What happened in the contest to be Lewisham East’s Labour candidate

If internal Labour machinations isn’t your thing, please look away now. Lewisham East Constituency Labour Party (CLP) has selected Janet Daby as their parliamentary candidate. She’s someone who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in both leadership elections; is a longstanding councillor and Deputy Mayor; and started a food bank. She is “hugely personable”, I’m told, with a brilliant backstory, including adopting two children. She will undoubtedly be an excellent Labour MP.

The two candidates backed by Momentum and Unite respectively were defeated in this selection. This is no attack on Daby — wherever you are on the Labour spectrum, go and campaign for her — but this is just to explain why the Labour left-backed candidates did not win.

A short message for certain members of Labour’s recalcitrant right, though, who are in bizarre triumphalist mode on Twitter. You are cheering the fact that a candidate who publicly states she backed Corbyn in both leadership contests has won the selection in a CLP which nominated Liz Kendall in 2015, and whose executive is firmly on the right. If that is comfort, then I’m afraid that all it underlines is how far you have fallen politically, and how far you are from assuming power in the Labour party ever again.

The left now claims the Labour leadership, a majority of support amongst the grassroots, a majority on the party National Executive Committee, and runs some of the party machinery. It is at its weakest in Parliament. No leadership of any major party has ever been so politically isolated in its own parliamentary party. So when Heidi Alexander announced that she was standing down as Lewisham East’s MP, the Labour left thought: here is an opportunity to add to the extremely modest ranks of those fully signed up to the politics of the Corbyn project. It is hardly unreasonable to want to align the parliamentary party more closely with the views of the members of one of the biggest parties in the Western world.

The left was always at a massive disadvantage. In the 2015 leadership contest, Lewisham East was one of only 18 CLPs in the country to nominate Liz Kendall. As well as the CLP executive being in the hands of the Labour right; the CLP chair, Ian McKenzie, is a viciously aggressive opponent of Corbynism. The right knew weeks before (maybe longer) that Heidi Alexander was standing down, giving them far longer to prepare. This was always going to be one of the most difficult CLPs for the Labour left. One of the left’s big challenges is that newer members are far less likely to attend party meetings than more long-standing members — partly, it has to be said, because they have been discouraged from getting involved by some politically hostile local party veterans. The left has its strongest support amongst these newer members. It was put to me by senior pro-Corbyn people when the shortlist was devised that a Labour left candidate had very little chance of winning indeed.

It’s also true that the right has decades of experience in stitching up Parliamentary selections. ‘Labour First’ — an organisation which represents the Old Labour Right (a different tendency from the Blairite ‘Progress’) — is a formidable machine which proved critical in defeating the left in Lewisham East. The Labour left, on the other hand, went from virtually its weakest point in the party’s history in 2015 to capturing the leadership a few months later, and so it simply doesn’t have the same experience of organising for selections (even though, as statistics below show, the left’s record of getting left-wingers selected since the general election is very good).

In the New Labour era, the shortlist of candidates for a by-election campaign in a seat safely held by Labour would have been stitched up. The then-masters would never have allowed the left the chance to emerge as the victorious candidate. It would intermittently cause howls of outrage from the Labour left, but it was utterly isolated and fragmented and had almost no sympathisers in the British press, so it’s not as though anyone really heard them. Labour’s NEC — which has a left majority — did not do this in Lewisham East. After left-wing frontrunner Dr. Phyll Opoku-Gyimah — again, a superb candidate who really should be an MP, and who was in the best position to win — stood down, four candidates were chosen: two identified as being on the Labour left, three voted for Corbyn.

Both left-wing candidates were first rate. Claudia Webbe is an excellent lifelong socialist, anti-racist campaigner, a Labour councillor, with a committed following. Sakina Sheikh is a brilliant young socialist councillor who has lived in Lewisham her whole life, rooted in community organising and social movements. Either would have made superb socialist Labour MPs, and I hope one day both will be.

Unite backed Webbe, while Momentum backed Sheikh. Why were the two different main organisational pillars of Corbynism backing two different candidates? It’s worth emphasising that neither Momentum or Unite are homogenous. There are many activists involved in both. There were Unite people backing Sheikh and Momentum people backing Webbe. Both Unite and Momentum work very closely together: in the vast majority of parliamentary selections, they have campaigned for the same candidate. Since the general election, 35 left-wing candidates have won selections, a success rate of 52%; in the general election, the NEC selected left-wingers in only 19% of the top 75 winnable seats. If you strip out battles against incumbents — who have a huge advantage — left-wing candidates have won in 70% of contests. The norm is Momentum and Unite working together, not apart, and successfully so.

Momentum backed Sheikh for two reasons: firstly, because they are keen to promote young social movement-orientated activists inspired by the Corbyn project (she joined the Labour party in 2015 because of Corbyn, as hundreds of thousands have); and because they felt she had the best chance of winning. Unite’s support for Webbe was a decision taken by their London and Eastern region because of her long proven record of fighting for socialism within the Labour party as well as her extensive activism in, for example, the anti-racism movement. The regional board interviewed both Webbe and Sheikh and simply had a view that Webbe was “tried and tested” and had more experience. Both choices were decisions made in good faith.

Lewisham East’s selection was decided by the Single Transferable Vote system: you can vote first, second, third preferences, and that’s how the winner is decided. In theory, then, you can have two left-wing candidates, their respective supporters give their second preference the other candidate, so the left-wing voice isn’t split. I think Lewisham East shows why this theory is problematic. If there’s one left-wing candidate, everyone on the left piles in behind them: they get the organisational, financial and grassroots support of both Unite and Momentum, as well as prominent left-wing activists and figures. If there’s two left-wing candidates, energy and enthusiasm is dispersed, much of the left simply sit it out, while the right unite and coalesce. Worse, left-wing activists find themselves on opposing sides, with the inevitable resentment that can cause.

Indeed on a personal level, I wanted to sit the whole thing out until I was given evidence 48 hours before the vote which showed that Webbe’s campaign was really struggling to win support locally, while Sheikh had the only possible chance of the two of winning. Sheikh ran a brilliant campaign: particularly backed by younger activists with backgrounds in social movements. But without Momentum and Unite agreeing on one candidate — whether that be Webbe or Sheikh — neither had any real chance of winning.

That’s not to say there weren’t strategic mistakes made. Lewisham East is a heavily pro-Remain constituency, and an antipathy to Brexit is reflected in the local party. Even though Sheikh was a Remainer, her campaign didn’t empathise with that properly on social media and certain tweets may have come across to some as hostile and provocative to those angry and upset about Brexit. Those involved in her campaign dispute whether that made a big impact, but Daby’s commitment to staying in both the customs union and single market, as well as voting for Corbyn twice, is certainly a sweet spot for a huge chunk of local members. Furthermore, the campaigning period being restricted to just a week meant that a candidate like Sheikh — coming from nowhere, having to introduce herself to members who mostly didn’t know she was — did not have enough time to win members over. Sheikh had a shoe-string budget, too, putting her at a big disadvantage.

On the day itself, Sheikh suffered at the hands of a truly astonishing political manoeuvre: as the hustings began, an attempt to strip her from the shortlist because of false allegations that she had been a member of the former political party Take Back The City at the same time as being a member of the Labour Party. On those rumours, variously, that Unite or elements in the Labour leaders’ office were responsible, or indeed those running the meeting: all are completely false, by the way (both operations were taken aback). Although this decision was overturned, the damage was done, and any chance she had of winning the selection was over. As one member put it:

What makes this such a shocker of a move is that it could have the potential to deter younger left-wing candidates who have previously been disillusioned with pre-Corbyn Labour, and must not be allowed to happen. Those are the kind of candidates Labour desperately wants to stand, after all: they’re the future of the movement.

In the end, Janet Daby won a landslide victory: 288 votes (63%) compared to Sakina Sheikh on 135 (29%) and Claudia Webbe on 35 (8%). It’s easy to look at those figures and think, well, neither Sheikh or Webbe had a chance. I disagree: if there had been one agreed left candidate at the start, the whole left could have mobilised in support of them, and even though the odds were stacked against them, they could have had a shot.

Where now? There needs to be a far greater emphasis on working to involve newer members, inspired by Corbynism, in party structures. There should be a process established where, in future selections, the left unite around one single candidate. That won’t be easy, but it will avoid what happened in Lewisham repeating itself. Working together, Momentum and Unite are a formidable force which can democratise the Labour Party, ensure greater representation for the Labour left in Parliament, and defeat the Tories and establish a socialist government which will transform the country. That’s quite the prize.