Greg Hands is MP for Chelsea and Fulham, and Minister for London.
So far, pragmatists in the Labour Party might claim that the rise of Momentum has been more bark than bite in London. Although they have plenty of supporters in the capital, that’s true of Labour in general, who have perhaps some 200,000 party members across the 32 boroughs. Nevertheless, normal Londoners might end up bitten in the Borough Council Elections on 3rd May 2018.
Until this summer, the old guard of moderates had Momentum under control. Take Lambeth, where this website previously reported the activity of the hard left. Despite the local Momentum branch occupying a library to oppose the council, the Labour moderates appear to have blocked every lunatic who tried to become a candidate. Even in a ward chaired by legendary 1980s hard-left Council Leader, “Red Ted” Knight, they avoided deselections of sitting councillors.
Lambeth was the only Labour borough to complete its selections before the General Election was called. The rest had to postpone and suddenly face a different scenario. Not only are Momentum’s members energised by the Corbyn surge in June, but Labour’s regional party has lost key officials. Crucially, the borough panels can no longer rely on the regional party to back their decisions.
“We’ll see you in your CLP”
Now the Corbynites are on the march. An early sign was the deselection of a Southwark councillor last month, which prompted an open letter to Labour’s NEC. The letter objected to “a young LGBT woman of colour [being] deselected in favour of a white man who doesn’t live in the ward”. That’s a definite basis for concern, but not the only one, it seems. In her own statement, Cllr Jury-Dada referred to “factional swipes” and “internal Labour party fighting”.
The nasty side of Momentum activists was also on display at a Haringey Council meeting, where Labour’s leader, Claire Kober, was barracked for proposing a standard definition of antisemitism. Aside from the troubling undertones of this behaviour, near the end of the footage, one activist jeers, “We’ll see you in your Constituency Labour Party!” It doesn’t take much imagination to guess why. Another Borough Council Leader in East London is openly telling even those outside of the Labour Party of the campaign of harassment, including the claim of a large object being thrown through their window at home.
How many senior councillors and group leaders are actually at risk? In Hounslow, ex-Guardian journalist Dave Hill says “council leader Steve Curran is understood to be seriously concerned about surviving as a member for Syon ward”. Elsewhere, the problem for leaders is more likely to occur when their newly-elected hard-left councillors arrive at town halls.
Imagine those first Labour group meetings, where they decide their nomination for the Leader of the Council, if Momentum has a dozen or more representatives? Or the outcomes across the other nominated positions, as old factions are given new life?
Even the directly-elected Labour Mayors aren’t off-the-hook. The three incumbents – John Biggs, Philip Glanville and Sir Robin Wales – narrowly survived “trigger ballots” last year, after a bitter internal process. Will they be able to appoint their desired cabinets, or get their policies through full council? And unhappily for Lewisham, Labour is only now selecting a successor to Sir Steve Bullock, with Corbynites on the shortlist of five.
What you vote for won’t be what you get
As the Minister for London, I’m hearing lots of reports about panicking moderates, with some administrations in effective lockdown. That isn’t great for their residents, but my primary concern is Londoners thinking they have their normal choice next May, before getting an unpleasant, post-ballot-box surprise.
For example, the voters of Islington could endorse the manifesto and record of Richard Watts, only to get Momentum’s NEC member, Claudia Webbe. A lurch (further) to the left might be popular, in the short-term, on Corbyn’s home turf. In boroughs like Southwark, it would come as a shock.
Worse still, in boroughs where Labour are trying to take control, they will offer an entirely false prospectus. Look at Wandsworth, which has an excellent Conservative council. The Opposition is led by Simon Hogg, a bland Blairite, who will no doubt reassure voters that the low tax and good services they have come to expect would continue under Labour. But this is hogwash twice over, as residents could get his Corbynista deputy, Candida Jones.
Those with long memories will recall that the London Labour Party has form here. In 1981, Labour moderates won that year’s GLC election, and their leader Andrew McIntosh was looking forward to implementing his manifesto. Within 24 hours of the polling stations closing, he had been deposed by a group of Labour councillors espousing a much more radically leftist agenda, led by one Ken Livingstone.
It’s been a long time since the loony left ran councils. Perhaps the closest recent example is the Greens in Brighton, where chaos soon followed. Londoners need to be reminded what’s at stake.
The biggest issue in our capital is housing. Even young professionals with good incomes are struggling to buy without help, while many graduates in their 20s and 30s have no chance. Their frustration is one reason for Labour’s election gains.
Yet the left’s answer is always the same, whatever the question: more social rent.
There is an obvious need for well-run council housing in London, but none of those younger Londoners trapped renting would ever qualify for a social tenancy. Nor is it what they want. They want to get on the housing ladder.
What will happen in Momentum boroughs when the developers they regard as “social cleansers” try to build new homes to buy? How many homes are their Planning Committees likely to approve? The frustration of younger voters could be about to get a lot worse.
Another dread phrase for Momentum is “privatisation”. One of the great Conservative successes in local government was contracting out poorly-run, in-house services. The benefits are so clear that every Labour borough in London has copied it. Not all of them are great at specifying and managing their contracts, but their local services depend on commissioning.
Again, what will happen with the hard left running these councils? With councillors who despise their own contactors and express their solidarity with the more militant unions? If your rubbish collection gets missed and your street isn’t cleaned by one of these new Labour (but definitely not “New Labour”) Councils, don’t be surprised.
Will the Mayor of London intervene?
There is, of course, someone with the power to intervene in boroughs’ decisions, particularly on planning. Someone whose standing in the Labour Party could help moderate council leaders to survive.
Yet if you google the terms “Sadiq Khan”, “Momentum”, and “criticise”, the most you’ll find is some ageing chastisement of the Mayor’s nominee for Party Leader. As the date of the next Labour leadership contest slips over the horizon, Khan as a future hope of some moderates isn’t of present assistance.
Unexpected events can be wonderfully revealing. After courting the Corbynites to beat Tessa Jowell, the Mayor faces his own reselection battle. He, of course, will be acutely aware of what happened to one of his predecessors in 1981. Londoners, meanwhile, will get to see where Sadiq Khan’s priorities lie.
The task for London Conservatives
From the outside, it is obviously difficult to know just how much momentum Momentum, its members and its fellow travellers have really got. They have to turn up and vote in tedious party meetings, for a start. The Labour moderates are frequently better organised and have actually read the rule book, but their panic is genuine.
There’s a risk we won’t know until it is almost too late to warn. Although Labour’s selections should be wrapped up before Christmas, official nominations are published less than a month before poll day.
This is where the readers of this website can help. If you’re a London councillor, and a Labour colleague lets slip they have been deselected, let me know. If you follow a local left-wing activist on Twitter and they say they are a candidate, let me know. If you’re a member of the Labour Party worried about your borough, with full anonymity, you can let me know.
Please send any information on Labour’s selections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The loony left could be making a comeback in the capital. The task for London Conservatives is to ensure Londoners aren’t misled next May.