Democracy Suspended: What Really Happened at the Brighton Labour AGM?

by John Medhurst

21 July 2016

In September 2015, a week after Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, I joined the Labour party in Brighton and Hove. I had voted Labour throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s but drifted away from the party during the Blair years. In 2012 I joined the Green party, which was strong in Brighton and seemed more likely to oppose austerity than Ed Miliband’s Labour. But after Corbyn’s inspirational campaign and election it was clear to me that the real fight for democratic socialism in this country was within Labour.

That fight would not be easy. In Brighton, for example, the local party was dominated by a small but powerful clique of right-wing Progress supporters led by the Labour council leader Warren Morgan, and the newly elected Labour MP Peter Kyle – both of whom publicly supported Liz Kendall’s candidacy for leader. But at the same time the party was attracting thousands of new members, enthused by Corbyn and what he stands for. I felt that over time the ordinary party members would assert themselves and, using the accepted democratic procedures, be elected to leading positions in the local party.

But history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. If the attempted coup mounted by a majority of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) against Corbyn is a tragedy (and a crime), then the mini-coup now mounted by the PLP’s satraps in Brighton and within the official Labour machine is a farce, though a very unamusing one.

It began when the party’s 2016 annual general meeting (AGM) was called for Saturday 9 July. Nominations were sought for candidates to the branch executive – for chair, secretary, treasurer, two vice-chairs and five ordinary members. This was the first time the entire local party had a chance to express its wishes on the executive since Corbyn’s election last year. It would also be a verdict delivered on Corbyn by the largest Labour party branch in the UK, with over 6,000 members.

The ‘slate’ for the executive put up by Corbyn supporters was an inclusive group of members, most of whom had been in the party for many years, including Greg Hadfield, who had held senior posts on the executive before. Another slate of candidates stood for the executive under the title ‘We are Labour’. Their political views were fuzzy but they appeared to have the support of the Morgan-Kyle axis of the local party and to generally not support Corbyn.

Following the PLP’s manoeuvres against Corbyn and relentless pressure on him to resign, a pro-Corbyn rally organised by Brighton & Hove Momentum was scheduled for 2pm on 9 July in the Brighthelm community centre. The AGM itself was scheduled to begin at 4pm at City College down the road.

The Brighthelm’s main hall can hold, at most, 400. Rally organisers thought that would be sufficient, but at least 700 people showed up. A hands-up poll showed that the vast majority were Labour members intending to go to the AGM. Judging by the range of speakers from the floor, my personal impression of the rally was that it was a classic Labour gathering – teachers, care workers, local government workers, trade unionists, many pensioners (mostly women, I noticed), no obvious ‘Trots’ at all. Also a good number of younger members, including my own 19 year old daughter who joined Labour last year – the first political party or group she has ever been in.

The rally was addressed by several speakers, including Greg Hadfield, local UNISON and NUT representatives, and Seema Chandwani – the secretary of Tottenham Labour constituency Labour party (CLP) – who offered the benefit of her experience as a BME female secretary of a large CLP who had successfully struggled to overturn the stranglehold of a reactionary right-wing clique in her constituency. (After the rally Seema was later verbally abused in a pub and told to “Fuck off out of Brighton” by people who seemed to know who she is and what she had come to Brighton for – the only actual case of confirmed abuse on the day I am aware of.)

So many members turned up to the rally that not everyone could get in, and some speakers had to go outside to address the overflow. The rally was good-humoured and even-tempered, with speakers emphasising that no matter what provocation might arise at the AGM or how angry people were about the attempt to remove Jeremy Corbyn, they should be polite and respectful at all times. After the rally closed at 3pm many hundreds of Labour members walked down to City College to participate in the AGM and to vote for those candidates who supported the current Labour leader.

Me and my daughter arrived at approximately 3.40pm. It was immediately apparent that there were simply too many people attending to fit into the City College meeting hall, which holds about 250-300. There was a queue out of the hall, down through the building and out the door, and growing. Members were obviously concerned that they might not get in to cast their vote. However, at no point did I see or hear any member in the queue raise their voice or abuse or criticise City College staff who were faced with a difficult situation. On the contrary, the queue was orderly and polite.

I was not aware until later that, by lucky coincidence, I had arrived at exactly the right time and place to witness what is now known as the ‘spitting incident’ – and indeed I might have witnessed it had it taken place. But it didn’t. When I arrived a member of City College staff had locked the doors as he said the main hall was full. It was unclear on whose instructions he had done this, and it was pointed out to him that locking the doors actually endangered the health and safety of those inside.

It’s not entirely clear what happened to change this decision – it appeared to be an intervention by a more senior member of staff – but a few minutes later the doors were unlocked and orderly procession into the building continued. I entered and proceeded slowly in the queue up the main stairs to the first floor. I saw and heard no incident of any kind. There was no noise from below to indicate an incident had occurred, which there surely would have been had someone spat in someone else’s face. On the first floor I looked over the balcony to the entrance and could only see a peaceful and orderly queue.

Later, after the AGM, some of the local party who opposed the pro-Corbyn candidates began to tweet that a member of City College had been spat at during this time, yet many in the queue at this time have reported that they saw and heard nothing of the sort. Prominent among those who claimed, via Twitter, that a spitting incident had taken place was Labour council leader Warren Morgan, who I did not see in the queue at the time, or in the meeting I attended inside. Later that evening he tweeted that he was “saddened that our MP Peter Kyle and our party organiser were abused at the AGM today, and I’m sorry that venue staff were spat on.”

I do not know why Cllr Morgan tweeted this or what evidence he had to believe it. He made no attempt to bring a formal complaint to the newly-elected executive, even though he also tweeted that he hoped it “…would investigate and expel the member responsible.” The police have not been contacted about the ‘incident’. No-one has asked to see CCTV footage except the member accused, who has demanded it be produced in order to exonerate him. The member concerned has also submitted a complaint to Labour party secretary Iain McNicol about Warren Morgan for perpetuating inaccurate and slanderous allegations, and for bringing the Labour party into disrepute.

After about 20 minutes of queuing – during which time my daughter and I had advanced inside and up the stairs, but not entered the main hall – at about 4.05pm the then-branch chair Lloyd Russell-Moyle made an announcement (repeated several times as he went down the queue) that because of the overspill there would not be one AGM meeting but two and possibly three, one after the other. The first meeting had begun and he apologised that those not yet inside would have to wait. All the meetings would be addressed briefly by the candidates for the five main executive posts, and then voting would commence. Two emergency motions put to the AGM – one to support Jeremy Corbyn, one to ask he step down – would not be taken, as that would mean the meetings would go on for too long.

Although those members, such as myself, who did not get into the first meeting had to wait longer, and in quite stuffy heat, the reaction to Lloyd’s announcement was remarkably calm and understanding. No-one raised their voice or complained. Most were relieved they would, eventually, get into the meeting and be allowed to cast their vote. Me and my daughter joined a separate queue for our local ward and received our papers for the next meeting, and then retired to the side to allow others to do the same. People gave up seating space for older members. At that time I saw Hove’s Labour MP Peter Kyle talking to members in the queue. He was laughing and joking with those he spoke to, and although it is probable that many members disagreed with his position on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership the atmosphere was pleasant and non-confrontational. As far as I know, Kyle himself has not claimed he was subject to abuse at the AGM.

At approximately 4.45pm the first meeting ended and the doors were opened to allow members to enter the second meeting. Everyone who had queued patiently filed forward and entered the main hall. My personal experience is of this second meeting, although reports from the other meetings are consistent that they went off as well as the second one. My oldest daughter, who had arrived at the venue early, attended the first meeting and reported that it went smoothly, with the candidates making brief speeches, to which the audience listened respectfully. There was apparently more applause for those candidates supporting Corbyn, not surprisingly as there were more members present who supported Corbyn than did not. The members at the first meeting then exited through the car park as other members came in.

In the second meeting, as with the first, the candidates gave brief speeches. All were listened to in silence. There were no jeers or adverse comments of any kind. Again, Corbyn-supporting candidates received more enthusiastic applause, reflecting the feeling of the majority there, but nothing untoward or intimidatory. There was no heckling at this meeting. Again voting took place, after which members left through the car park. As I left I had a brief friendly chat with a Brighton Labour councillor (who did not support the Corbyn slate) and we both agreed how well the meetings had gone and that the local party could congratulate itself on having provided members the opportunity to participate and vote, despite the logistical difficulties.

The truly extraordinary thing about the AGM(s) was the extremely well organised, polite and respectful the manner in which it was carried out, and which make the later claims made about it such a travesty of justice. The atmosphere throughout was cordial and good-natured. The subsequent ballot count was conducted by party members who supported different sets of candidates. No complaints were made from either side about the integrity of the voting or count.

The later suggestion that the meeting put members’ safety at risk is ridiculous. Nobody claimed this at the time. At no time was the safety of members even remotely put at risk, and the allegation that it was – an allegation still unseen, if it exists at all – does not explain in what manner their safety was supposedly put at risk.

The results of the election came in later in the evening and the next day. The Corbyn-supporting candidates won all the main posts on the executive and could therefore command a ‘majority’ on the executive. The victorious candidates had secured over 60% of the vote, with the new secretary Greg Hadfield securing 66% of the vote. Greg’s first act as new secretary was to put out a request for members to assist the outgoing chair, Lloyd Russell Moyle, in his council by-election contest in East Brighton. He also emphasised that he and the new executive wished to work with all within the party, and he exchanged several amicable Twitter messages with those who had opposed him and the other winning candidates.

The matter of the AGM and the election seemed to be over. But on the evening of Thursday 14 July the Labour party disputes panel issued a statement, without first informing the new branch executive, that it had received ‘many’ complaints (though the actual number remains unspecified) about the conduct of the meeting, alleging “…abusive behaviour by some attendees, as well as reports that the ballot results were not properly reached.” It added that it was “…particularly concerned that the safety of members at the meeting was compromised.” As a result the disputes panel decided, with no investigation of any of these matters, to suspend the entire Brighton & Hove party immediately and also to cancel the results of the AGM. Members were informed there would be a new AGM “at a later date.” For the moment, and we assume until at least after the leadership election, not only is there no local party democracy, there is no local party at all.

A day later the members of Brighton & Hove party received an e-mail from ‘Brighton & Hove District Labour’ (with no personal signature) that repeated verbatim the statement of the disputes panel. At no time did the disputes panel communicate with the new executive or attempt to discover the credibility of the allegations before closing the largest local Labour branch in the country and revoking the election of a new executive by a large majority of local members. Many are wondering at the panel’s motivations for taking this action, the evidence on which they have based their decision, and if it would have done so if the election for the executive had produced a different result.

The suspension of the party was widely reported in the media, usually with headlines about ‘bullying’ and ‘abuse’. It is my belief that the allegations made about the conduct of the AGM have no basis in fact. Nothing I saw or experienced at, before or after the AGM supports the allegations. The indirect legitimacy given to the allegations by the actions of Labour’s disputes panel – and the subsequent reporting of the AGM in the national press – are a gross slander on the members who took part, and particularly on the large majority who voted for the winning candidates.

Clearly I was not everywhere and did not see everything. But I have spoken to friends and family who were at the rally, in the queue at City College, and at all three meetings. Not one reports a different experience than mine. The overwhelming reports and feedback from the event was that, in spite of logistical difficulties, it went off extremely well, and was a credit to the Labour party. When asked his view on BBC News, Peter Kyle MP – who Warren Morgan claimed was abused at the AGM – replied that “if” abuses had taken place “on the margins” then these had to be investigated, indicating that he himself does not support the main allegations.

The number and credibility of any complaints remains unknown. At the moment no-one in the Brighton & Hove Labour party has even been informed what those allegations are. In the circumstances, there is a very good chance they are trivial, vexatious and politically-motivated. Yet on this basis the largest Labour CLP in the country has been shut down and the results of a transparently fair election, which returned candidates supportive of Jeremy Corbyn to the senior posts of the local executive, has been annulled.

For the moment the democratic wishes of Brighton & Hove Labour members have been overturned. That will not last. Like the bigger coup against Jeremy Corbyn, the smaller coup in Brighton is already disintegrating under its own ineptitude. Eventually the AGM will take place, monitored by Labour HQ officials, and it will pass off as quietly as the first one did. The result will be the same. The party can then begin to fully support and campaign for the anti-austerity, pro-public ownership policies supported by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the vast majority of Labour members.

Photo: David Stanley/Flickr

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