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Councillors show stomach for fight after bitter taste of conference

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LGC commentary on the Labour candidate selection process in Haringey LBC  

As the Labour party conference came to a close in September, the frustrated disbelief of many councillors that they were portrayed by some delegates as complicit in maintaining government austerity may have quickly turned to anxiety over their political futures.

With local elections next year in London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere, many were soon to embark on a selection process that had the potential to be the most complex, charged and challenging in recent times.

Accusations by delegates that Labour councils were betraying the party’s ideals and their communities by cutting services to balance ever-challenging budgets suggested the campaigning zeal provided by a surge in membership on the back of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party could be turned on councillors who had been working to make the best of a bad lot.

The conference left such a bitter taste for many councillors that they may have questioned whether they had the stomach for such a fight.

However, fears of a sustained and co-ordinated attempt to replace sitting councillors ahead of next year’s election appear to have been largely unfounded.

LGC has been told that while a small number of councillors have, or are likely to be, de-selected by candidates affiliated to groups such as Momentum, large scale challenges had not materialised.

However, the exception is Haringey LBC.

A sharp rise in party membership has coincided with the development of the council’s high-profile and controversial Haringey Development Vehicle, a partnership with the firm Landlease.

This has provided a focal point for a co-ordinated and concerted effort to challenge sitting councillors, with particular pressure applied to a leadership seen as the architects of a sinister privatisation deal, despite the council retaining 50% ownership of the vehicle.

Ominously for the council’s current leadership, candidates backed by Momentum are said to have won clean sweeps of officer positions within ward branches.

LGC has learned that after the first stage of the selection process, which simply approved those who are eligible to stand, there are now a large number of potential candidates in most wards.

Crucially, next week meetings will begin to decide whether sitting councillors who have chosen to stand will be automatically reselected. If this option is not triggered, sitting councillors will discover their fate following votes within a matter of days.

Labour sources have told LGC that the importance of the next couple of weeks should not be underestimated. There is believed to be a significant risk that the council could be dramatically re-aligned politically.

Labour candidates are explicitly questioned on their willingness to set legal budgets during the application process, perhaps allaying fears that success for the more radical candidates could lead to the council being placed in a particularly precarious position.

However according to local reports the Haringey branch of Unite Community, a wing of the union that is said to foster activism among those not in work, recently passed a motion calling on all trade unions to demand that councils set “needs-based” budgets “even if that means breaking the law”.

LGC understands that this position is forming part of the debate during the selection process, but the majority of sitting Labour councillors are said to be unwilling to take the challenge “lying down” and are working hard to defend their record with party members.

The situation in Haringey may be an exception but as long as party members who are prepared to demonise Labour councils remain emboldened and maintain influence, more moderate councillors across the country will have to continue to stand up and be counted.

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