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9 May 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 10:26am

Who will be the Labour candidate in the Lewisham East by-election?

Heidi Alexander’s decision to quit has sparked a fierce battle for selection in her safe seat.

By Patrick Maguire

Holding Lewisham East, the south east London seat vacated by Heidi Alexander, will not be a challenge for Labour. The party is defending a virtually unassailable majority of 21,123 and, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, will easily retain the constituency.

Such prime political real estate seldom becomes available and the competition to succeed Alexander, the former shadow health secretary, will be fiercely contested. As had been expected, the party has imposed an all-BAME women shortlist.

The four shortlisted candidates are newly-elected Lewisham councillor Sakina Sheikh, announced her candidacy within an hour of Alexander quitting. In view of Sheikh’s enthusiastic support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and the speed with which her fully-formed bid materialised, some have already anointed her the frontrunner. 

Claudia Webbe, a member of Labour’s NEC and former policy adviser to Ken Livingstone, announced her candidacy today. She has similarly played up her ideological – and personal – closeness to Corbyn, and has recused herself from the selection process to run.

Brenda Dacres, a councillor who unsuccessfully ran for the Labour nomination for the Lewisham mayoral election, has also been shortlisted declared, as has, Janet Dabey, Lewisham’s deputy mayor.

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Candidates who will miss out as a result of the shortlisting decision include Kevin Bonavia, a Lewisham councillor and cabinet member tipped by Labour MPs as a potential unity candidate from the soft left, and Joe Dromey, the son of MPs Harriet Harman and Jack Dromey and a highly-regarded councillor and policy wonk (he and his parents would be the first mother, father and son to serve concurrently in the commons).

From a purely factional perspective, this option would make some sense for the left – it would exclude several contenders tipped as possible candidates from the soft left and centre. A stronger argument, however, is that nearly half of all Lewisham residents are minority ethnic, as both Sheikh and Webbe alluded to when announcing their respective candidacies.

Other known unknowns will have a significant impact on the dynamics of the race. There is a strong Corbynite presence at constituency level but the left has largely underperfomed in internal contests locally. Most of the CLP’s executive positions are not held by them and Damien Egan, a Corbynsceptic, won the selection for the Lewisham mayoralty in January by a large margin

Controversy around the logistics of the selection process itself could also have an impact on who members end up choosing. 

The timetable, ordained by the NEC, is incredibly tight: nominations will close just four days after Alexander’s resignation, with the candidate chosen by local members from a shortlist drawn up by a three-person panel of NEC members on Wednesday 16th May. The by-election itself will be held on Thursday 14th June.

Neither the short timeframe nor lack of involvement in shortlisting has gone down well within the CLP’s hierarchy or among Corbynsceptics, who accuse the leadership of attempting to stitch up the selection. Iain McKenzie, the CLP chair, has written to members criticising the decision, urging them not to “let the NEC officers take away our party democracy”. 

Labour insists the truncated process is a result of a deadline set Lewisham’s returning officer, but if the perception of a stitch-up extends in any significant way into the minds of grassroots members, any candidate perceived as its intended beneficiary could suffer reprisals.

Though there were some mutterings of disapproval from Labour MPs when news of Alexander’s intention to resign first broke, there is no guarantee, as some fear, that the seat will prove an easy win for the left.

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