Recent events belie the fact that for most of its history, Bristol has not been known for its radicalism. It is one of the epicentres of British colonialism: more than half a million enslaved Africans were sent to the Americas from its port during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Though large, it never enjoyed the political clout of cities such as Manchester, home of the Industrial Revolution, or Birmingham, where figures like Thomas Atwood and Joseph Chamberlain first rose to national prominence.
Yet over the last half-century, the city’s politics have transformed. In 1963 there was the Bristol Bus Boycott, in response to the Bristol Omnibus Company’s refusal to employ Black or Asian staff – a singular moment in Britain’s civil rights struggle, and a catalyst for the 1965 Race Relations Act. That same year, Tony Benn was elected MP for Bristol South-East. More recently, the city has been fertile ground for a number of direct action movements, from animal rights to squatting, as well as for new genres of street art and music. Bristol is now considered one of the most progressive cities in the UK. This was underscored last summer, when a statue of Edward Colston was dumped in the very harbour where slave ships once docked. More recently, over the last week, it has been at the front line of protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
But if Bristol offers a glimpse of an alternative politics in England, recent events within the local and regional Labour party suggest this remains fragile. Members I spoke to over the past six months believe the party machine has one priority above all others: the subversion of member-led democracy. If there is the outline of Labour as a party at odds with its own members, it is here.
An era of hope.
Labour’s presence in Bristol is considerable: the party has four MPs, majority control of the council and the city’s mayoralty. Until recently it also had a large and active membership in Bristol West, the second largest CLP in the country, with around 4,600 members at its peak last year (it’s now around 4,000). As elsewhere, the politics of its rapidly expanding membership has often been at odds with that of MPs and councillors, who are generally to the right.
Even after the election defeat of 2019, the majority of these newer members remained and continued to exert influence. Illustrative of that was last year’s leadership race: Bristol West CLP endorsed Rebecca Long-Bailey for leader and Dawn Butler for deputy. Keir Starmer came fourth.
Yet since Starmer assumed the leadership, barely-concealed antipathy towards the left has become increasingly overt, and nowhere more so than in Bristol. In April, Bristol West MP and shadow housing secretary, Thangam Debonnaire, told Radio 4 that my colleague Ash Sarkar should be expelled from the party – although what for remains a mystery.
In 2019, Bristol West sent 17 delegates to party conference; a few months earlier, local activists hosted the hugely successful Bristol Transformed event. At that time, local Labour politics was radical and exciting, just as it was at a national level. But just as Bristol captured the optimism of the Corbyn years, it now appears to reflect the cynicism and machine politics of the party under Keir Starmer. As a result people are walking away not only from Labour, but also electoral efforts more generally.
A first test for Old New Labour.
For years, particularly after 2015, much of Bristol’s Labour membership felt their politics weren’t reflected by their MPs and councillors. Many had hoped this could change in May, however, when the West of England elects a new mayor.
Four years ago, the party’s candidate was Lesley Mansell, a leftwinger who came within touching distance of victory, losing by 3.2% of the vote. Local activists say many suspected at the time that the party had under-resourced Mansell’s campaign for factional reasons. Although almost impossible to prove, their suspicions are given at least some credibility by the leaked Labour report, which contained email and WhatsApp messages in which party staffers discussed allocating funds to centrist candidates over those from the party’s left.
Mansell reapplied for selection last year, and was widely considered the favourite. Other applicants included Mhairi Threlfall and Mike Davies – both councillors and parliamentary candidates a year earlier – as well as Helen Godwin, Grant Johnson and Dan Norris, a former MP.
The selection process was intended to be a hybrid of unelected officials whittling down the longlist, and members choosing the final candidate. In practice, this meant a longlist of candidates – the five above – would receive nominations from local CLPs, affiliated unions and socialist societies. After that, regional party staff would compile a shortlist to put back to the membership for a vote. How this shortlisting related to the nominations was never made clear; some members I spoke to felt misled. “It was never fully explained to us but we presumed the candidates with the most nominations would go forward for the vote,” one told me.
Yet in a bizarre turn of events, three of the five individuals with the most nominations – Leslie Mansell, Mhairi Threlfall and Mike Davies, all viewed as coming from the party’s left – weren’t shortlisted. “They said they had a lack of experience,” the same member said, “but one was the candidate last time, and two others [Mhairi Threlfall and Mike Davies] were councillors and former Westminster candidates.” Instead the shortlist consisted of just two people (no explanation was given for such a limited choice): Helen Godwin, widely regarded as the preferred candidate of Bristol mayor Marvin Rees; and Dan Norris, who came equal second last in nominations but was the preferred candidate of the regional bureaucracy, having previously been an MP. More than one person described that outcome to Novara Media as a “stitch-up” between the regional party office and city council, with each getting “the candidate they wanted”. Meanwhile the majority of the membership felt they had little real choice.
Misgivings were communicated to the NEC, but ignored; the party’s regional director, Phil Gaskin, said that while “minor irregularities” had occurred during the selection process, none “had any material impact on the final shortlist”. In the subsequent vote between Goodwin and Norris, the latter prevailed, though by less than 60 votes. To the surprise of many, the candidates enjoyed a combined 3,169 votes, which the party declared to be a 41.9% turnout, suggesting a total electorate of around 7,900. “That can’t be correct,” a member in the Avon region told me. “The membership in Bristol alone was bigger than that.” Data seen by Novara Media suggests a membership of least 10,000 at the time of the vote. “Even the right thought the whole thing was bullshit and a farce,” said a member in Bristol.
As the party’s preferred candidate, Norris cuts a curious figure. An MP from 1997 to 2010, he is perhaps best remembered for his involvement in the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal as a result of which he had to pay back £1,700 for cleaning costs. He voted for war in Iraq, against investigations into it, and for tuition fees. Despite never scaling the heights of Westminster, Norris is an identikit Blairite. “If you wanted to create an ideal of what the public dislikes in politics, particularly in Labour,” one member told me, “it would look like Norris.”
Norris’s tilt at the West of England mayoralty, as with Liam Byrne’s in the West Midlands, offers an important test for the ascendant faction in Labour. If Norris and Byrne win, it will be a triumph for Old New Labour. If they lose, those who think the party need simply become a 1997 re-enactment society will look even more out of touch.
The odds are uncertain. One activist told Novara Media that Norris “could possibly win; Bristol is, after all, an island of Labour support. Then again,” they continued, “half the membership is now pissed off because we didn’t have a fair process.” With the membership disengaged, campaigning has been lacklustre, even for the pandemic, with phonebanking sessions poorly attended and the party’s social media efforts second-rate. According to one activist, a despairing mayor Rees recently told every council candidate they “had to get involved”.
Aftershocks of the EHRC.
As well as epitomising the battle for the soul of the party in the race for West of England mayor, Bristol offers a microcosm of the fall-out from the EHRC report, published last October.
Shortly after the report’s publication and Corbyn’s subsequent suspension, the Easton branch of Bristol West passed a motion calling an extraordinary meeting of the whole CLP for the following Friday. The CLP executive soon realised, however, that given the importance of such a discussion to Jewish members, it should be pushed back to the following Monday to avoid clashing with Shabbat. Such sensitivity was not sufficient for party bureaucrats.
Before the meeting, the general secretary’s office got in touch with Bristol West, making clear that any discussion of the EHRC’s findings was unacceptable. This was fine, said the executive officers: the subject of Monday’s meeting would be limited to Corbyn’s suspension. The CLP even circulated an email before the meeting making clear they welcomed the EHRC report, and that its contents were not relevant to the meeting and so would not be discussed. Then came another message from Gaskin, saying that the general secretary had also decided any discussion of individual disciplinary cases did not constitute “competent business”. “If the Chair insists on bringing this motion forward despite this clear instruction, we will not hesitate to investigate any consequent rule breach under the Rule Book” Gaskin wrote, though he did not state any concrete consequences. CLP officers would soon find out the hard way.
Some 200 members attended Monday’s meeting. Given its controversial nature, the first order of business was whether it should proceed. That passed. The second order of business was whether the meeting should hear the motion relating to Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension. That also passed. The motion was then voted on, passing by 99 votes to 80. Similar motions passed in Bristol East and Bristol North-West CLPs. Despite referring solely to the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn they, like Bristol West, would subsequently see executive officers suspended. Bristol South also passed a motion, but did not suffer any suspensions, since it fell into a grey zone regarding dates as Corbyn’s suspension by that time had been dropped.
Such suspensions relating to members discussing the former leader’s case were not limited to Bristol, with officers also suspended in the nearby Kingswood CLP, a target seat in 2019. There were similar motions across the country, from Camberwell and Peckham in London, to Edinburgh Central, Newcastle Central and Bolton North East. A recent letter from 175 CLP secretaries and chairs in 124 CLPs recently accused David Evans of putting them “in the firing line” with his decision. Although the vast majority of these suspensions are now being overturned, the fallout is ongoing. A Momentum spokesperson told Novara Media that the suspensions showed the leadership had “pursued a factional agenda against the left” and that as they are overturned “the party is struggling to mobilise members to campaign or donate during the local elections.” Evans’ decision now appears ill-judged and very poorly timed.
Despite this wave of suspensions one of the Bristol West co-secretaries remained in place, and thoughts soon turned to the CLP’s AGM, scheduled for 26 November. “Everything seemed relatively fine,” one activist told Novara Media. “Branches were still run mostly by the left. We were well prepared for the AGM, and thought the left would get a clean sweep.” The party machine had other plans.
Chaos at the AGM.
On Friday 20 November, less than a week before the AGM, certain executive committee members found they were unable to access either of the two systems, Organise and Membersnet, that the party uses to communicate to members. “I tried to contact [the] region[al office] over that weekend,” one said, “but got no response.” On Monday 23, one of them was informed of their suspension. The suspension letter cited a possible breach of rule 2.I.8, a broad rule which covers behaviour that the NEC believes to be “prejudicial”or “grossly detrimental to the Party”; no reason was given for a further two months.
Then on 24 November, two days before the AGM, Gaskin announced to members via email that the event would be postponed to 11 February. The reason Gaskin gave was that “due process has not been followed and the security of the meeting has been compromised”: there were concerns, he said, that members hadn’t been given sufficient notice for the meeting, and that the Zoom link had been shared outside of the CLP.
Bizarrely, members were informed of this move before the CLP executive committee, who were preparing for the AGM with 327 members already registered to attend. The committee subsequently posted a statement to Facebook, which has since been removed, saying that the regional office had “overreached”, that they had not been consulted and that the claims regarding improper process were inaccurate. The committee tried to arrange a meeting with Gaskin to clarify why such an extraordinary intervention had occurred but he refused, saying he did not “believe a meeting at the current time would be either helpful or appropriate…given some of the inaccurate, bullying, threatening and abusive comments we have seen directed towards members, elected representatives and party staff on social media in recent weeks.”
No formal CLP meetings were to be held in December and January, and the February AGM would be facilitated by the regional office and governance and legal department, rather than CLP officers. One member interpreted this as Gaskin “insinuating that our EC had been scheming or incompetent”, another as him effectively putting the CLP in “special measures”. The regional office stopped answering members’ emails and calls. Despite members’ pleas, Debonnaire refused to get involved. She did, however, host her own unofficial meeting on 28 January.
In an email to members, Debonnaire said that her meeting was “a chance for members to listen to and discuss the current coronavirus situation, focusing on health and social care”; Nadia Whittome was a guest speaker. In fact, the meeting appeared to be an opportunity for Debbonaire to push her favoured AGM slate; the meeting’s chair, Nye Harries, would go on to stand for chair on the slate. “This was about getting a set of candidates together for the AGM, there’s no doubt about it” a member told me, “some even challenged Debonnaire on it”.
Some members later received emails from Debonnaire informing them of how she would vote in the AGM and, just days later, the rightwing faction Labour First forwarded that same email to their contact list, with Luke Akehurst, the organisation’s director, adding: “Please make every effort to attend and vote.” Meanwhile, elected CLP representatives were still unable to contact members through the official channels. “While branches and the CLP apparatus was effectively dead, Thangam was using a parallel database to contact people,” says one member. As this database was assembled by Debonnaire herself, it does not appear to breach GDPR.
However, given Debonnaire is shadow housing minister during a pandemic that is threatening to make hundreds of thousands homeless, her meddling in CLP business confounded many. “She should be helping people facing eviction,” says Isaac Kneebone-Hopkins, a Bristol West member who is currently suspended. “Instead her focus appears to be hounding the left in her local party.”
After months of delay, the Bristol West AGM finally took place last month, on 11 February. After the events surrounding the West of England mayoral selection and the suspension of members across Bristol, left activists anticipated more of the same. Even so, says one senior local activist, “we were relatively confident of at least winning a few positions”.
A record 540 people were in attendance at the AGM which, despite being run by bureaucrats from the party’s regional office, soon descended into farce. Members were instructed to arrive from 5.30pm and with virtual doors closing at 7pm, voting was expected to conclude by 8.30pm. Ultimately, however, the process would not be concluded until after midnight. This fact in itself may have rendered the AGM moot. According to the Party Rulebook, if a meeting will exceed two hours in length, the chair must ask members if they are willing to extend it, and two-thirds must vote in favour. No such vote was held on 11 February – though Gaskin later issued an apology.
As a result of the meeting’s length, the initial attendance of 540 plummeted, with around 100 people leaving by the time voting took place. The voting itself, conducted using third-party system Anonyvoter, was awash with technical errors. Duplicate ballots were issued with many members reportedly able to vote twice for the same candidate and, in at least once instance, two candidates being listed as one option on the ballot paper. Then, just after midnight, the results were announced – naturally on Twitter before those in the AGM were told. The rightwing faction endorsed by Debonnaire and Labour First had won every position, with the CLP not receiving official notice of the results until 17:15 the following day.
“I don’t think any reasonable person would look at all this and think it was a coincidence,” one member told me. Such a view was seemingly vindicated by Adrian McMenamin, a former staffer and Labour First supporter, who excelled in “dirty tricks” while working for the party in the early 2000s. He tweeted in response to the result: “The internal rout of Corbynism in the Labour Party this month is much bigger than Bristol West. The rising level of rage from the far left comes as they watch the tide go out. We have a long way to travel but Labour is on its way back and the far left are on their way out.” This was retweeted by NEC member and Labour First director Luke Akehurst – the same individual who had amplified Debonnaire’s own ‘unity’ slate when emailing Labour First supporters. When asked by Novara Media whether McMenamin’s comments were congruent with the slate both he and Thangam Debbonaire had promoted, Akehurst confirmed they were.
What is extraordinary about this car-crash of an AGM is that members appeared to have seen it coming. Two Bristol West members, David Brown and Andreas Mueller, neither associated with the party’s left, were appointed randomly from a list of volunteers to act as election observers at the AGM. In a letter sent to CLP members on 24 February, two weeks after the chaotic event took place, Brown and Mueller said that “issues of concern during the proceedings” led them to ask the regional office for a more detailed breakdown of voting data. “However, no such data have been published or supplied to us; the Regional Officer’s note acknowledges these issues and makes mention of several “small numbers” but does not elaborate.” The pair says that the note insisted that “aspects of the ballot were audited but [it] does not say by whom.” It certainly was not audited by them. “At no point during the meeting or afterwards were we, the independent observers, engaged and we were unable to play any role whatsoever in the meeting, the ballot, the issuing of the results, or any subsequent discussions,” they write in their note. “Both of us repeatedly contacted the organisers during the meeting and wrote to Regional Office the next day but these communications remain unanswered.” They concluded that “We were asked to act as ballot observers but … are unable to say we observed the ballot.” It later emerged that their email was itself edited after discussions with Thangam Debonnaire.
In these communications, as elsewhere, a pattern emerges: the party’s regional bureaucracy was a law unto itself and was perfectly happy to break with regular process but rarely, if ever, explain why. What is more the lack of any indication as to whether the results were independently audited asks major questions of the party’s democratic processes – especially given the misaligned numbers in turnout and membership figures for the West of England nomination. Given recent events in Liverpool, where the city’s Labour group is embroiled in a corruption scandal, this raises questions about the extent to which powerful individuals within the party, elected or not, can act with impunity.
Keir Starmer’s pitch for the Labour leadership was one of unity, professionalism and a great deal of continuity on policy. Yet if you want a real indication of his intended trajectory – and his commitment to democracy – look to Bristol. Earlier this month, Labour’s majority on the city council fell to just two, after Jo Sergeant announced she wouldn’t be standing for the party again before joining the Greens. She later published a letter alleging “basic norms of democracy and accountability are being ignored by the current leadership” and – with startling salience in light of events in Liverpool – lamented a culture of “loyalty without accountability”. Should Labour fail to win the West of England mayoralty in May, Starmer may be left overseeing the continued fragmentation of Labour’s already threadbare coalition. The strangest part of all this is many of his allies – including much of the party bureaucracy and PLP – appear delighted at such a prospect. Yet for members, both past and present, such a brazen disregard for democracy and transparency falls short of an organisation they would want governing the country. Many are joining other parties, particularly the Greens, but for the most part people have simply given up on a party they neither trust nor believe in. It’s not just Britain’s future that can be read on the city’s streets; Labour’s fall can be, too.
Thangam Debbonaire and Phil Gaskin were approached for comment, but did not respond.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.