THE LABOUR PARTY has halted its selection contest – which was to have voted today to find a candidate to contest Ilford South at the next General Election. The news came as the selection process was about to conclude.
Labour’s search for a new candidate arose after sitting MP Mike Gapes, who stood as the Labour and Co-operative candidate at the last General Election, resigned from the Labour Party in February this year over disagreements with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Gapes had held the seat since 1992.
One of the front runners in the selection contest was Cllr Jas Athwal, the Leader of Redbridge Council. It has now emerged that someone made allegations of sexual harassment against Cllr Athwal some months ago. The Labour Party has said that the allegations were investigated by an independent body which has only just submitted a report, on the eve of the selection contest.
The Labour Party says that a panel considered the investigators’ report and agreed to suspend the person against whom the complaints were made – but the report was anonymised, so the panel did not know whom they were suspending or that this person was on a shortlist for a selection meeting taking place the following day.
The Party then, they explain, had to decide what to do about the Ilford South selection – and decided to recommend that the process be re-run. In some ways, this is a plausible explanation, not least because so many selections are being rushed through at the moment. In other ways, it seems unlikely that the Labour Party would be happy to keep the Leader of a Labour Council in post if allegations had been made against him.
There have been reports that 500 Labour Party members came to a meeting in Ilford South today which was to have made the final selection. Instead, Labour Party officials who were present at the meeting recommended that the selection process start again, with an invitation for anyone interested to put their name forward, branches meeting to make nominations for a second time – and then a final selection meeting. Local party members present today voted to endorse the officials’ recommendation.
During the first process, complaints were made about the Seven Kings Branch Nomination Meeting. However, these were disregarded. The new process allows members of that branch an opportunity to have a properly constituted nominations meeting after all.
There have been a range of responses to the news that the selection will be re-run. Some people have suggested that Jeremy Corbyn himself had a hand in the decision to suspend the selection process. However, the only evidence for this appears to be a statement from Kat Fletcher, Deputy Director of the London Labour Party. She said that Corbyn had said that he believed members should “have the opportunity to fully participate in the democratic process.” This would appear to be a general statement in favour of democracy in the Labour Party rather than any evidence that Corbyn was responsible for the decision to suspend the process.
Sikhs for Labour, a group within the Party, has issued a statement raising concerns about whether Sikhs can play their full part in the Labour Party. A group of BAME Labour MPs has called for the allegations against Cllr Athwal to be heard quickly, so that he can re-join the selection process if he is found innocent.
Ilford North MP Wes Streeting, who is not a Corbyn supporter but who stayed aboard when Gapes jumped ship, claims that Athwal’s suspension, which triggered the re-run of the selection process, was politically motivated. He wants an investigation into Athwal’s suspension before the selection process goes ahead, but has offered no assurance that the House of Commons will hold up the General Election until that investigation can be concluded.
Following today’s meeting, Sam Tarry tweeted: “I am gutted that the selection process in Ilford South has been suspended today, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do. I am proud to have run a positive, people-powered campaign with hundreds of local supporters. I look forward to winning the vote when it comes back.”
There is every chance that a General Election will be held before the end of November, and that the well-known sitting MP will contest the seat as an “independent” candidate. It may be that some party members who oppose Corbyn would be happy with a delay in finding Labour’s candidate – as it may help their co-thinker Gapes retain the seat.
The Labour Party is in a difficult position. If they hurry up the second process, they risk the winner being tainted by allegations that the process was not fair because Cllr Athwal was excluded. If they put the selection on hold until the allegations against Cllr Athwal have been heard and disposed of, they will have what could be a costly delay before a candidate is in place.