Two views on Labour and the Gorton by-election

Two Manchester Labour Party activists give contrasting views on what happened when Labour selected its candidate for the Manchester Gorton by election and its wider significance. If you’d like to send us an article or comments on this issue to publish, email theclarionmag@gmail.com

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The left should have united around Sam Wheeler

By Tom Muntzer

In recent days there have been many rumours flying around about why the left was unable to win the selection contest for Labour candidate in the Gorton by-election. This article is an attempt to set the record straight on the matter.

The selection contest was triggered by the death of Sir Gerald Kaufman, the veteran MP who had represented the constituency since 1983. He was hugely popular figure in the constituency and his popularity was one of the main reasons for it being one of the safest seats in the country, with a majority of 24,000 in 2015. Given his length of service and the attractiveness of the seat for potential candidates, Gorton had been a hotbed of intrigue and factionalism for more than 10 years. This had led to the CLP being suspended on numerous occasions, most recently in July 2016 after a branch AGM descended into chaos amidst alleged vote rigging and intimidation. The local party is still without a CLP executive and is being run by the North West regional office, who acted like UN peacekeepers when one branch was reconstituted. It was this atmosphere that led to the Manchester Evening News reporting on the selection with headlines like, ‘The Battle for Gorton,’ a battle Momentum now entered with a view to win.

The Momentum strategy was to back a candidate by the name of Sam Wheeler. A local Labour Party member, born and raised in Gorton and who now owned a house there with his partner. Also on the FDA civil servants union executive as well as a member of Unite, he had strong trade union credentials and ideologically was a Corbyn loyalist, even writing the Northern Futures document for Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. He had strong support in the Unite union as well as the full backing of Momentum, having served for a time as a member of it’s steering committee.

Before Gerald Kaufman was even buried the right launched attacks against Sam, leaking a story to the Huffington Post that some people had been lobbying Trade Union officials to give Sam their backing and showing complete disrespect for Sir Gerald’s memory. It was to be the first of many smears that he would have to face during the campaign.

In the week after Gerald’s death the North West’s elected representatives on the Momentum National Co-Coordinating Group met and voted to support Sam in the contest. This allowed local volunteers to start to formally use the Momentum data to begin canvassing people in the constituency who had supported Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership campaigns. Some of the best organizers in the North West were set working on the campaign and generated considerable momentum for Sam.

The picture on the left though became complicated as it emerged that Sam had the backing of Momentum. A small group of local Momentum members, from the anti-Lansman faction, decided that they were going to support a rival candidate. This was motivated partly by a petty personal hatred of the local Momentum committee, who had beat their faction at the AGM, and also partly by local allegiances down to inter-CLP politics. These members decided to throw their weight behind local councilor, Rabnawaz Akbar. Rabnawaz had the support of many in the CLP because he helped in the campaign to wrest the control of the CLP from the hands of Secretary Paul Murgatroyd and Chair Luthfur Rahman, two people with poisonous reputations amongst many members for their reliance on Baradari and verbal and physical intimidation of members to get their way. Rabnawaz was seen by the local left as being pro-democracy and allowing ordinary members more influence. Ideologically though he was certainly soft left and seen by Momentum as less dependable in his support for Corbyn, having supported Yvette Cooper in 2015.

To complicate matters further, local councilor Julie Reid decided to stand. Julie had spoke at many Momentum meetings over the previous two years and had been the most vocal left wing voice on the council for some time. She was expecting the backing of Momentum and was understandably unhappy went it went to someone else.

As the campaign progressed the left had continued phone banking and felt very confident that if they could get Sam on the shortlist then they could win the election. Their hopes were raised when it was announced the left would have a majority on the NEC selection panel. Later in the day though it emerged that Corbyn loyalist Rebecca Long-Bailey had been replaced on the panel by Keith Vaz. The decision had been made at the urging of arch fixer Tom Watson in a video call meeting. Jeremy Corbyn who was entitled to vote, failed to attend the meeting. The right won by one vote.

Not disheartened however, Momentum were confident that if they secured the necessary union nominations then they would be able to get Sam on the shortlist. Having close personal ties with the North West Unite officaldon, Sam easily secured their nomination and the Bakers Union followed shortly afterwards. Partyl because they were outraged by Sam securing the Unite nomination some of Rabnawaz’s and Julie’s backers decided to launch a disgraceful campaign to publicly smear Sam, even using the hashtag anyonebutsam on twitter

The lows some on the left wnent to to wreck Sam’s chances were truly astonishing. First they claimed that he wasn’t from the constituency. Then one of the candidates claimed that he had plagiarized her statement, when in reality she had plagiarized his. Worst of all though two prominent members of the local Red Labour group claimed on social media that Sam had visited a 90 year old party member with dementia and tricked her into giving him her proxy vote. It was quickly proved to be a complete fabrication and the party member in question, who did not have dementia, had in fact endorsed Sam in front of two of her children. Despite these attempts at wrecking Sam got onto the longlist, with a little help from Unite’s lobbying, and was hopeful of making the shortlist.

On the day of shortlisting the NEC interviewed 10 candidates. After an hour of deliberation they announced that Gorton would see the first all BAME shortlist in the party’s history. The right painted this as addressing a lack of diversity but it was clearly meant to block the left candidate making the shortlist. Keith Vaz, of all people, had fucked the left. Interestingly Rabnawaz was also kept off the shortlist, there were unconfirmed rumours that it was because he had described homosexuality as a lifestyle choice in a recent speech. The final shortlist then was made up of Afzal Khan, Lutftur Rahman, Amina Lone, Nasrin Ali and Yasmine Dar. I’ll say a little about each candidate here.

Afzal Khan is one of the North West’s MEP. He was the first Asian Lord Mayor of Manchester and the first Muslim Lord Mayor of Manchester. He is roughly center left, supported Andy Burnham in 2015 and no one in 2016, refusing to sign the letter of no confidence in Corbynbout – I  from many of the MEP’s though. He was certainly the biggest name on the shortlist and had the backing of GMB who prepped him and pumped resources into his campaign. He did however have many enemies in the constituency as he had been known to have designs on the seat for many years, especially after brexit. After Sam Wheeler and Mike Amesbury were kept off the shortlist, he won the backing of the major unions including Unite, Unison, GMB and USDAW.

Amina Lone, despite describing herself as a Corbyn supporter whilst canvassing, was the clear progress candidate. She has spoken at their meetings in the past and written articles for them and described Corbyn as a ‘busted flush’ on twitter.

Luthfur Rahman is a councilor from Longsight. Executive member for culture and formerly chair of the CLP before it was suspended. He was largely responsible for winning Longsight from the Lib Dems and turning it into a Labour stronghold. He commands a large personal vote through family connections and business ties. Some have accused him of relying on baradari to assert his control though and some of his allies have been known to throw their weight around quite literally at some meetings. Outside of his faction he is despised by many in the local party.

Nasrin Ali is a local councilor for Levenshulme. She doesn’t have a high profile but won the support of the Red Labour Manchester group and local party members for helping them make the branch function again after the suspension.

Yasmine Dar is a local councilor for Moston. After Sam Wheeler was kept off the shortlist Momentum quickly switched their support to her. She had backed Corbyn in both leadership elections and supported the carrying through of the 10 pledges.

Between the shortlist being announced and the selection meeting there were less than 48 hours to canvass support for Yamine. The momentum campaign team immediately set to work contacting those who had pledged to support Sam and in the time it took for Yasmine to get back from London to Manchester her pledges had gone up from 11 to 261. The evening before the selection meeting dozens of volunteers manned the phones ringing all 2,400 members of the CLP, sending everyone an email, a text and a letter within 30 hours of receiving the membership list. The operation was well organized and impressive. The question though was simply would enough of our people turn up at the selection.

The meeting itself was held outside the constituency at the Sheridan Suite in Miles Platting. The transport links between Gorton and the area are poor and it was difficult to get to unless people had a car. Roughly 550 people made the journey to the hustings.

After hustings speeches had been made, the first round voting went:
Luthfur Rahman 163
Afzal Kahn 149
Yasmine Dar 134
Amina Lone 83
Nasrin Ali 17

Successive candidates were knocked out and second preferences were re-allocated until the final vote came out as:
Afzal Khan 235
Yasmine Dar 203

What seemed evident from looking at the results was that Khan, while being unable to turn our enough of a block vote himself to win in the first round, had picked up the majority of Amina Lone and Luthfur Rahman’s second preferences. This was probably because 1. He was the most well known candidate and 2. The most ideologically inoffensive.

In summary then the left failed to get their preferred candidate for a number of reasons:
1. Despite receiving 261 pledges to vote for Yasmine while canvassing, only about 80 actually turned up at the selection
2. Insufficient time to build the candidates profile after the original candidate and been blocked from the shortlist through right wing machinations
3. Sowing of confusion on the left by dissident left wingers taking a hard line, anyone but the Momentum candidate, attitude during the campaign
4. The winner having a far higher public profile and union backing and feeling the benefit of second preference votes.

The Battle for Gorton was lost but the war for control of the Labour Party continues.

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The result of a radically wrong approach

By Alex Davidson

The Gorton by election and the selection of a Labour candidate to fight it has been one scarred by controversy and infighting. The ultimate selection of Afzal Khan, a local politician from the centre of the Labour Party, with the left voting three different ways with bitter disputes breaking out as to the tactics used to select certain candidates along the way. The role of Momentum here has been almost entirely negative in terms of securing a left candidate. Not only were the methods of the national organisation entirely bureaucratic but they were totally ineffective. What happened in Gorton represents the failure of Momentums methods and reveals them as being wholly inadequate for the political situation facing our class.

For Socialists in Manchester Labour changing the party presents a unique challenge. Labour dominates every aspect of Manchester’s political life. Labour hold 95 of the 96 council seats, every single MP in the city of Manchester is Labour and the trade union movement is still a highly significant force within the city and the region. What this does present though is a situation where the Labour right and centre have powerful operations in the area and whilst there have been may new members sign up as part of the Corbyn wave the numbers who have been brought into political activity are still far too few. Gorton itself is a place where radical Socialists in Labour should be stronger than we are. It is a seat featuring large working class communities, many of which suffer from extreme poverty. The child poverty rate in the constituency stands at a disgraceful 37%. There are large Pakistani, Kashmiri and Bangladeshi populations and a large student area. It is also stark example of the failings of the Labour right leaders of Manchester city council in that the “regeneration” carried out in the city has not seen the Gorton area benefit, remaining an area scarred by widespread poverty, poor housing and lack of access to vital public services.

All challenges which a Corbyn supporting candidate should be able to mobilise around. This turned out to not be the case and in the end Gorton shows yet again the failure of the Corbyn supporting left to come to terms with the challenges of changing the party.

Following the passing away of Gerald Kaufman there quickly emerged several candidates who could make claim to be the left-wing choice. Rabnawaz Akbar, a councillor in the Rusholme area and supporter of the local Momentum BAME caucus who has spoken at events supporting Corbyn including the Manchester victory rally in September 2016, Julie Reid a councillor from Levenshulme who addressed the 3000 strong pro Corbyn rally during the coup last year and finally Sam Wheeler a member of the executive of the senior civil servants union the First Division association and very much Momentum insider. The decision was quickly made by the Momentum national coordinating group that Wheeler was their candidate of choice. This was readily accepted by the local Momentum committee who swung behind Wheelers candidacy.

At no point in this was there ever any attempt to involve the Momentum membership locally, no attempt was made to seek member endorsement for Wheelers candidacy it was presented as a fait-acompli. The leaders had made a decision: now it was down to the members to get behind it, no questions asked. This attempt ran aground as the Labour right outmanoeuvred the pro-Corbyn group on the NEC, made sure Rebecca Long-Bailey was excluded from the selection panel and kept Wheeler off the shortlist. The Momentum leaders then decided, again with zero consultation, that the candidate was now to be local Councillor Yasmine Dar. Yet again though, there was zero membership involvement with this at all merely an instruction given out that now they had to back Yasmine Dar as she was the official “left candidate”. The result of all this was the alienation of a whole layer of Socialists within the CLP and more widely within the Labour Party in Manchester. The result of the selection meeting in the end were close. Afzal Khan came out on top, having received a lot of CLP members second preference votes and being the candidate who was the most politically acceptable to many of the tendencies in the party.

The failure to get a left candidate selected here reveals two fundamental problems for Socialists within Labour about the way forward. The dominant approach within Momentum now is to have their chosen candidate selected by the leadership, a decision far removed from the local membership. This mirrors how the Labour Right have organised candidate selection with the party itself. Such an approach is utterly self-defeating and totally wrong headed as it is trying to apply the methods of the right to the struggle to build a more left wing party.

This approach used by the Momentum leaders springs out of the union bureaucracy, specifically the Unite leadership. Since the Miliband period the Unite leadership have been attempting to get more “left” candidates selected using the same method. Such methods could, in theory, be defended when the Labour Party had far fewer members and even less active ones. Now though, with 500.000 members and the urgent need to dismantle the power of the Labour right and party bureaucracy, attempting to win more MP’s via the methods of bureaucratic fiat fails to understand the moment we are in. What those who now run Momentum and their allies in the union bureaucracy are seeking is not a Socialist Labour Party and certainly not a more democratic one.

What Jon Lansman and his allies want is a party that is no more democratic than it is now, that is slightly further to the left than the Miliband era, where the Blairites are side-lined and a new arrangement has been reached with the right of the party that the union leaders are back in a commanding position again having been side-lined and spurned during the Blair-Brown era. What they seek is a reborn Social Democracy with no space within it for anything more radical or democratic. The approach in Gorton typified this and it is an approach which will not deliver the victory it’s proponents claim to want.

The moment in history we are in is one where, to quote Antonio Gramsci “the old is dying and the new struggles to be born”. The period of neo liberal capitalism has reached its death throes, the working class of Britain and internationally seeks a way out and we see sudden swings behind different political organisations on the left, centre and right as a result. The Corbyn movement represents part of this and in order to turn that enthusiasm into tangible gains for Socialism a serious movement is required to mobilise as many of those members as possible into the Labour Party. Not only was this necessary to support the leadership of Corbyn but also to ensure that the unfortunate tendency of the leadership towards capitulation to the right shown by McDonnell and others is kept in check. As Jon Lansman himself has said though, he never had any interest in a movement that would pressure Corbyn from the left.

The failure in Gorton shows that Socialists in Labour must adopt new tactics and move away from the bureaucratic politics displayed by Momentum during this campaign. Getting left candidates selected at council and parliamentary level is a priority but that means little without the organisation within the wards and CLP’s to back this up. Strong, democratically powerful local Labour Parties will be the foundation upon which a truly strong Socialist movement within the party will be built. It is to this task we must turn now. We must turn our local Labour Parties into campaigning organisations oriented around the concerns of working class communities by making them part of the political life of those communities in a way they haven’t been for decades. Only by doing this will we be able to undo the damage done to the party’s reputation done by the new labour years. Those who seek to bureaucratically restore a social democracy which ultimately failed the first time around will find that history has left them behind and their route to power will be shown for the sad nostalgia fest it really is.

Only by rebuilding the political confidence of the working class and channelling that into the Labour movement will we see real progress. It is worth bearing in mind that the most successful ever Labour government came at a time when the politicisation of the working class was at its absolute high point in 1945-1951. Those of us who believe in this vision must now be prepared to struggle for it without any assistance from those who run Momentum as they have made it clear that the thin gruel of social democracy is all they seek. We Socialists must hold our heads high, do the difficult work of organising on the ground that the Momentum-crats have no interest in and be prepared to always be the ones leading the fight against the Tories. Our way will be more challenging but ultimately is the only way of securing the socialist change that the Labour Party urgently needs to lead.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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