Brighton and Hove: Epicentre of the battle for the soul of the Labour Party

The September issue is out now

I wrote this article for the September issue of Labour Briefing (to meet a deadline of August 8).

Context and perspective are everything. Especially when it comes to the machinations of the outdated political elite of the Labour Party: the tiny minority of plotters and fixers who have declared war on the party’s 600,000 members.

For some, the suspension of Brighton, Hove and District Labour Party — the biggest party unit in the country — was something of a shock.

After all, it came only five days after more than 600 people attended an historic all-member annual meeting of the City Party, covering the three constituencies of Brighton Pavilion (with Caroline Lucas, the Green MP), Brighton Kemptown (Simon Kirby, Conservative), and Hove (Peter Kyle, elected last year as the only Labour MP in the southeast outside of London).

Many were attending such a meeting for the first time; most had to queue for up to an hour or so, happy to stand and chat on a sunny Saturday afternoon as they waited to take part in what was the finest example of Labour Party democracy I have witnessed in more than 10 years as a member.

The atmosphere inside and outside the venue was friendly and comradely; the sense of anticipation was almost palpable; the organisation and conduct of the meeting was impeccable; the behaviour of candidates and audience was flawless.

That was on Saturday, July 9. So why — on Thursday, July 14 — did Ann Black, the chair of the Labour Party NEC’s Disputes Panel, decide to suspend the City Party, to annul the election of its new leadership team, to re-instate the old guard, to ban the party from nominating a candidate in the Labour leadership election, and to forbid it from organising any leadership hustings?

What could a 6,200-member City Party have done that merited such a draconian and undemocratic intervention?

A letter from Katherine Buckingham, the Labour Party’s head of disputes and discipline, spoke of “many complaints and reports of concern”. It said: “These allege abusive behaviour by some attendees, as well as reports that the ballots results [sic] were not properly reached. We are particularly concerned that the safety of members at the meeting was compromised.”

This is unmitigated nonsense. The truth is much simpler — and much more political.

What I should mention is that more than 600 people — the biggest party unit, with the biggest turnout, the biggest vote, and the biggest majority — voted for candidates who support Jeremy Corbyn.

The five main postholders on the executive committee — with more than 100 years of party membership between them — all gained more than a 60% share of the vote. As secretary, I received 66%.

Even before the results had been announced, Councillor Warren Morgan, leader of the minority Labour administration on Brighton and Hove City Council — and, like Mr Kyle, a prominent member of Progress, “the party within a party” — was spreading lies and malevolent allegations.

“I’m very saddened,” he tweeted, “that our MP @peterkyle and our Party Organiser were abused at the AGM today, and I’m sorry that venue staff were spat on”.

These were allegations he was to repeat in formal statements over the next 48 hours, even though the innocent young man falsely accused of “spitting” made himself known to Cllr Morgan and flatly denied the charge. CCTV footage and witness statements have subsequently proved the alleged incident never happened.

It is easy to understand why Cllr Morgan was upset. Before the annual meeting, in a secret email to unknown recipients, he warned the City Party faced “a takeover by a group of individuals from Momentum, TUSC, the Alliance for Workers Liberty, and other fringe left-wing groups…”.

Strangely, he never publicly or formally complained about these individuals — until after the votes were counted.

The only people who took over the City Party on July 9 were the members, taking the party back from a powerful clique of self-serving power-brokers who shut down all attempts at democratic debate about imposing a 67% council tax increase on the 15,000 poorest families in Brighton and Hove, about cutting provision for children with special needs, or about destroying hundreds of council jobs. This from a group of individuals who publicly complain about Conservative funding cuts while privately support pro-austerity policies put forward by the likes of Chris Leslie, Labour’s former shadow chancellor.

How did all this alleged abuse and spitting, all these safety hazards, escape the attention of more than 600 people who attended the annual meeting?

Within hours of the smears, I tried to find out, by collating nearly 100 statements — almost 30,000 words — from eye-witnesses.

Nearly three weeks later — and two weeks after City Party was suspended — the Labour Party NEC also began inviting evidence. Unhelpfully vague, however, it was now investigating “recent events” and seeking views on “current issues”; these views would be the subject of a report “in due course”.

Meanwhile, the City Party remains suspended until after the leadership election results on September 24.

The thousands of democratic socialists in Brighton and Hove are refusing to accept such darkly-worrying and deeply-undemocratic manoeuvring by an out-of-control Labour Party bureaucracy. We have lobbied the NEC, to no avail; we have sent the evidence of nearly 100 witnesses to Ms Black and Ms Buckingham; we have spoken to lawyers; most importantly, we have agitated and organised, eliciting huge support from across the party — and across the country.

More than 1,500 supporters came to hear Jeremy Corbyn speak at a rally in Brighton and Hove last week. The human being the Progress plotters tried to break, leader of a party they are bent on destroying.

And that is all the context and the perspective we need to understand what is going on.

Our city is the epicentre of the battle for the soul of the Labour Party. We cannot — and will not — be defeated.

How the article appears in the September issue of Labour Briefing