In the wake of Labour's defeat in the General Election the party's so-called moderates have the smell of blood in their nostrils. But which new Leader best embodies their hopes?
‘I didn’t see that coming at all. Feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.’
It was 10.14 pm on Thursday 12 December and I had just received a text from my daughter in Liverpool. Like tens of thousands of us watching our TV screens in our homes, pubs or at counts she had just seen the results of the exit poll confirming that Labour had lost the 2019 General Election by enough seats to suggest the Tories could be in power for a decade.1 It was going to be a long and painful night. The potential losses were obvious, as were some of the consequences.
As the results unfolded the ghosts of Labour Past drifted into the TV studios. They had one clear message: yes, Brexit had been a factor in Labour losing but the real culprits were Labour’s ‘hard left’ and its figureheads, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
On the BBC, Andrew Neill told the Shadow Chancellor ‘It’s over for you and Mr Corbyn,’ demanding to know when they would stand down. According to Neill they had ‘dragged Labour too far left’; if elected they were ‘going to spray money around like confetti, most of it borrowed’. As a consequence the voters had rejected their offer of ‘a hard-left government’.
McDonnell was the first and last BBC studio guest supportive of the Corbyn project.2 In four hours of coverage that followed the voice of Labour would be ‘represented’ by Caroline Flint, Kate Hoey, Gareth Snell and Ayesha Hazarika. It was the kind of 'balanced' reporting that we've come to expect from the BBC.
ITV was a little better. While it had former MP Alan Johnson among its guest pundits it also spoke to Owen Jones, Ash Sarkar and Jon Lansman who, despite their obvious disappointment, offered more nuanced analyses.3 Perhaps the clearest indication of what was to come, however, was when Johnson and Lansman found themselves sitting side by side.
In response to some initial points by Lansman, Johnson erupted. Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep. Everyone knew he couldn’t lead the working class out of a paper bag, said the man who ostensibly led the Labour Party’s ‘Remain’ campaign in 2016. ‘Now Jon’s developed this Momentum group, a party within a party, aiming to keep the purity… the culture of betrayal goes on. You’ll hear it more and more over the next couple of days as this little cult get their act together. I want them out of the party. I want Momentum gone.’
The Bitterites’ revenge
In the following days and weeks the Bitterites, as John Prescott aptly dubbed them, followed Johnson’s lead.4 Some even applauded the Conservatives’ victory. Inevitably, among those who had appeared supportive of the Corbyn project there were some who decided to tack right. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, for example, coupled her criticism of Corbyn with the demand that senior staff associated with his leadership should also go.5
What was the aim of Johnson’s vitriolic outburst? At his election count on Friday morning Corbyn had announced that he would step down. In a BBC interview on the Saturday, McDonnell followed suit. But as important as these trophies were for Labour’s right-wing there was an even bigger goal they had in their sights: to reverse the programmatic shift that has taken place under Corbyn and return Labour to a mainstream reformist agenda, one of ameliorating the worst excesses of British capitalism — what our American cousins call ‘incrementalism’ — rather than seeking systemic change.
It was Tony Blair who spelt this out most clearly in a speech made on 18 December. This is not about Jeremy Corbyn as a person, he said:
I have no doubt he is someone of deeply held and sincere beliefs, who stayed true to them under harsh attack. But politically, people saw him as fundamentally opposing what Britain and Western societies stand for. He personified an idea, a brand of quasi-revolutionary socialism, mixing far-left economic policy with deep hostility to Western foreign policy, which never has appealed to traditional Labour voters, never will appeal and represented for them a combination of misguided ideology and terminal ineptitude that they found insulting.
But Blair’s speech6 wasn’t just an appeal for Labour to return to some new iteration of the Third Way. It also contained a warning of the consequences of ignoring his advice.
This part of his speech has received less attention than the excoriation of Corbyn and his team, but it reiterates an important theme first set out during Blair’s time as Labour Leader: the need to heal the historic rift between Labourism and Liberalism to forge a new ‘progressive’ force in British politics. For Blair this historic split was the political equivalent of original sin, with long-term deleterious consequences:
In the last century with the Labour Party and Liberals separated, Tories have been in power much longer than the opposition, including winning eight out of the last 11 elections, whereas in the years of Tory/Liberal Party competition, the Liberals were ahead.The Labour Party became reliant on traditional working-class organisations and constantly pulled towards a socialism which blunted at crucial moments its appeal to the aspirant working class. It had its Liberal wing represented by the likes of Roy Jenkins, but it was always viewed with some suspicion. The traditional left and right of the party — Bevin and Bevan — were themselves often uncomfortable bedfellows, but they united around: Labour as a party of government, parliamentary not revolutionary politics, pro-Nato and the Transatlantic alliance, and within the mainstream of European socialist and social democratic politics.
If this was just another dubious history lesson we could quickly move on. But Blair goes on to issue both a warning and a challenge.
First the warning:
This is a moment where either we use the lessons of defeat to build a progressive, modern political coalition capable of competing for, winning and retaining power; or we accept that the Labour Party has exhausted its original mission and is unable to fulfil the purpose for which it was created.
And then the challenge:
First, there should be a parallel debate in and out of the Labour Party about the future of progressive politics, how it is reconstructed and reshaped into a winning coalition. This should include Labour, traditional left and right, the Lib Dems, those disenchanted with both main parties and those not at present engaged in any party. It must be a big tent debate, open and frank.
In essence this is a call for a new political party of the centre as a means of isolating the ‘non-traditional’ left altogether and through first-past-the-post (FPTP) forcing it to the margins if not out of the parliamentary system.7 But, for the moment at least, the hopes of Blair and the bitterites are invested elsewhere.
The result of the 2019 General Election was both a defeat for Labour and a defeat for the Labour left. Its immediate consequence was to reignite the right-wing campaign to regain control of the Labour Party and steer it rightwards. But there’s an obvious problem here. A full frontal assault on Corbyn and Corbynism is fine for the TV studios and opinion pages but given two overwhelming wins for Corbyn in the Leadership elections of 2015 and 2016 something more subtle is required in the party itself.8 Any candidate standing on a platform that rejects outright Corbyn and Corbynism is simply unlikely to win.
This is where all modern day politicians owe great debt to the ancient Greeks. Who doesn’t know the story about how after a fruitless 10-year siege of the city of Troy the Greeks hit upon the idea of hiding a band of warriors inside a wooden horse — ostensibly a symbol of peace — only for them to break out in the dead of night and open the gates of the city to the rest of the Greek army? Centuries later the Trojan horse has become a symbol of political subterfuge.
Look at the candidates now left contesting the Labour Leadership and ask yourself two very simple questions: who is most committed to securing and building on the organisational and political gains of the last four years and who does Labour's right-wing see as its Trojan horse?9
The answer to the first question is, I believe, obvious: Rebecca Long-Bailey.10 This is not to label her as ‘continuity Corbyn’ — which is merely an attempt to drape her in defeat — as she isn’t. But she’s clearly someone who is willing to defend and build on the major gains of the Corbyn years. Her election, however, is by no means guaranteed.11 Which brings us to the second question.
Invariably in the course of a major defeat — which the General Election was — some of the gains of the previous period will be reversed, and some of those who pioneered them will be among the first victims of the backlash. In their place it is often second rank ‘leaders’ in league with former opponents of change who come to the fore, embodying the hope of returning to ‘business as usual’. The immediate goal for Corbyn supporters in these circumstances is clear: to hold the line and regroup so that the overall objective — a radical, transformative Labour government — remains viable. Allowing ourselves to be distracted from this task merely hands victory to the ‘restorationists’.
The Trojan horse
Whatever the appearances to the contrary this is a two-horse race.12 The bookies favourite to replace Jeremy Corbyn is Sir Keir Starmer, a man whose whole political career — as his title might suggest — is clothed in compromise. This isn’t to dismiss the important legal work Starmer has done over the last 30 years, but is based on what he has done since becoming a Labour MP in 2015.
As is now well-documented Starmer did not support Corbyn for Leader first time round, instead voting for Andy Burnham.13 In 2016 he joined the coup aimed at replacing Corbyn that followed the EU referendum. While pivoting left in the leadership election campaign on issues such as tax he has emphasised that the political baseline he will build on will be the 2017 rather than the 2019 election manifesto.14 This initial distinction wasn’t lost on George Parker of the Financial Times:
In an apparent attempt to woo Labour members, Sir Keir has insisted he had a working class upbringing, has highlighted how he provided free legal advice to striking workers, and warned the party not to “trash” Mr Corbyn’s record. So far his strategy appears to be working… But Sir Keir has also started to distance himself from Mr Corbyn’s disastrous 2019 election campaign: for example, only naming “rail” when asked which privatised industries he thought should be renationalised. He refused to commit to taking energy, water and postal services back under state control.
Adroit appointments to his campaign team — which includes former Corbyn adviser Simon Fletcher, Matt Pound of Labour First and the former private healthcare lobbyist Ben Nunn — suggest that Starmer is resurrecting ‘triangulation’ even before moving into the Leader’s office. And then there’s the fact that he’s credited with having relentlessly pushed in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) for that vexatious second referendum that sealed Labour’s electoral fate.15
All of this has left many on the left of the party understandably eyeing Starmer and wondering what the wooden exterior really hides. Is he the self-effacing radical that can both carry the flame of Corbynism and unify the party or is there an unpleasant surprise lurking inside? With what’s left of Progress and Labour First behind many of his CLP nominations the left has every reason to be concerned.
But if it is a two-horse race what of the other runners? Well, as ever, there is personal ambition. A strong showing this time round can confirm the also-rans as serious challengers and at the very least boost their chances of Shadow Cabinet posts. More critically for those who want to bury Corbynism, however, is the need to offer at least one candidate to the right of Starmer that will both help boost Starmer’s centre-left credentials while putting pressure on him from the outset to adapt to their agenda. Finally, if neither Long-Bailey nor Starmer win on the first count then the transfers from any outlier could determine who crosses the finishing line.
Is this fanciful? Well, currently the best indicator we have of where the race is at are two opinion polls — the LabourList/Survation poll published on the 16 January and a YouGov poll published two days later — as well as voting details from some of the CLP nomination meetings that have taken place.16
Both the Survation and YouGov polls should be read with caution as they are now a month out of date and the polling methodologies were far from perfect. Survation surveyed 3,835 Labour members between 8 and 13 January 2020 via LabourList’s email distribution database. Data were then weighted to the profile of party members by age, sex, and UK region, with targets derived from Labour membership composition data, 2016. At the time of the survey Clive Lewis and Jess Phillips were still in the race. Finally, a third (34%) of respondents said they were currently undecided.
Of those who knew the candidate they would vote for 42% ranked Long-Bailey first and 37% Starmer. But what happens next is critical. According to Survation’s analysis:
When looking at where people’s second preferences go, Keir Starmer is the candidate who gains most with three-fifths of those who selected Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips or Emily Thornberry first then selecting Keir Starmer second. Rebecca Long Bailey only gains from those who selected Clive Lewis first…Amongst the group who said they were undecided, Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey are neck and neck with 35% ranking Starmer first and 34% doing the same for Long Bailey. Among those who said they knew who they would vote for, only 32% said they were completely certain their preferences (10 out of 10) wouldn’t change.
So according to Survation Long-Bailey and Starmer are or were out in front and there is very little between them.
However the YouGov poll gives a completely different picture. This surveyed 1,005 Labour Party members and its headline finding was that Starmer would win on the final round by 63% to 37%. However, this is a much smaller sample and only includes one part of the electoral college, which consists of members, registered supporters and members of affiliated organisations including trade unions. Also, the underlying assumption is that all five candidates make it through to the third and final round, which we now know wasn't the case. The one similarity it has with the Survation poll is that Starmer is carried over the line with second, third or fourth preferences from Thornberry, Nandy and Phillips supporters.
This trend is also borne out in those CLP nominations meeting we know of where second and third preferences have been crucial in deciding the final outcome. But once again it’s important to understand that many of these meetings are attended by only a small number of members. In the case of my own — Birmingham Perry Barr — for example, the attendance just reached the required quorum of five per cent.
Of course all this can change.17 Many members and supporters have still to decide who they will vote for in the third and final round, which begins on 24 February. But the left has a challenge if Long-Bailey is to win both in persuading non-Corbyn supporting and Corbyn-supporting voters to give her their backing. Debunking the myth of Starmer as a guardian of Corbyn’s programmatic legacy is part of that.
The choice of Deputy Leader, where three Corbyn-supporting candidates — Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler and Angela Rayner — are standing, is more complicated.18 Not least because most members justifiably see any of these as a vast improvement on Tom Watson, a ‘deputy’ who spent most of his time trying to remove the Leader.
The front-runner is clearly Rayner who not only has the backing of Long-Bailey but has unofficially been adopted by the centre-right and right as Starmer’s running mate. The choice both boosts Starmer’s ‘centre-left’ credentials and offers his supporters a gender-balanced ticket even if it further delays the day when Labour elects its first female Leader. Rayner currently has the backing of several key affiliates including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Unison, GMB, USDAW, Aslef and Community.19 Momentum also came out narrowly in favour of Rayner, after its National Coordinating Group (NCG) split over who to support. The organisation’s subsequent ‘yes or no’ membership ballot, designed to seal the deal, was widely criticised as ‘undemocratic’, including by its ex National Organiser, Laura Parker.20 Many Momentum members will ignore the recommendation. This doesn’t mean that Momentum’s extensive database won’t be used to push the Long-Bailey/Rayner ticket, but that in practice seasoned activists will decide for themselves. And, as the recent West Midlands mayoral selection shows, what Momentum says increasingly doesn’t hold.
Many, myself included, will vote for Burgon in preference to Rayner. He’s seen as a safer pair of hands and someone who is wholeheartedly committed to Corbyn’s legacy. As well as being backed by key figures from the Corbyn era — including John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Ian Lavery — he is endorsed by among others Unite, BFAWU, FBU and the Socialist Education Association. Burgon is also the Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and has the support of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), the historical torch-bearer of the left among rank-and-file members. His tough stance in the Deputy Leadership debates and on policy areas such as the nationalisation of key services has also endeared him to many on the left. So too has his decisions not to sign the ’10 pledges to end the Antisemitism Crisis’ issued by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and his support for Open Selections.
The third contender is Butler, who like her opponents served in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet — in her case as Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities. She has already made it to the final stage of the contest having received nominations from more than the requisite five per cent (33) of CLPs. However, so far, she has only managed to win the backing of one affiliate: Chinese for Labour. She also declined to sign the ’10 pledges to end the Antisemitism Crisis’ and is obviously attracting support from across the Labour spectrum as the only BAME candidate standing in the elections.
So why out of these three have I chosen to vote for Burgon? A major consideration for anyone in a constituency like mine — Birmingham Perry Barr — has to be an absolute commitment to democratising the Labour Party and that means, among other things, support for Open Selections.21 As the experience of the last four years has shown once elected many Labour MPs consider themselves free to act and vote without any reference to the views of party members locally or nationally. Anyone who believes that the antics of these MPs between 2015 and 2019 played no part in Labour’s defeat is disingenuous at best. A mass, democratic Labour Party plays havoc with the personal aspirations of these MPs who don’t want to see these jeopardised by the adoption of radical policies at home or abroad.
A fresh offensive
Now we are already hearing the same warnings from Labour’s right-wing. In the last week or so a string of stories have appeared in the mainstream media suggesting that a significant number of Labour MPs are preparing to quit the party in the event of Long-Bailey being elected Leader.22 The timing of this is not accidental. CLP nominations for Leadership and Deputy Leadership candidates closed on Friday 14 February. The online ballot for both positions opens on Monday 24 February and runs until 2 April. Despite Starmer’s considerable lead in CLP nominations — 368 to 159 — his assorted supporters know that under Labour’s One-Member-One-Vote (OMOV) system this doesn’t guarantee him victory. Some on the right hope that resurrecting the spectre of a further right-wing split will help win over demoralised members prepared to accept unity at any price.23
Some dismiss this threat as a bluff and point to the fate of those Labour MPs who quit Labour in February 2019 to form Change UK. But as last year’s General Election shows there is no limit to what some MPs will do to frustrate the election of a left-wing Labour Leader. Anyone who joined the party in the belief that it is for the membership to decide these issues now has to ensure that democracy prevails. And that means getting the vote out for Long-Bailey and Burgon. You can register to support their campaigns at rebeccaforleader.org and richard4deputy.com
1. Of course no one can predict the events of the next 5-10 years. Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax was first floated in a Green Paper in 1986. Resistance to it led to her resignation in November 1990.
2. A Tweet by Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon suggesting the result was due to ‘a Brexit election’ was described by Laura Kuenssberg as ‘the line for Corbyn loyalists’ while Burgon was dismissed as ‘part of the Corbyn tribe’.
3. Johnson immediately targeted Corbyn as the main cause of the party’s defeat. The Corbynistas would say that victory was ‘a bourgeois concept’, he absurdly claimed, much to the delight of fellow studio guests Ed Balls and George Osborne. ’The only goal for true socialists is glorious bloody defeat’.
4. The list of Bitterites is lengthy and includes such luminaries as Jack Straw, Tony Blair, Lord Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell, Kim Howells, Stephen Kinnock, Caroline Flint, Lord Iain McNicol, Jess Phillips, Tom Watson and Harriet Harman.
5. https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/top-jeremy-corbyn-aides-pay-price-general-election-disaster-emily-thornberry-1346062 You need look no further as to why she is now out of the race.
6. The full speech, which never addresses why 10.2 million people chose to vote for this ‘brand of quasi-revolutionary socialism’, can be read here: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/12/tony-blair-s-speech-future-labour-and-progressive-politics-full-text
7. Blair’s despair at the historic split between Labourism and Liberalism is shared by his old strategic adviser Philip Gould. In ‘The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics For Ever’ he writes: ‘The split between the Liberal and Labour Parties not only led to divided progressive forces, it led to divided intellectual traditions, separating Liberalism, with its emphasis on individualism and tolerance, from Labourism, which stressed solidarity and social justice. The result left Labour as a dogmatic, statist party, ignoring and marginalising the core liberal concepts of individual responsibility, self-reliance and civic rather than state action.’ (p 392)
8. Jeremy Corbyn won the 2015 leadership contest with 251,417 votes, 59.5% of the votes cast. In 2016 he won again, this time with 313,209 votes, 61.8% of the votes cast. In 2015 there were four contenders, in 2016 just two.
9. Of course critics of Corbyn will say this is the wrong question and counterpose to it, ’What does Labour need to do to get re-elected?’. Blair’s speech provides the scaffold and justification for what he says is essential: ‘Labour as a party of government, parliamentary not revolutionary politics, pro-Nato and the Transatlantic alliance, and within the mainstream of European socialist and social democratic politics.’ This stance is presented as an immutable feature of the British working class, part of its DNA, rather than as an expression of the dominance of ruling class ideology, loyally promoted in the British labour movement by right-wing social democrats like Blair. It has led to the demise of traditional social democratic parties throughout Europe.
10. I base this judgement on her article in Tribune, which can be read here: https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/01/rebecca-long-bailey-labour-leadership-socialism, her more recent article in the Guardian, which can be read here https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/16/power-people-labour-party-voters-democratic-revolution and her performances in the Leadership hustings so far. This doesn't mean that I agree with every word Long-Bailey speaks or writes.
11. We can expect all the venom of the MSM, the so-called soft-left and right-wing of the Labour Party and those on the left who defect to be turned on RLB. There’s already been some evidence of this citing her appearance and, more obliquely, her Catholicism.
12. Jess Phillips even agreed with this. In a piece for the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/19/hustings-labour-leader-jess-phillips) she wrote: ‘Ready for some more honesty? The likelihood that anyone but Keir Starmer or Rebecca Long-Bailey is going to win is, well, pretty low. Shock horror!’
13. Burnham has called for a return to Labour’s ‘mainstream tradition’. While he has been coy about who he will support as Leader his criticism that ‘Labour is too London-centric’ has led many to suggest he’s backing Lisa Nandy.
14. Cataloguing Starmer’s political positions isn’t easy as they shift left the stronger the Long-Bailey challenge becomes. On renationalising core industries/services his programme nows includes a pledge headed ‘Common Ownership’, which states: ‘Public services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders. Support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water; end outsourcing in our NHS, local government and justice system.’ A Guardian headline in response to his tax pledge caught the essence of his campaign strategy: ‘Starmer shifts left in attempt to crowd Long-Bailey out of Labour contest’.
15. Oliver Eagleton’s more detailed analysis of Starmer’s political history can be found at https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4555-the-case-against-keir-starmer
16. The results of the Survation poll can be found here: https://www.survation.com/labour-leadership-race-not-a-done-deal/ A summary of the YouGov poll can be found here: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2020/01/18/keir-starmer-beats-rebecca-long-bailey-63-37-secon I have not included a more recent Ipsos Mori poll as this is a survey of the general public and not of those entitled to vote in the Labour Leadership elections.
17. The Labour Party has maintained a running total of nominations for stages 1 and 2 of the election here https://labour.org.uk/people/leadership-elections-hub-2020/ This was updated at 5.30pm on weekdays. Starmer, Long-Bailey and Nandy have qualified for the final stage of the contest whereas Thornberry failed to reach the threshold. Phillips quit the race early on and a day after doing so it was reported that she would be voting for Starmer as her second preference. A member of her team was more frank saying Phillips would "do whatever she can to shore up the candidate who can beat Rebecca Long-Bailey”.
18. Just how complex is illustrated by their voting records on several key issues as shown here: https://labourlist.org/2020/01/how-each-labour-deputy-candidate-has-voted-on-key-issues/
19. Community was formed in 2004 when the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and the Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trade Union merged.
20. On 11 January she tweeted: “Although I am pleased Momentum’s governing body accepted the principle of balloting its members on the leadership, I’m sorry they seem to have decided in advance what the answer is. Members should be able to choose from all Leader & Deputy candidates.”
21. I’ll return to the question of Open Selections in a future post as in and of themselves they don’t guarantee a democratic choice. My point here is that they are preferable to either the current trigger ballot or the use of NEC selection panels.
22. 'Up To 50 MPs Preparing To Quit Labour' If Rebecca Long-Bailey Wins Leadership was the headline in the Huffington Post of 8 February. Versions of this story then appeared on PolticsHome and in the Independent and Express among others.
23. Further, that is, to the right-wing split in February 2019 that led to the formation of Change UK.
Transparency. Accountability. Localism.
These words tumble like pearls from the mouths of politicians. But have you ever really put them to the test?
I have – including at recent meetings of Handsworth Wood Ward Committee (HWWC). And the response? Well, it wasn’t encouraging.
At one meeting it ended with a usually composed individual publicly denouncing me as a ’stirrer’, his arm making wild, circular movements, like a witch out of Macbeth.
I had turned up at a meeting on 6 November to follow up a series of unanswered questions I had first asked two months earlier. They concerned grants of almost £10,000 made from the Ward’s Community Chest fund to Handsworth Wood Community Development Trust (HWCDT).
At that previous meeting, on 11 September, one of my four questions had been ‘Does HWCDT exist or is it in the process of being set up?’.
Ken Brown, the Ward Support Officer, had confirmed it did exist and was a registered company.
But nobody present could – or would – explain its structure, who its directors were or how they’d been chosen.
I had seen mention of establishing a CDT in an online report of a Ward conference held in May 2013. I wasn’t able to attend the conference as I was on holiday. I had heard nothing more about the CDT until it resurfaced among the papers for the Ward Committee meeting on 11 September, on a list of successful Community Chest applicants. That evening, unable to get satisfactory answers to my questions at the meeting, I turned to the internet.
I found that HWCDT was registered at Companies House on 22 July 2013 and that it had six directors. Two of the names stood out. One was a Council officer. The other was Cllr Gurdial Singh Atwal, the Chair of the Ward Committee and one of the three local councillors who decides which applicants get Community Chest money.
The Council employee, I now accept, had not realised he was signing up to be a director of HWCDT. He resigned the day after learning of his ‘appointment’. It was never made clear who had approached him and the others to become directors.
So on 6 November I had asked two further questions. Was it right for Cllr Atwal to become a director of an organisation in July and then vote to give it almost £10,000 of Community Chest funds in September? And, had he made it clear to the other two councillors that he was a director of HWCDT at the time they voted to give it this money?
Judging from the response I had touched a raw nerve.
Cllr Atwal was on holiday and the officers present either knew nothing about his directorship or, if they did, weren’t commenting. Cllr Paulette Hamilton made clear that she was unaware Cllr Atwal was a director of HWCDT at the time of the decision. Cllr Narinder Kooner, chairing the meeting in Cllr Atwal’s absence, said that councillors were board members of many organisations that received local authority funding; the implication being that no further explanation was necessary.
In the end – as is often the case in Handsworth Wood – I left the meeting with my questions largely unanswered.
To understand why Community Chest in Handsworth Wood warrants this attention we need to go back to Birmingham City Council’s (BCC) annual budget meeting in February 2013.
This is where whoever happens to be ‘in power’ in the city – currently Labour – sets out its spending plans for the coming financial year, and whoever happens to be in opposition – currently the Conservatives and Lib Dems – present their alternatives.
It’s an important piece of decision-making, especially now that the Council is cutting tens of millions of pounds from key services.
But the debate itself is often stilted.
First, there are keynote speeches by the three party grey-backs: Sir Albert Bore (Lab), Cllr Paul Tilsley MBE (Lib Dem) and Cllr Mike (now Lord) Whitby (Con). Then there’s the debate, centred on a few well-honed amendments reflecting the opposition’s ‘wedge issues’. This year they included the introduction of wheelie bins, the decision to force the city’s unemployed to pay part of their council tax from benefits… and Community Chest.
Community Chest is an annual sum given by BCC to each of the city’s 40 wards to ‘fund schemes that support the priorities of the wards’. While it’s a pittance compared to the city’s overall budget it adds a morsel of meat to the otherwise thin gruel of ‘localism’.
In times of plenty Community Chest was set at £100,000 per ward, and on occasion even included an additional sum for capital projects. But in this year’s budget Labour decided to cut it to £50,000 per ward as part of its ‘reprioritisation’ of council resources. The £2 million saved was used to part-fund a £15 million scheme to help create apprenticeships for young people who had been unemployed for over a year.
The opposition parties criticised the decision. Labour was choking off funding to small community-based organisations, they argued, while undermining its avowed commitment to devolved decision-making. At the Cabinet meeting on 11 February Cllr Robert Alden (Con, Erdington) even argued that much of Community Chest is spent on youth and training provision and that these would suffer as a result of Labour’s cut.
Labour’s defence was that prioritising the Jobs Fund was in line with its stated aims of ‘tackling inequality and deprivation’. More surprising was that members of the People’s Panel – a focus group made up of Birmingham residents – had urged it to go further. As the report presented to 11 February Cabinet meeting says: ‘A substantial proportion of the [People’s Panel] supported transferring all £4,000,000 of the Community Chest to the Jobs Fund – thinking its use there would make a bigger contribution to welfare in Birmingham than via the Community Chest.’
Now why would the Peoples Panel think this? Was it simply that the high level of youth unemployment in the city outweighed all other concerns? Or that they felt a single, focused fund could achieve more than a scattering of smaller grants? These factors may have played a part, but I would suggest two others: many members of the Peoples Panel may not have even known of the existence of Community Chest prior to the consultation, or, if they did, they may have felt much of it wasn’t being used for the noble purposes Cllr Alden described.
After all there is no well-funded campaign to advertise the existence of Community Chest, and given the sums involved perhaps that’s not surprising. But as a consequence very few people know it exists or, more importantly, how to access it. Those who do include local groups with some previous fundraising experience and individuals who ‘know how things work’. Then there are the elected councillors, who can point interested parties in the right direction and ‘steer’ them through the application process.
This is particularly important as it is the ward’s three councillors who decide which organisations get the money. Yes, the proposed allocations are reported to Ward Committees, and local residents can ask questions or raise concerns. But Ward Committees are sparsely attended and when all is said and done a determined group of councillors can press on regardless.
So why had my questioning produced such a response? The answer lies in this year’s Community Chest allocations. These were dealt with at two Ward Committee meetings: the first on 24 July and the second on 11 September.
On 24 July, 30 to 40 residents gathered in the hall at Rookery Road School. Listed as item 13 on the Ward Committee agenda was the proposed allocation of £25,000 of the ward’s £50,988 Community Chest Fund. The extra £988 was part of the previous year’s Community Chest allocation which the ward had failed to spend and was therefore carried over into this year.
According to the report 24 groups or organisations had applied for funding. Thirteen of them were ‘not supported’ – a polite way of saying they had been turned down for funding by a majority or all of the three ward councillors. Of the 11 remaining applicants 2 were awarded £17,500, or 70% of the total expenditure agreed at that meeting. Here is the list of the successful applicants with what each asked for, what they were given (as an absolute sum and as a percentage of their request) and the amount they received as a percentage of the total fund. These figures could be ranked in many ways but I have ranked them according to the last column, i.e. how big a slice of the total cake each applicant received.
|ORGANISATION AND/OR PROJECT||Amount asked for||Amount agreed||Amount agreed as % of total fund |
|Vaisakhi Open Air Celebration, BCC Events Team, Alexander Stadium, B42 2LR||£10,000||£10,000 (100%)||19.6%|
|Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Trust, 346 Soho Rd, B21 9QL||£10,000||£7,500 (75%)||14.7%|
|Nishkam Community IT Workshops, Nishkam Centre, 6 Soho Rd||£3,000||£2,000 (66%)||3.9%|
|Infamous Artsok, Raleigh Ind Estate, B21 8JF||£5,000||£1,500 (30%)||2.9%|
|SimmerDown Festival, The Drum, 144 Potters Lane, B6 4UU||£1,500||£1,000 (66%)||2%|
|Birmingham Carnival, Business Village, Alexandra Rd, B21 0PD||£3,000||£500 (17%)||1%|
|Contact English Classes (ESOL), The Crown Church Trust, B20 2HY||£2,400||£500 (21%)||1%|
|Birmingham EID MELA, BCC Events Team, Alexander Stadium, B42 2LR||£2,000||£500 (25%)||1%|
|Black International Film Festival, BIFF CIC, 178 Dudley Rd, B18 7QX||£1,500||£500 (33%)||1%|
|Youth Engagement, Millfield Rd, B20 1EF||£1,500||£500 (33%)||1%|
|Hamstead Hall Inclusion Project, Hamstead Hall CLC, Craythorne Ave, B20 1HL||£1,000||£500 (50%)||1%|
I know little about the 13 projects that weren’t ‘supported’ except that their brief descriptions suggest many were as deserving as those that were. Often the explanation given for a project being turned down is that it isn’t based in the ward, but neither are many that made it on to this and the subsequent list. Of the 11 projects that were ‘supported’ nine shared a miserly 14.8% of the cake while the remaining two got a mouth-watering 34.3%. Despite the 50% cut in Community Chest, one project asked for and received the same amount as in previous years.
When I raised my concerns about how the money had been allocated the response of the Chair, Cllr Atwal, was revealing. In response to a point about why Vaisakhi wasn’t bearing some portion of the 50% cut in funding he countered that BCC centrally funded the biennial Birmingham Carnival far in excess of Vaisakhi. The implication was obvious: Handsworth Wood’s Community Chest was being used to redress a perceived ‘injustice’ in the direct financial support Birmingham City Council gives to these two events. As I explained to Cllr Atwal at the time, if that was the case he should campaign in the Labour Group for greater central funding for Vaisakhi and not use Community Chest to right this wrong.
Seven weeks later the Ward Committee met again, this time at Hamstead Hall School. At item 7 on the agenda was the approval of a further seven Community Chest grants totalling £25,988. Two applications were turned down. Here is a list of the successful ones.
|ORGANISATION AND/OR PROJECT||Amount asked for||Amount agreed||Agreed amount as % of total fund |
|Youth Activities Fund/Community Sport & Physical Activity Network (CSPAN)||£10,000||£5,000 (50%)||9.8%|
|Women’s Employment Support Project/The Women’s Help Centre||£7,500||£5,000 (66%)||9.8%|
|CDT Community Hub/ Community Development Trust||£4,988||£4,988 (100%)||9.8%|
|CDT Funding Profile/ Community Development Trust ||£4,975||£4,975 (100%)||9.8%|
|Ward Conference, Neighbourhood Forum||£2,750||£2,025 (74%)||4%|
|Job Club, Neighbourhood Forum||£2,670||£2,000 (75%)||3.9%|
|Nash Dom Consultancy Bureau, Elite House, 70 Warwick St, Digbeth B12 0NL||£2,242||£2,000 (89%)||3.9%|
When I saw this list I detected some signs that the previous questioning had borne fruit. I wasn’t entirely surprised as I knew my concerns had been raised elsewhere. CSPAN, for example, is a well-established network of sports clubs and organisations operating across the Perry Barr constituency. My understanding is that it was among those applicants considered before the 24 July meeting but a decision on whether or not to fund it was deferred. The Women’s Employment Support Project is run by The Women’s Help Centre on Rookery Rd, a long-established, Asian-run community organisation. Nash Dom, a project working with recently arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe, who now constitute a growing minority within Handsworth Wood Ward, received £2,000, the only sum directly targeted at this section of the community. However, as mentioned earlier, this still left almost £10,000 earmarked for HWCDT, which I and many other residents knew little or nothing about, and just over £4,000 for two initiatives – a Ward Conference and a Jobs Club – proposed by two of the ward’s three neighbourhood forums. An application from the third was among the two that was turned down.
I knew that the proposal for one of these initiatives – the Jobs Club – had come from West Handsworth Neighbourhood Forum (WHNF). I knew this because I am a member of its Executive Committee (EC) and the application was fleetingly mentioned at the end of an EC meeting held on 10 September, the day before the application went through and long after it had been submitted. When I asked the Chair of WHNF for the details of the application I was told that none were available. When I suggested that normal procedure would require an application for Community Chest money to be tabled, discussed and agreed by the EC before it was submitted I was told I was being over formal. As the air around me thickened I left the meeting still not knowing who had written and submitted the application on our behalf or how the proposed budget of £2,670 had been agreed. I later learnt that almost three-quarters of this sum (£1,920) was earmarked for wages and salaries.
I raised my concerns about this opaque procedure at the Ward Committee the following evening and Ken Brown said he too was surprised that I didn’t know about the application prior to its submission but that I should take this matter up with the forum itself. At the following WHNF EC meeting I was criticised by the Chair for raising the matter at the ward committee after having already raised it at the neighbourhood forum.
At a further Ward Committee meeting held at Hamstead Hall Secondary School on 18 December 2013 an effort was made to tidy up the loose ends of the Community Chest/CDT debacle. At the beginning of the meeting Cllr Atwal was heard to mutter some sort of acknowledgement that he may have forgotten to declare an interest prior to voting on Community Chest funding for HWCDT. It was hard to hear precisely what was said as 30-40 residents protesting at a proposal to make Laurel Rd Sports Centre available for Community Asset Transfer were entering the hall at the time and despite my best efforts I couldn’t persuade Cllr Atwal to repeat his remarks. I’ve no doubt the precise wording will be in the minutes of the meeting when they are made available at the next Ward Committee meeting (26 February 2014).
On the issues surrounding the CDT the minutes of the 6 November meeting record the following response to the points I raised:
‘During a considerable discussion a representative of the CDT explained the process to invite Directors for the CDT. An open invitation had been sent for residents to express their interest in joining the Board of the CDT and opportunities would also come up in the future. Representatives included residents from the Neighbourhood Forum, Local Authority representatives, key local school representatives and people from Third Sector organisations.’
Unfortunately these three short sentences merely lay bare all that is wrong with the ‘launch’ of HWCDT. For example, the speaker in question (who it so happens is the same individual who branded me a ‘stirrer’) never identified himself as ‘a representative of the CDT’. In fact I interrupted him as he began to speak to ask why he was speaking on behalf of the CDT as I knew he wasn’t one of its six directors. My question was never answered. What these minutes suggest however is that he may have been instrumental in approaching those who agreed to become directors and in registering the CDT at Companies House. As for an open invitation being ‘sent for residents to express their interests in joining the Board of the CDT’, sent by whom and to whom? Why not make a copy of this invitation and a list of recipients available at the next Ward Committee meeting? Similarly let’s have copies of the invitations sent to the Neighbourhood Forums, the local authority, local schools and third sector organisations with the details of how the ‘representatives’ of these three groups were subsequently chosen.
The events in Handsworth Wood raise important questions about Community Chest and the disbursement of millions of pounds of public money.
First, Ward Committees are among the few occasions between elections when residents can question councillors about their actions and priorities. For long-time activists like myself being publicly branded a ‘stirrer’ for doing so is no less than I expect. But the message it sends out to others shouldn’t be ignored. Verbal abuse is designed to cower critics and discourage anyone who would look or question too closely. It’s the stick with which to beat those who take too seriously all that talk of ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’ and ‘localism’. And of course it doesn’t end there. I have seen an outspoken, white-haired lady in her mid-70s trembling as she was verbally assailed at the end of a Ward Committee meeting by a much younger man who took issue with what she said. That’s why the Code of Conduct for Ward Committees empowers the Chair of the meeting to ensure such abuse doesn’t take place. But that assumes the Chair is prepared to act.
Second, there is the future of Community Chest. I don’t know if what happens in Handsworth Wood Ward is typical of what happens in the other 39 wards in the city. All I do know is that my experience here has led me to revise my initial view of the decision to halve this year’s fund. I now see why many on the People’s Panel were quite happy to see Community Chest ‘reprioritised’ out of existence. As the city faces yet more cuts in the coming year tough decisions will need to be made about where the axe should fall. At a recent consultation meeting held at the Nishkam Centre, Cllr Ian Ward (BCC’s Deputy Leader) told residents that the city’s 10 District Committees would be expected to find £7.2 million in savings as part of the 2014-15 budget. He couldn’t say how much of that would have to come from Perry Barr District, which includes the Handsworth Wood and Lozells & East Handsworth wards. However, among the proposals outlined in the Local Services Directorate Factsheet distributed at the meeting is the suggestion that District Committees consider ’The use of Community Chest to invest in front line community services’. Diverting substantial sums of public money away from frontline services into initiatives like Community Chest can only be justified if such initiatives enjoy broad support, based on genuine transparency and accountability. Sadly, these are lacking in Handsworth Wood. For many who live here Community Chest is seen as nothing more than a grace-and-favour fund.
Third, according to BCC officers at 6 November meeting the Council ’is supportive of CDTs and how they could work with communities to deliver services’, but I have yet to find any guidance on the Council’s website or elsewhere on what procedure to follow when setting them up. What national guidance there is suggests that the process of registering a limited company is often a lengthy one, typically taking 12 months, as trust is built among all community-based organisations and issues of representation are dealt with equitably. What should never occur is that one individual or group of individuals take it upon themselves to set up a CDT on behalf of the community, as this gives them control over the CDT’s income, expenditure and appointments. Hypothetically, this fast-track registration could culminate in an individual selecting a CDT’s directors who then return the favour by appointing him or her as its Chief Executive. This is especially worrying if the CDT then becomes the repository of substantial public funds… such as all or part of the Section 106 money attached to Sainsbury’s recent successful planning application to build a new store in Handsworth Wood.
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