On Saturday, Janet Daby was selected as Labour’s candidate for the Lewisham East by-election. Janet achieved an astonishing 288 votes (63 per cent) in the first round of the preferential ballot, twice as many as nearest her Momentum-backed rival Sakina Sheikh (135 votes), and leagues ahead of Unite-backed NEC member Claudia Webbe (35 votes). Already, we are seeing some in the party trying to play down the significance of this result – the truth is that this was a monumental and historic defeat for Momentum and the new Labour Party establishment.
Firstly, it must be said that this victory is a shared one. Whilst Labour First and Progress played a significant role, the real credit must go to Janet Daby and her dedicated campaign team – the vast majority of whom are non-factionally aligned, hard-working local activists and councillors.
Janet has lived in Lewisham East for 22 years, becoming a councillor in 2010, and was recently appointed as deputy mayor of Lewisham. She is the definitive community-minded Labour politician, with a list of achievements in delivering for her constituents that is too long to detail here.
Janet is viewed by members in Lewisham East as the principle advocate for getting young BAME members more involved in the local Labour Party. She set up The Whitefoot and Downham Community Food Plus Project, an organisation that combats food poverty and isolation, which received a national award in recognition for its work. Despite being branded a ‘right-winger’ in various WhatsApp groups seeking to whip up support for Momentum phone banks, she is known to have voted for Jeremy Corbyn in both leadership elections.
However, she also has a reputation for being independent-minded. A key tenet of her campaign was to push for Labour to commit to staying in the customs union and single market. As far as I can tell, this is likely to be the only reason Momentum opted to back Janet’s former mentee, Sakina Sheikh, rather than Janet herself.
Janet made it on to the Lewisham East shortlist following a brief but effective grassroots campaign led by the Lewisham East CLP executive committee to pressurise the NEC to put forward a broad range of local candidates. They insisted on more local representation, a wider spectrum of political opinion among the shortlisted candidates, a longer timescale for the decision process and encouraged members to lobby the NEC to this effect. Following the withdrawal of Phyll Opoku – who was rumoured to have support from John McDonnell and major trade unions – along with the mounting emails from Lewisham East members, the NEC decided to extend the selection period (by three days) and the selection panel returned with four shortlisted candidates: Janet Daby, Brenda Dacres, Sakina Sheikh and Claudia Webbe.
The sole purpose of having such a short selection timetable (the national party had determined the timetable for the by-election by the speed with which it moved the writ triggering it) was to benefit the Left’s favoured candidates – and it very nearly worked. It is incredibly difficult to get a campaign started and operating effectively in just five days, unless of course you have the assistance of a large, well-funded organisation like Momentum or a trade union and a bit of insider knowledge.
Sakina Sheikh announced her intention to stand within an hour of Heidi Alexander’s resignation. Her leaflets had already been printed by the time she was shortlisted on the Monday and dropped on the doorstep of every Labour Member in Lewisham East on Tuesday morning. Reportedly, Momentum were able to call through the entire list of eligible voting members of Lewisham East Labour Party on the same day they received it. Momentum had paid staff working full-time on Sakina’s campaign and volunteers working remotely in phonebanks in locations across London.
By contrast, when I arrived to volunteer on Janet’s phonebank at 6pm on the Tuesday, a leaflet had not been designed let alone printed. A team of us stayed up until 3am getting it designed and approved so that it could be with the printers first thing in the morning and guaranteed delivery before Saturday’s selection meeting. There had still been no mass email to members, and phone banking data from the previous day was minimal. Quite understandably, having never had a parliamentary by-election locally before, no one in the CLP had any experience of running the kind of high-intensity short campaign required to win a selection on such a short timescale. But, realising what was at stake, many volunteers on Janet’s campaign adapted to operating on four hours sleep a night, phone banking, designing, doing data entry, targeting, replying to emails and providing assistance to the candidate. Many of these volunteers did so whilst holding down full-time jobs and other commitments.
The fact that senior figures in Momentum have suggested that Janet’s campaign had some kind of unfair advantage through prior knowledge of the selection is pure fantasy. Heidi Alexander, quite rightly, informed members of her CLP executive committee prior to her resignation. I understand she did so roughly 48 hours in advance, certainly not three months in advance – as has been suggested by Aaron Bastani amongst others.
Similarly, Owen Jones suggested in a recent blog post that Sakina’s campaign had been run on “a shoe-string budget… putting her at a big disadvantage”. He has, of course, said this safe in the knowledge that internal selection campaigns don’t have to declare their spending. But all the evidence, backed up by a bit of common sense, shows that Momentum’s campaign was far better funded and resourced than Janet Daby’s.
A lot has also been made of the fact Brenda Dacres withdrew from the contest the day before the selection. Whilst Brenda Dacres is by all accounts a well-liked figure in Lewisham, her support is largely concentrated in Lewisham Deptford. Brenda’s decision to drop out was entirely her own and based on her difficulties in running the kind of campaign she would have hoped for, following a diagnosis of a serious medical condition. In reality, our data suggests we picked seven extra votes following Brenda’s withdrawal from the contest, all of whom had Janet down as their second preference after Brenda, making no material difference to the result.
For me, these excuses being pushed by Momentum suggest a pretty chronic case of sour grapes. They simply don’t want to accept that a non-Momentum backed candidate won on the strength of her own record and campaign, assisted by well-organised moderate networks who helped bring together voters from across the spectrum of opinion in the Labour Party. Councillors, CLP officers and activists from vastly different traditions within the Labour movement rallied together to enthuse members to vote for a candidate who represents genuine unity. They rejected the opportunity to begin the process of electing ‘the first Momentum MP’ and opted to select a potential ‘Labour MP’ instead.
For days we agonised over our own data, only to discover we had the numbers pretty much spot on all along. Part of the reason we checked and rechecked our calculations and fought so hard to turn out every single vote was that on some level we believed Momentum’s own propaganda – that it is an unstoppable force. At one stage we even had a theory that, following conversations with members claiming to be contacted by Momentum up to 25 times in a single week, that they had swamped the phone lines to a degree that meant no one else could canvass effectively. The real explanation was far simpler: the swathes of Momentum-supporting members getting ready to pack the selection meeting simply didn’t exist. We were chasing an illusion, a powerful illusion backed up by their incredible presence on social media, but an illusion just the same.
You may be wondering why this selection campaign is so significant. Had the result gone the other way, and Momentum had won, the hubristic threats of deselection would have reached climactic proportions. Momentum would have shown they could bulldoze their way through a selection process to select a Momentum candidate in a CLP where they had no genuinely active base. They would have proved they were invincible. In fact, they have proved the exact opposite. All the money they spent, phone calls they made, frontbench endorsements they secured, door-to-door canvassing and celebrity visits from Owen Jones translated into just 135 votes out of a potential 1,600. The most important lesson to take from this is that there is no substitute for active CLP organisation against Momentum. It not only renders them beatable, but comprehensively beatable.
I am delighted Janet Daby has been selected as Labour’s candidate in Lewisham East. It’s a fantastic result for the local Party and the community as a whole. I’m immensely proud of the small role I played bringing about this result and it’s been a pleasure to work with so many talented and diligent activists over this past week. They have been – without a doubt – the best campaign team I’ve ever worked with.
Matt Pound is the national organiser for Labour First and was in charge of strategy for Janet Daby’s selection campaign.