other candidates would have the chance to send out something like this, and was essentially told that there was nothing stopping them – with the strong implication that their candidate and ours started out on a completely even footing, and that neither had any materials or facilities available to them other than what they could rustle up in two days and pay for personally.)

At the selection meeting, two days later, quite a long time was spent on checking the credentials of everyone involved, by the novel method of having one person compile a handwritten list of names (in the order they logged in) and then call them out for checking by two other people who had the membership list, while a third person kept an eye on the chat and called out anything that cropped up there. (Strange that more people don’t attend these meetings, really.) When all that had been sorted out, the three remaining candidates each gave a brief address and answered a selection of questions. Questions on social care and on a local green space campaign gave both the Left candidate and the third candidate the chance to demonstrate principled commitment and engage with the detail of what’s possible locally, identifying specific actions which the council could take. A question on the EHRC report seemed less directly relevant – indeed, one Jewish party member objected to having their identity put up for debate at a council candidate selection meeting – and could have been designed to put a left-winger on the spot. Our Left candidate trod a careful line, neither minimising the problem of antisemitism in the party and society nor acquiescing in the conflation of anti-semitism with anti-Zionism. The third candidate’s answer seemed designed mostly to avoid the issue entirely, although they did begin with the curious assertion that the pandemic had made racism and antisemitism worse. (Whereas in fact antisemitism stopped being a problem in April 2020, of course.)

As for our secretary, his answers to the substantive local questions could not have been blander or more vague; his stress throughout was on damping down expectations of how much could realistically be achieved, and the need to “work with” people – and charities, and businesses – in order to deliver even that. He only really displayed any passion on the question relating to the EHRC report: those were dark times for Labour… how far an anti-racist party had fallen… he was proud to have put his name to a motion to affiliate to the Jewish Labour Movement… it was imperative for us to build bridges with the Jewish community… anyone who didn’t agree with that objective, frankly, he didn’t think they belonged in the party. We shall see if anything comes of that; all I’ll say here is that, considering the high probability of the axe falling on anti-Zionist Jewish socialists (here as elsewhere), talking about swinging it in the name of “the Jewish community” is a bad joke.

So the Left candidate performed well, at least in terms of having good ideas, being on top of the issues and handling a tricky question on the fly. The third candidate was a bit more vague and waffly, and the secretary didn’t really cover himself in glory at all – unless what you want from your local Labour councillor is extreme gradualism and a staunch commitment to one particular position in a century-long dispute within the British Jewish community. Would the voters be swayed?

Well, what do you think?

It was at our last council candidate selection meeting that the similarity between our local party meetings and a wedding first struck me. There were three candidates that night, too; the people the local establishment had turned out voted for their candidate, the people we’d turned out voted for the Left candidate, and the third candidate basically got the votes of the people she’d come with. It would have saved a lot of time to cancel the speeches and just station ushers on the doors where people came in – left-wing challenger side or centre-right establishment side, sir?

I wouldn’t have thought that the voting this time round could be even more polarised, but it was: the Left candidate got about a third of the votes, the secretary got two-thirds and the third candidate got… one vote. Second preferences did not need to be counted. This, for a safe seat on the council; this, for a candidate explicitly offering business as usual (with a side order of war on the Left); this, in one of the biggest ward branches in the city. All this, in a meeting taking place a week and a day after the vacancy was first announced to branch members, and attended by approximately one-eighth – maybe even less – of those members.

And that, children, is where Labour councillors come from.

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