How to solve a problem like Vauxhall

Vauxhall Labour’s anger at being denied the right to get on with selecting a parliamentary candidate is palpable. You know that there are many comrades who are more than a little annoyed when, as happened locally, Progress and Momentum join forces to organise an open letter to Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), and then unite again to send an emergency motion to conference.

As the NEC continues to kick the can down the road, and the likelihood of impositions and ‘chosen sons’ being handed safe seats rises, we know that Vauxhall is one among many CLPs feeling intense frustration at what is seen as cynical manoeuvring. But our grievances in Vauxhall are of a distinct nature – and they are two-fold.

Firstly, the last time Vauxhall democratically chose our own candidate was in 1983 – 36 years ago. When Stuart Holland then stood down and triggered a by-election in 1989, Kate Hoey was imposed on the constituency in the most controversial of circumstances.

Throughout the ensuing 30 years, Hoey and CLP activists have rarely had a comfortable relationship. This came to a head in 2017 when we voted to publicly disassociate ourselves from her position on Brexit. Then, in July 2018, we unanimously voted no confidence in her, calling for the whip to be withdrawn and for permission to start the process of selecting a Labour candidate. We were ignored on both counts. Even today, ‘no Surrender-no deal’ Hoey retains the whip and the right to call herself a Labour MP as she swans around Tory conference and makes flattering noises about the Brexit Party.

Our second grievance comes as now, with a general election looming, not only do we not have a candidate but our unanimously agreed request to choose from an all-women shortlist (AWS) has been rejected.

It was assumed that, in accordance with custom and practice when a female MP stands down, as well as in line with the party’s aims of increasing the number of women in parliament, Vauxhall would be designated AWS. We understood local parties had to be consulted before designation. We are told that no other constituency has ever voted unanimously for an AWS, but our general committee (GC) did, and this policy has subsequently been overwhelmingly endorsed by many of our ward branches. So, call us naive, but we were shocked when the NEC officers’ group decreed that Vauxhall should be an open selection.

One of the reasons for our strong support for an AWS is that we have a raft of strong women potential candidates, from all wings of the party and of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, who are active within the CLP and local community. (Disclaimer: As supporters of free movement, we would of course welcome non-Vauxhall women putting themselves forward too!)

Predictably, since the NEC decision we have seen a dozen or so men – including a Baron and a wealthy businessman – disrespect the views of local members to throw their hats in the ring. So many men, in fact, that they now comprise a majority of the declared candidates. And, also predictably, they are seeking to use their greater confidence, resources and positions of male privilege to dominate the contest, as well as their greater access to the power-brokers and decision-makers within the party to lobby to get themselves imposed.

To compound the problem, the lack of rules governing this “pre-selection” period means we are witnessing extensive treating, social media and newspaper promotions, the misuse of membership lists, and the cold calling of members by (allegedly) paid staff.

As CLP secretary in the 1980s, I was part of Vauxhall’s pioneering campaign for BAME comrades to organise within autonomous Black Sections in recognition of the lack of representation of our diverse community within Labour (much of Vauxhall is in Brixton). Then, in 1989, I witnessed the way in which the then party leadership rode roughshod over the CLP’s desire to include several black comrades on the shortlist of by-election candidates, and imposed Kate Hoey.

The scars of our local party history have informed discussions within Vauxhall’s branches, caucuses and GC. It is why we’ve agreed our shortlist should have at least 50% BAME representation, and it is why we so strongly object to having a candidate imposed upon us again.

We see no contradiction between calling for an AWS and supporting the inclusion of BAME candidates on that shortlist. Indeed, attempts to counterpose the struggles of BAME communities and women are both cynical and pernicious. We recognise that white women often benefit from AWS, but so do BAME women who are more likely to put themselves forward when there’s an AWS; and that men, especially ‘favourite sons’, disproportionately benefit from open selections.

I have been fighting for local democracy throughout my political life – against both the state and the party: rate-capping, black sections, the poll tax, an imposed MP, the suspension of elected councillors. I feel as though I am witnessing history repeat itself. This is not a different way of doing politics, and it is not worthy of our current leadership.

Vauxhall members of all shades of political opinion want a candidate we can rally behind. The damage wrought by Kate Hoey’s extreme Brexit-ism led to the Lib Dems winning every single one of our eight Labour-held wards in the recent European parliament elections, and has turned a 20,000 majority Labour seat into a Lib Dem target.

To address the wrongs started in the 1989, it is vital that Vauxhall finally gets a choice. Those members who come to meetings, go out on the doorstep, and who are likely to be campaigning in the November cold, must feel ownership of deciding who our candidate is. Most importantly, our candidate must understand the importance of accountability to members and respect for their views.

We’ve heard Vauxhall is considered “a problem”. Well, if we are, then it’s a very easy problem to resolve: just give us our democratic right to select a candidate of our choosing from a shortlist of women of our choice. Then we can get on with fighting to win for Labour and for the people of Vauxhall.

Joan Twelves is writing in a personal capacity.

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