When four Conservative councillors left their Group in Merton a few weeks ago, it was national news. It fed into a national narrative of Conservative loses linked to UKIP that was easy for journalists to
perpetuate. Yet, in London and beyond, it is Labour which is beset with stories of splits, divisiveness and strife.
In Harrow, the Labour leader of the Council, alleging discrimination and taking eight colleagues with him (including the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, two past Mayors and various committee chairmen), quit his Group and set up a new ‘Independent Labour’ administration. Recognising that no party had a majority on the Council, and that it would therefore be near impossible to get things done, we stepped in to prevent Labour sacking him as Council Leader. We now occupy two non-executive and
non-voting positions on Cabinet – allowing us to better scrutinise Harrow’s administration.
This split in the Labour Group was unheard of in Harrow’s history; the most sizeable shift in the political dynamic since the Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out in 2002 after incorrectly submitting their nomination papers. It also effectively wiped out 50% of Labour’s gains in council control made in May’s elections.
One would have presumed party turmoil on this scale would attract a degree of media attention; especially given the defectors’ allegations of racism and discrimination by Harrow Labour Party, and because similar accusations have dogged Labour in Birmingham and Tower Hamlets in recent years. Yet, it was sporadic at best; quite rightly it has dominated the local newspapers, but beyond a lone BBC online article, coverage of Harrow’s Labour split has not reached other outlets.
Furthermore, Labour’s split in Harrow only tells part of the story. In Redbridge, four members of the Labour Group resigned, blaming national policies and saying their local leadership had ‘lost the plot’. In Brent, rows over deselection have thrown the Labour Group into chaos – with former Council Leader Ann John and another former cabinet colleague failing to be reselected to stand again in 2014. The grapevine is also rife with rumours about strains in the Labour Group in Southwark Council, so it will be interesting to see if anything emerges from there.
These problems are not just isolated to London, either. The Labour Group in Cardiff has been rocked by challenges to the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council. In Liverpool, a 20-year-old Labour councillor – one of the youngest in the country – has been suspended from the party after a row with a local MP, and has said he will not stand again.
All of these stories have achieved a modest degree of media notice; after all, we must have found out about them from somewhere. Yet some of these individual cases, and certainly when they are taken together, warrant more attention. These instances paint an alarming picture for Labour, who may well be wondering if there is something rotten in their operations, or whether there are dots to join between some of these cases.
Despite enjoying lukewarm electoral success in May, and still clinging to a lead in the opinion polls, Labour appears to falling apart in too many councils for the media to remain so nonchalant about it.
This is not to diminish the enormous challenges that Conservatives face with regard to keeping seats or winning back councils – as we very much hope to do in Harrow next year. It seems to me, however, that the media pays attention to, and even relishes, Conservative splits or divisions more than it does similar or worse splits in Labour’s ranks – and that’s a situation I’d like to see change.