Labour divisions have erupted again after Jas Athwal beat the sitting MP, Sam Tarry, in the selection race to be the party’s candidate in Ilford South at the next general election. Athwal, the leader of London’s Redbridge Borough Council, won a vote of local members last night (10 October) after a fraught campaign. The battle was a mixture of the personal and political, and goes to the heart of the divisions in Keir Starmer’s party. Tarry will remain as MP until the next general election, which is expected to be in 2024.
Firstly, the personal. The win is a triumph for Athwal after he was suspended as a Labour member over a complaint of sexual harassment the night before the selection contest in 2019, which Tarry won. Athwal believed the complaint was malicious, and was cleared of all allegations against him in 2020 then reinstated as a member. He described the year spent clearing his name as “torture” and told the Guardian that he contemplated suicide.
Last night he said: “Ilford is my home, it is where I live, went to school and where my children all went to school. It is the only place I would ever want to represent. The opportunity to be the Labour candidate at the next election and be part of Keir Starmer’s winning team is a real honour.”
Tarry is the partner of Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, and from the party’s left. He is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, was co-chair of Rayner’s deputy leadership campaign in 2020, and was a director of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2016 leadership campaign. He was sacked as a shadow transport minister in July after he gave media interviews from a picket line – a row that inflamed tensions between trade unions and the Labour leadership. Starmer declared that he “made up policy on the hoof” over pay deals.
The fallout from the selection clash could be explosive. Tarry, who is the first MP to be deselected under Starmer, said he was “utterly crestfallen” and branded the race a “manufactured political circus”. He is “extremely concerned” about the vote, which he claimed did “not reflect the feeling my campaigners met on the ground talking day-in day-out to members, or the extensive meticulous data we gathered on the campaign”.
He said: “I am taking some time to consider what’s next, but in order to be assured of the integrity of the result I am asking the party to share with me the full information of who cast electronic votes, by what method, and when they were cast, which I understand is available in the ‘anonyvoter’ system.”
Other Labour sources appeared to anticipate a challenge last night, with one saying: “Sam Tarry will now act like a pound-shop Donald Trump and claim the vote was rigged. Luckily the Labour Party has shut the door on conspiracy theorist cranks.”
Athwal, meanwhile, has been backed by Labour moderates – most notably the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting – who are in the ascendancy under Starmer. Tarry’s ousting will leave other left-wing MPs looking nervously over their shoulder with constituency boundary changes due next year. The unions were also split over the contest, with GMB and Unite backing Tarry, and Unison, Community and Usdaw supporting Athwal.
Finally, the campaign has created tensions within the shadow cabinet, the most obvious being between Starmer and Rayner, whose relationship had improved in recent months after a bungled 2021 reshuffle in which the leader tried to move his deputy on. But other members of Starmer’s top team, namely the shadow climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, and the shadow economic secretary, Tulip Siddiq, had endorsed Tarry, despite him calling Starmer “petulant” in an interview with the New Statesman.
Some Athwal supporters were furious with Miliband, whose endorsement appeared alongside Corbyn’s on a Tarry campaign leaflet. It was not clear today whether Miliband had given his approval for the leaflet. It was also claimed that other frontbenchers assisted Tarry’s campaign. In an indicator of how nasty the feud could become, one Labour source said: “MPs who supported Tarry and turned a blind eye to the disgusting attacks on Jas Athwal will have to live with it on their consciences, knowing it was all for nothing.”
The race has been a bruising experience for the party’s left and with Tarry now having missed the deadline to apply to stand for the Dagenham and Rainham constituency – the nearby seat of his long-standing ally Jon Cruddas, who is standing down at the next election – his support base will remain angry.