A bit of mourning before getting organised

By-election defeat, dirty Tory tactics and the festive season party circuit

Moan, moan, moan, moan, moan. OK, I’m in a bit of a bad mood this week, so that’s what this blog is going to be - just one long moan. Sorry ...

Turns out we didn’t win the Kentish Town by-election on Thursday. Although it would have been something of a miracle for us to move straight from third place to first, particularly with the Lib Dems wanting the seat so badly, we did think we stood a chance. And it wasn’t just us. Rumours reaching us from activists in the other parties ranged from ‘you might just win’ to ‘you’ve got it in the bag’.

We ran a very decent campaign in the end. Natalie, our national internal communications co-ordinator (also from Camden) edited and designed some really professional leaflets, and I think she spent more time canvassing than I did as well. Councillors and key Greens from all over the country also joined us for doorstep duties at various points over the past six weeks, and Peter Tatchell came along for a special session to push Labour voters our way last week (Peter was in Labour for over twenty years before joining the Green Party in 2004).

Thursday started at 6am, with a queue of two dozen Greens outside my flat ready to deliver our ‘it’s election day’ postcards.Our polling day HQ was run like clockwork by London Assembly Member Darren Johnson, who took Lewisham from one Green councillor to six this year. But still, about half way through the afternoon we realised how outnumbered we were by LibDems on the streets – we could see about five of them ‘knocking up’ voters for every one of our people.

I was also a bit shocked to see a Tory leaflet going out on the eve of the election with a 'truth table' stating baldly that I am not a local school governor (I am, and my school is in the ward). I'm sure that can't have helped - voters put a lot of store in local connections - and it's not as if the Tories couldn't have easily found out the facts. We mentioned it in several of our leaflets, and the details come up immediately if you put my name into Camden Council’s website.

The Tories of course didn’t stand a chance in Kentish Town and Labour - defending the seat - were similarly outnumbered by the LibDems, so we did manage to take second place, which is a bit of a result at least. This was only confirmed after two (yes two!) recounts. At the first count we were two votes ahead and after a recount this rose to four. But they still called for another count, so it wasn’t until 1am that we finally had the result, with us still four votes ahead. Luckily, the new laws mean it was easy to find a pub still open near the Town Hall in Kings Cross for a team celebration after all the excitement.

Having caught up on my sleep now, I’m feeling a lot less grumpy, and the fact that 28% of the voters put all their faith in the Greens this time (not just one of their three possible votes, which happened a lot in May) is very touching. We are well set up for next time too – after three more years of a LibDem-Tory coalition messing up running the council, ‘we were second last time’ will be an excellent campaign slogan!

More depressing is the amount of paper the parties have gone through in the course of this election. As predicted in my previous blog, with four parties all working hard, the number of leaflets got really out of hand, particularly from the LibDems. I know it works - and fools a lot of voters - but I just can’t bring myself to put out things like their tricksy pretend-handwritten letters (usually printed on twee blue notepaper) which will be familiar to people living in LibDem target wards across the country (‘Dear Friend…’ eugh).

I have been collecting all the leaflets that have come through my door and, including what the Greens delivered, it all weighs in at just over 300 grams. This probably doesn’t include everything, as I’m unlikely to be a target voter for any of the other parties myself, but it’s a reasonable working figure. Multiplied by the 5,800 households in the ward, this means the campaign as a whole used up almost two tons of paper. Sorry forests! I hope it all gets recycled. My collection of blue, yellow and red paper is going in the ‘dodgy propaganda’ file for the time being.

Now I’ve got all that moaning out of my system, I’m looking forward to a few weeks of relative rest. By happy coincidence, the Christmas party season is just starting up and my new job as Principal Speaker means my invitation list includes the odd swanky do this year as well – good timing indeed.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.