by Kevin Meagher
Confirmation earlier this week that 14 constituency Labour parties are in “special measures” but only one – Falkirk – seems to have anything to do with the swirl of allegations surrounding Unite, begs the obvious question: what about the other 13?
Looking at that list, at least some of those suspensions are because of irregular recruiting practices by ethnic groups in order to affect the result of council and parliamentary selection processes. Indeed, four of the fourteen are in Birmingham, where six Labour councillors were convicted of electoral fraud in 2005, with the judge in the case saying their behaviour would not “disgrace a banana republic”.
This is, of course, a subject usually tucked away in the ‘dirty laundry’ file with party chiefs wary about cracking down on this sort of behaviour out of a misplaced sense of not wanting to castigate ethnic groups. Unfortunately this soft-soaping merely sees the problem persist, with many of the 14 suspended parties effectively in limbo for years.
Back in 1999, the party’s North West regional office received complaints of irregularities in the selection of council candidates in Oldham (the town’s two constituency Labour parties are included among the list of 14).
The dozen or so regular branch members of Alexandra ward Labour party were joined by 300 new Asian party members for the annual meeting to select the candidate to stand in the local elections. The sitting (White) councillor was duly deselected. The same hammer-to-crack-a-walnut tactic was then employed in other local selections.
The Oldham Independent Review, into the 2001 riots in the town, chaired by David Ritchie, succinctly explained what had been happening:
“…[L]arge numbers of new members have been registered shortly before some ward selection meetings and although they apparently comply with Labour Party rules on eligibility to vote, our informants had good grounds to question their allegiance to the Party. One of them when challenged professed that he normally voted Liberal Democrat. Some meetings to choose candidates have been disfigured by threats of violence and other disorderly behaviour, and in one case a selection meeting needed heavy police presence.”
The report added:
“There appears to be a clan or client based approach to politics and public life within the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities which does not fit easily with traditional British processes and which has been exploited by white party leaders, to get votes, and Asian community leaders, to secure influence.”
The practice of devolving the party’s relationship with some Asian communities to self-appointed community leaders in order the ‘deliver the vote’ has been the modus operandi in towns like Oldham for as long as I can remember. What had happened here is that those same community leaders had developed higher expectations and now wanted seats for ‘their’ community.
Eventually, the regional office had to take action. A decision was made to verify the entire Oldham membership, with every member – MPs included – required to attend in person and provide evidence of their identity.
Of course this wasn’t really the issue. Although there were allegations of multiple memberships from the same property, it was the scale of the recruitment and the motivations that lay behind it that were the real problems.
The operation outside the GMB’s offices in Oldham, where the verification process was taking place, was a master class in political organising. A procession of elderly Asian men were dropped off in private hire taxis 100 yards up the street, briefed about what to say and escorted into the office to confirm their membership details, with many struggling with English and looking completely lost about what was going on.
No crime had been committed and encouraging new members to join the party is of course, usually encouraged. But as anyone could see, the party’s democratic structures were being abused by highly-motivated individuals, intent on ‘packing’ the membership to build a bloc that would swing nominations their way.
The process was merely a shot across the bows. Realistically, there is little the party can – or perhaps is willing to do to stamp out these and similar rotten practices. The fear is that more aggressive sanctions – such as expulsions and rejecting new members when there is a concern about the motivation or timing of their application – would lead to losing electoral support among particular ethnic groups or damage the party’s reputation in the media.
But this is no longer a good enough excuse for inertia. Reading the list of suspended parties, I wasn’t surprised that it included as many as 14, but as few. I can think of many other seats where the practice described above has either gone on or is in fact still going on, with many perfectly decent councillors and candidates treated as collateral damage along the way.
This ‘tolerated entryism’ will lurk in the party’s undergrowth long after the events in Falkirk have been forgotten. The question is: Will anyone in the party ever be brave enough to sort it out?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut