Shining a light into Labour’s shadow Print E-mail
Saturday, 15 December 2012

Peter Willsman’s reading of Banana Republic UK? by Sam Buckley, published in 2011, prompted another look at the parliamentary selection scandal and subsequent cover up in Erith & Thamesmead in 2009.

As well as covering covers vote rigging, fraud and error in British elections since 2001, this book has a section on “vote rigging in internal party elections”, which covers the Labour’s internal contests between Ken Livingstone and Frank Dobson to be London’s mayoral candidate, and between Rhodri Morgan and Alun Michael to be Labour’s leader in Wales, as well as the notorious case of the selection of Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Erith and Thamesmead in 2009.

Readers may recall that the postal vote ballot box for this selection was put into a cupboard at Labour’s HQ, where it was broken into, and ballot papers were ripped up. I was a ward secretary and executive member in Erith and Thamesmead at the time and would like to put on record the whole sorry saga.

On the recommendation of senior officials at HQ, Erith and Thamesmead was made an ‘All Women Shortlist’. The GC had been consulted and every delegate had opposed an AWS, with one abstention (my own). Rumours soon began to circulate that Georgia Gould, daughter of Lord Phillip Gould, was to be parachuted in. According to Buckley, Gould “was a twenty-two year old Oxford graduate, whose main work experience had been as a part-timer for Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation and who was still studying at the LSE

Rumours also circulated that the campaign consultancy, BBM, was assisting Gould. BBM stands not of course for “ballot box manipulation” as one commentator quipped but for Barnard, Braggins and McDonagh, all former senior officials of the Labour Party. BBM now employs at least six staff. The most controversial is the former Labour Party General Secretary, Baroness Margaret McDonagh, who always ensured that all party staff were “on message”.

In the bad old days Margaret was an operator in the hard right and shadowy Labour First organisation, many of whose members practice the Stalinist credo of ‘the ends justify the means’. I know Margaret quite well and used to dance with her at party socials! My former dancing partner has also been fingered by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker as being up to her neck in the post Saddam Iraqi election, on behalf of the West’s favourite, Iyad Allawi. I have recently been informed by an employee of BBM that they were not actually employed as an organisation to work for GG, but that several leading figures from BBM nevertheless did assist her during the campaign.

In Erith and Thamesmead, teams of young people were knocking on doors trying to get party members to sign up for postal votes. When challenged they first said they were ‘from the Labour Party’, but then admitted they were from Mitcham and Morden constituency party and were helping the Gould campaign (Mitcham and Morden being the CLP of my erstwhile dancing partner). There were authoritative reports of Alistair Campbell ringing up at least one party member pleading for support for Gould. I was also told that a Labour member of the House of Lords, with an African heritage, was phoning all the party members with similar backgrounds in the two Thamesmead wards. If true this had the desired effect, because there were uniquely large attendances at the meetings in these wards and Gould was nominated by both.

But as the final selection meeting drew near it was clear to me that Gould was losing ground and had no chance of winning. Then, on what seemed to me to be a somewhat flimsy pretext, the General Secretary, Ray Collins, ordered that the postal vote ballot box be taken from the CLP and lodged at HQ ‘for safe keeping’. On the eve of the selection meeting the box was broken into and the General Secretary immediately ordered a delay of several weeks and the complete re-running of the postal vote process.

During the extra time, the Gould campaign threw everything in. Cabinet Minister Tessa Jowell came down and addressed members on behalf of Gould (according to Buckley, Jowell broke the protocol and did not inform the sitting Erith and Thamesmead Labour MP). A leading economist (and former partner of Baroness Maggie Jones) addressed another meeting on behalf of Gould. I’m told that he suggested that the callow Gould had a better grasp of the economics of international capitalism than all the other candidates – this included the eventual winner, Teresa Pearce of Erith, who had spent several years in a senior position in the world of finance. But all to no avail, Gould’s parachute was full of holes.

At Labour’s national executive, Cath Speight (the formidable Chair of the Organisation Committee) and Ann Black (the equally formidable Chair of the Disputes Committee) were determined to carry out a thorough investigation into the abuse of the ballot box. Security has always been tight at HQ, all visitors have to be accredited. Anyway, the cupboard was not a place where any visitor would be allowed to wander.

I have no doubt that this was an inside job. Cath and Ann employed a forensic expert and a clear finger print of the miscreant was isolated. The fact that gloves weren’t worn shows how confident the person was that they’d get away scot-free. I would have thought that the best procedure would have been to have then told the staff and allowed them to volunteer to be finger printed. This would have lifted the dark cloud of suspicion that hung over the whole HQ. But I’m told that the staff weren’t consulted at all and that one senior official, in particular, used the ‘human rights of the staff’ argument to close down the whole investigation.

The new General Secretary, Iain McNicol, supported by Ed Miliband, has instituted a new regime and made it clear to all party staff that they must be strictly impartial at all times and act like civil servants. This is a breath of fresh air and returns the Party to the regime of General Secretaries up to, and including, Larry Whitty. But I feel that in addition we need to create the position of an independent Party Ombudsperson, as proposed by Prof Keith Ewing. This would give every party member reassurance. Hopefully in the new regime an Ombudsperson wouldn’t have much work to do. But we may not always be served by comrades as moral and honourable as Iain and Ed!

This self published book by a trade union activist is dedicated to five rank and file union officials who were sacked for fighting against injustice. On vote rigging, fraud and error in British elections, Buckley covers those cases where vote rigging has been proven: in Birmingham, Slough, Peterborough, Reading, Bristol, Burnley, Blackburn, Halton, Guildford, Havant and Bradford. He concludes that much more must be done to tighten up the provision of postal votes and that election petitions should be reformed so that it doesn’t take a fortune to challenge a stolen vote.