As the SKWAWKBOX broke exclusively last month, the leader of Sandwell council in the West Midlands – an ally of Tom Watson and John Spellar in the heartland of the Labour right – was dramatically suspended by the Labour Party after a lengthy investigation. Complaints against him include alleged bullying of a female councillor, as well as pressuring police to take action against a local blogger who was inconveniencing the council.
The council pursued another charge against the blogger – but these were sensationally dismissed after the council’s claims were shown to be false by video evidence.
Eling’s suspension came shortly after his ally Bob Piper – a councillor in the same Abbey ward in the borough – was also suspended by the party early last month after charges of racially aggravated harassment were laid by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Those charges were controversially pleaded down to a lesser charge for a caution, but then dramatically reinstated after conflicting accounts by the CPS and complaints by the alleged victim.
High-profile cases, which merit thorough action. But the council’s website still shows both councillors as representing the Labour Party – a month after the first was suspended – even though this is not the case during their suspension:
By contrast, councillors suspended earlier in what they have complained were politically-motivated stitch-ups – at least one has since been reinstated after all complaints were dismissed – had their Labour designations removed almost instantly.
The SKWAWKBOX asked Cllr Liam Preece, the Labour group secretary, why the councillors were still showing representing Labour. He responded:
[Under the council’s constitution] I do not have the constitutional authority to remove members from the group. They must do it themselves. In regards to bullet point 4 under subheading 4.2. We have not had the opportunity to pursue this course of action yet and I hope we will not have to. However we will consider all available options to protect the integrity of the Group.
Cllr Preece also said that he could not comment on the removal of the earlier councillors’ designation, as he was not group secretary at the time, so the SKWAWKBOX asked chief whip John Edwards to explain the apparent double standard.
Cllr Edwards stated only that he does not discuss internal Labour matters with journalists.
Cllr Eling has held a series of meetings with council allies since his suspension. He has said that he will stay on as council leader, but candidates to replace him as leader of the Labour Group are expected to announce this week and he may not be able to hold on as council leader if the group moves to challenge him, as Labour holds the vast majority of council seats in the borough.
In order to protect Labour’s reputation and the integrity of Sandwell Labour Group, swift action should be expected. The fact that such action was taken rapidly in past cases but has still not been taken in the two cases above raises serious questions with which nobody seems prepared to engage.
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