Yesterday afternoon, a short email was sent in the Black Country. Excluding the subject line and signature, it consisted of twenty words.
To anyone who didn’t know its significance, it seems mundane, innocuous – but it represented an earthquake occurring right at the heart of right-wing Labour.
The West Midlands is the core of the Labour right. It is home to some of the least pleasant of the die-hard anti-Corbyn MPs and is the heartland of Labour First, a hard-right faction that – until its trainer was suspended for misogynist social media comments (yet still defended by so-called ‘moderates’) – arranged training sessions around the country to teach right-wingers how to control their local party structures in spite of left-wing members being more numerous.
Sandwell is in many senses the core of the core, home to MP John Spellar – who infamously agreed that he used the term ‘Momentum’ as an insult and has had a complaint of racism lodged against him – and to Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader who tried unsuccessfully to get Jeremy Corbyn to resign when right-wing MPs staged the ‘chicken coup’ in 2016.
Sandwell is also, according to many local Labour members, an exemplar of anti-democratic and often simply vile behaviour at local government level. The secretary of the Local Campaign Forum (LCF) is currently suspended amid allegations of improper conduct of selection meetings, while various local elected officers and officials have been accused of bullying, assault, racism and sexual misconduct as well as of stacking selections in their favour.
Labour members in Sandwell have also frequently claimed that the right-dominated West Midlands regional office has been complicit in malpractice and has failed to investigate many of their complaints – even alleging racism in the ratio of complaints against white members dismissed or ignored while those against members from ethnic minorities were not.
It is even believed that a refusal to investigate allegations about Sandwell Labour figures even played a part in the downfall of the party’s previous general secretary.
So when Sandwell LCF called a meeting unprecedentedly early to finalise its candidates for next May’s local elections, it set alarm bells ringing among local Labour members concerned that various councillors and MPs’ representatives were about to set up the selection of their preferred candidates – including in some cases themselves – before a new Regional Director can be appointed by General Secretary Jennie Formby to oversee a proper process.
That LCF meeting was scheduled to take place yesterday, 30 May 2018.
Against this backdrop the short, innocuous-seeming email that went out from the West Midlands regional office was anything but mundane. In fact, it represented an earthquake:
But the email is just the visible embodiment of a much bigger act. The LCF has been suspended entirely pending investigation of the myriad complaints against it.
The earthquake’s epicentre was located on a line that ran from the West Midlands down to Labour’s London HQ. The calling of the meeting triggered a flood of complaints from Sandwell members – and even from one of the region’s few MPs who is not welded to the right. The MP’s complaint listed grave concerns about the composition, procedures and performance of the LCF, including aspects of racial discrimination and the failure of the regional office to even respond to queries the MP had raised.
The instruction to cancel the meeting went out mere hours before it was due to take place.
To say that the cancellation caused consternation among many of its recipients would be an understatement of enormous proportions. The Labour right in the area has been used to having its own way – and none of its actors had an inkling that the rug was about to be pulled out from under them.
But many of the rank-and-file members in the area have no idea that the LCF’s suspension is the reason for the meeting’s cancellation. Members of the LCF have told them that the meeting is simply postponed until a new regional director is in place.
But a communiqué has been circulated under an hour ago to a Labour group members and observers confirming that the LCF is suspended and under formal investigation:
The tremors being felt among the Labour right since yesterday afternoon are by no means limited to Sandwell – or even to the West Midlands. They will be reverberating around the party’s laughably-called ‘moderates’ across the country.
Such an act from the centre represents a statement of intent – an intent to deal with entrenched entitlement and disdain for democracy that blights many parts of the country.
And if the party’s leadership is prepared to act in the West Midlands, it may act anywhere.
Local government has long been identified by insiders – and by the SKWAWKBOX – as the scene of the next major battle Labour’s reformers must win if they are to make the party not only relevant at local as well as national level.
It has been a scene dominated by right-wing structures and grandees, by privilege and entitlement entrenched over a period of two decades or more and which will not be shifted easily.
But its foundations have now been shaken by an earthquake whose first shock was represented by a twenty-word, innocuous-seeming email sent yesterday to recipients in the Sandwell area of the Black Country in the West Midlands.
How successful it will be in bringing down rotten, derelict structures has yet to be seen – but those who want to build something better can take heart and look forward to shaking foundations in their own areas.
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