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15 December 2017

Will Haringey’s Momentum clash spread to local Labour parties nationwide?

“If you’re a moderate in local government and want to achieve change, winter is coming.”

By Marie Le Conte

Will Haringey be remembered as a one-off or a blueprint? A war is being fought between Labour factions in the north London council – leading to the deselection and heavy-hearted resignation of several councillors – and Corbynsceptic figures are watching on, uneasily.

This particular fight has centred on the Haringey Development Vehicle, a controversial scheme spearheaded by council leader Claire Kober and aiming to regenerate the area by privatising its public property.

To critics, it is an “assault on the poor”; to its supporters, it’s the only way for a cash-strapped local authority to help residents.

To newspapers, however, it has mostly been a golden opportunity to bring back stories about vicious Labour infighting, which had mostly disappeared since Labour’s buoyant election result.

Commentators aren’t mincing their words either. For John McTernan, Momentum was only flexing its muscle in Haringey, and this was a “warning shot”: “It’s the Keyser Söze approach to managing the party,” the former New Labour strategist told me, referring to the shadowy crime lord in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. “It’s Maoist – one executed, one thousand educated. If you’re a moderate in local government and want to achieve change, winter is coming.”

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For Owen Jones, on the other hand, a supporter of Momentum, what happened was hardly remarkable, given the dramatic shift to the left: “If a Labour council in a constituency absolutely chock-a-block full of idealistic left-wing activists proposed mass privatisation of council homes and public land, which was even opposed by local MPs, one of whom is David Lammy who’s definitely not a Corbynite, wouldn’t it be weirder if there weren’t deselections?”

As the most vocal elements of the pro and anti-Corbyn factions fight it out, things seem quieter for everyone else.

“It’s not happening everywhere, it’s just in little pockets of places”, said a councillor who did not want to be named. “Talking to people around the country, it seems pretty calm in most places.”

A figure in London Labour who also asked to remain anonymous agreed: “Outside of Haringey, there’s not really been a mass deselection at all. There are some places where Momentum have tried but there’s no appetite among members for it.”

“I don’t think this kind of line which Progress [a pressure group associated with New Labour] is pushing that there’s this mass of deselections happening is particularly helpful to anybody. I just think that both sides need to calm this down, really.”

For Lawrence Black, a professor of modern British history at the university of York, the noise around council deselections – happening or not – is simply symptomatic of the so-called moderates’ hangover from the days they controlled the party.

“The gist of it is that the dominant faction, Momentum, has the power to drive this process and those who are feeling marginalised by it don’t like it,” he told me. “But the complaints about the process are a little bit of a red herring, it’s to do with relative power within the Labour movement”.

It’s also worth pointing out that whoever has a grip on the Labour party has historically always tended to abuse it, no matter the faction.

A famous example is Martha Osamor, a black activist who was nominated by her constituency Labour party to stand in the Vauxhall by-election of 1989. The office of then-leader Neil Kinnock got involved, as he had become “obsessed with resisting the rising left-wing rank and file members”, and Kate Hoey was selected instead, though she’d only received one nomination to her opponent’s eight. (In a somewhat amusing turn of events, Martha’s daughter Kate was elected as an MP 26 years later, and is now one of the pro-Corbyn shadow cabinet rising stars.)

Beyond the factionalism, concerned centrists also point to the fact that deciding to stand as a council candidate isn’t something that should be taken lightly, and they worry that enthusiastic new activists might not know what they’re getting into.

“Where there’s a problem – and Haringey is an example – is when people decide to stand to push other people out and maybe haven’t thought of what the commitment of being a councillor for four years involves,” the councillor said.

“Some of the people don’t have a lot of experience and might stop turning up to stuff, and as a councillor you need to turn up to meetings for decisions to be quorate, for kids to get adopted, for all the services to run.”

This lack of confidence in the more recent additions to the party also points to the crux of the issue: to whom does the Labour party machine belong?

The –  now incredibly large – membership is politically at odds with a lot of the party’s elected officials, and their demand for a shift to the left in order to feel better represented seems fair. But the frustration of party hacks who spent years toiling away before it was popular only to find themselves told that they aren’t needed anymore is also understandable.

“There’s this sense of ‘we’ve been here for all this time, you’ve just popped along and want to change the face of the party’,” Jones told me. “I understand that when things change very quickly, and you’ve known the constituency Labour party, you’ve known the people and all of a sudden you’ve got this mass influx of people, many of whom maybe didn’t support Labour in the past, many have found that upsetting and distressing.”

This was directly echoed by the councillor, who added: “Before, people would vote through anyone who was willing to stand and do the work and we were always short of candidates, but now it’s much more competitive […] Last time we had a selection meeting, I looked at the membership list and thought ‘God, I don’t know who any of these people are’.”

Still, the fact that infighting like the kind reported in Haringey dominated the news shows that these episodes are still the exception, and most selection meetings for next year’s local elections have gone relatively smoothly.

This is partly because the so-called moderates knew what might be coming – one London CLP hack said that they’d been working for months to ensure that Momentum activists couldn’t get anywhere near selection – but this attitude might not last.

Stories of backroom fixing, intimidation and bullying aren’t a good look for anyone, but at the end of the day, Corbynites have won the war for the control of the party.

Without a candidate, a policy platform, a vision or a support base, the Corbynsceptic wing of the party has been cast out into the wilderness for the foreseeable future.

They might well decide to focus all their energy on pushing back Momentum-backed advances every time they happen, but these efforts will ultimately appear futile. After all, what’s the point of winning the occasional battle when the war is already lost?

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