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London Labour Leaders Likely Leavers?

01.02.24 | Written by James Goldstone

Expect the general election to claim a few more London Labour Council Leaders

When Chris Skidmore resigned his seat of Kingswood, the Labour Party machinery sprung into action as soon as the vacancy was known. It was Labour’s National Executive Committee (Labour’s 39 member governing body comprising a mix of elected politicians, Trade Union officials and member backed activists) that selected the then sitting Mayor of Lewisham to contest the upcoming Kingswood by-election.

Mayor Egan had already been selected by local Labour Party members to be the candidate of the new Bristol North East seat in July last year, a large part of which falls into the soon-to-be retired Kingswood seat. The NEC selected promptly, allowing the party to focus on overturning the 11,000-vote majority the Conservatives won in 2019.

But NEC candidate impositions are not always so uncontroversial.

In normal circumstances the party centrally draws up a long list of approved candidates and then the local party and trade unions whittle the list down to a short list for Labour members to vote on. A nice balance of centralised control and local democracy. In contrast, Labour’s NEC selects candidates behind closed doors at a single meeting and their decision is final. 

But who decides if a candidate is selected by the normal method or by the NEC? The answer: the NEC, of course. Often the rationale is straightforward; an unexpected by-election on the old boundaries and the need for a candidate quickly is a clear example. However, sometimes there is politics at play. And for the NEC dominated by Keir Starmer’s allies, there are opportunities that won’t want to be wasted.

Let’s turn to the seat of Islington North where Jeremy Corbyn sits as MP, though without the Labour Whip. Still adored by many local Labour members, a normal selection process with Mr Corbyn barred from standing would quickly descend into a farce. The left of the party would protest or boycott the process, distracting from the ‘no drama Starmer’ style that the Labour leadership wants to portray. What is almost certain to happen is that, as close to the election as they can manage it, the NEC will pick the Labour candidate to fight the seat for the party.

While there might be wisdom in only going through this process in one Islington seat with its own extreme set of circumstances, reality makes this unlikely. Consider the London MPs under investigation by the Labour Party such as Diane Abbott and Bambos Charalambous. Have their cases been left to linger so that a new candidate selection can’t be run in the normal way? And then there is Karen Buck who recently announced she would not be restanding for her Westminster North seat for personal reasons – more will surely follow.

Labour council leaders please stand up

Many will already know that Darren Rodwell, Leader of Barking and Dagenham, and Jas Athwal of Redbridge, have already been selected for local parliamentary seats and are set to step down come the general election. However, if there are to be more impositions, council leaders are excellent candidates to step forward in the NEC’s eyes.

Council leaders already enjoy their own democratic legitimacy. Supported by the majority of their Labour group, who themselves are selected by local members, the NEC can claim that a council leader has local support. And while it may not be direct support from the local members, the NEC knows that Labour Groups, especially in Labour run council areas, form the backbone of the local party and help form wider local opinion. In fact Labour has previously often found that overlooking a council leader on a long-list can result in the great uproar.

Council leaders have already been scrutinised. One of the biggest concerns the NEC will have with a quick pick is selecting someone with a skeleton in their closet. This is less of a worry with Labour Leaders. Local media, opposition parties and even their own Labour groups will have already given them as thorough an inspection as you need for a General Election. Longstanding leaders such as Mohammed Butt in Brent or Stephen Cowan in Hammersmith and Fulham have already withstood the scrutiny of multiple local election cycles and are a dependable known quantity. 

Council leaders are, unsurprisingly, among the best known politicians in a local area. Without exception, London Labour Council leaders have been campaigning against the Conservative Government already, railing against cuts to their budgets. While councils themselves are rarely popular, Labour Leaders have been able to point to the central government as the true source of any or all of their failings, whether true or not, provides political cover.

They can do the job. It’s probably the last thing the NEC will be considering in the run up to an election but it won’t hurt on an election leaflet so it is worth a mention. The skills to be a good council leader and a good MP are not identical but they are similar and London Labour MPs such as Steve Reed, Catherine West and Andy Slaughter have made seamless transitions to the House of Commons.

Be ready

It can often be tempting when engaging with local government to put all your political capital with the one person at the very top. But if Labour have not selected an official candidate to contest a seat nearby then be prepared for your friendly Labour leader to step into the breach.

You want to avoid your relationship building strategy being decapitated. Broad engagement with senior figures across a local authority will help de-risk your projects.

And be prepared for events to move quickly. Four weeks ago Damian Egan was the sitting Mayor of Lewisham. In two weeks’ time he is odds on to become a member of parliament 100 miles away in Avon in the Kingswood by-election.

If you want to better understand the future political landscape in London, contact James Goldstone who would be happy to set up a meeting or a call.

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