The Labour Left in Waltham Forest: neither use nor ornament

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As anyone close to the action readily will tell you (if only off the record), Labour in Waltham Forest is split down the middle. Labour Party One consists of Walthamstow MP, Dr. Stella Creasy, the LBWF Cabinet, the great majority of rank and file councillors, and their respective retinues amongst the membership. In contrast, Labour Party Two is all about self-styled ‘activists’, and comprises a ragbag of Momentum and other Corbynistas, Palestine Solidarity Campaign veterans, identarians of various hues, the inevitable gaggle of entryists from the far-left fringe, and similar camp followers.

What’s more, these two distinct entities are at daggers drawn, forever on the brink of all-out war. To give a flavour, here’s a complaint from Labour Party Two about the treatment that Labour Party One allegedly uses to suppress dissent:

‘Branch and GC [General Committee] meetings regularly experience organised barracking of speakers, in an attempt to silence left voices and intimidate activists…Additionally, some delegates – particularly young women – have complained about intimidation by muttered comments and hostile glares from older people in positions of authority…The bullying reached such a pitch that several members  left the September GC early. One delegate, who had brought her daughter because of childcare problems, said that the child was very stressed at the adult misbehaviour, and others noted that the GC was far from a “safe space”’.

Needless to say, if prompted, Labour Party One will reciprocate in spades, albeit seasoned with accusations of misogyny and anti-Semitism.

Given that this blog deals at length with LBWF, it’s generally Labour Party One that features in its pages, and has its follies examined.

But what of Labour Party Two? How different is it? And if it is different, does it have a viable alternative programme for Waltham Forest? Or is it, in veteran London-watcher Dave Hill’s evocative phrase, just the creature of ‘Protest Leftists’, those addicted to jumping up and down but little more?

A good starting point is to focus on Waltham Forest Momentum, because it has claims to be the most energetic and influential component of Labour Party Two, and also has a regularly updated Facebook page.  So, what has it been writing about in the last year or so?

Many of the posts, predictably, are concerned with garnering support for long-standing international and national causes – the need to oppose the machinations of US imperialism, and defend so called ‘progressive’ places like Bolivia, Iran, and Venezuela; support minorities who are fighting oppressive right-wing governments (Palestinians, Muslims in India, etc.); and, of course, at home, stop NHS ‘privatisation’, end inequality, and defeat the wicked Tories.

As new insurgents against the status quo appear, they are tacked on. Few passing bandwagons go unnoticed, with Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter (BLM) both being applauded in recent months.

However, by contrast, coverage of Waltham Forest issues, and specifically the serial revelations about LBWF ineptitude, is sparse. There are a couple of posts about the planned redevelopment of Priory Court, and the recent controversy over the SEN budget, but that is virtually all.

Some may find such a lop-sided focus to be surprising, but in fact it is nothing new. Indeed, Labour Party Two, whether Momentum or not, has maintained essentially the same stance for some time, ignoring even those local scandals that, throughout the Twentieth Century, all left-leaning people would have jumped on – to name but a few, the exposure of Town Hall workers to asbestos, the bungling of programmes to help young people in poorer wards find work, LBWF’s continuing attenuation of local democracy in favour of spin, and the ongoing issues about fire safety in local authority housing.

The bottom line is that, while the comrades inevitably get worked up about, say, anything to do with Jews or Israel, they seem largely uninterested in what’s going on right under their noses.

How can this choice of priorities be explained?

It is not that Labour Party Two members are oblivious to the UK’s general social and economic problems. On the contrary, one of their staples is denouncing anything ‘toxic’ or ‘in crisis’, which turns out to be rather a lot.

What’s at stake is how to move forward.

For while Labour Party One broadly holds that some worthwhile change can be achieved within the existing parameters, for Labour Party Two this is a fallacy. The British state, including local government, it avers, is completely compromised by ‘neo-liberalism’.

The need, then, is for a wholly new approach. And the first step to making that happen, the argument goes, is to link up with other like-minded party members across the country; gain control of the Labour Party apparatus at all levels, everywhere; kick out anyone suspect; and install a truly radical leadership. Everything else is a waste of time, mere pointless tinkering.

Against this background, and of course greatly encouraged by the Corbyn ascendency, local Labour Party Two’s enthusiasts have spent the past few years burrowing away to extend their influence, starting with the branches, and moving on up through the Waltham Forest party.

Much of the effort has involved canny use of the rulebook (‘resolutionary socialism’) and an ongoing search for allies to help implement desired changes. The world is held to be divided into three – those who are ‘for us’, those who are ‘against us’, and those who can be used.

With individuals, the important thing is that they fully respect the ‘party line’, and don’t ever go off message.

With civic and religious leaders, or those who have money to burn, the key is whether they can deliver support in terms of votes, their commitment to traditional Labour (or even liberal) values coming in a distant second.

Thus, before his dramatic withdrawal from public life in March 2019, John McDonnell favourite and high profile Waltham Forest Momentum activist, Canon Steven Saxby, spent time wooing the ex-imam, Mr. Mahmood ul Hassan Raja, a controversial figure, to say the least, and one who The Sun entertainingly pointed out had ‘called [an] Islamist murderer a “hero”’ but was now joining Labour because he thinks Corbyn will fix knife crime’.

And, equally revealing (and amusing), when Cllr. Anna Mbachu recently was invited to address a BLM event in Leytonstone, Momentum provided fulsome coverage, despite the fact that, when Mayor, she had threated to ‘slap’ her (black) chauffeur, and at a later (unrelated) employment tribunal which dealt with her alleged bullying of a colleague, the presiding judge was moved to remark ‘I have not, thus far, found Ms Mbachu’s evidence reliable’.

What return has this strategy garnered? Has Labour Party Two in Waltham Forest become a force to be reckoned with?

In terms of the internal struggle, Labour Party Two’s achievements are mixed. It controls the south of the borough, and the far less numerically significant Chingford. On the other hand, its long-cherished ambition to oust Dr. Creasy, and take over Walthamstow and environs, has run into the sand, and Labour Party One remains firmly entrenched.

As regards the wider political arena, the situation is far less propitious. Amongst Labour councillors, Momentum can count on one open supporter – Tom Connor (whose wife works for John McDonnell) – and two or three others who are sympathetic, but that’s about all.

Nor has much been achieved in terms of even the most cherished of issues. When Labour Party One moved to have the widely accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism adopted by LBWF in 2018, much of Labour Party Two was outraged, and Momentum, together with, as one participant excitedly reported, ‘Jewish Voice for Labour, Waltham Forest Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stand Up to Racism, local trade unions and a number of other left-wing organisations’ vocally protested, including at the Town Hall. Yet despite the hue and cry, the motion on the IHRA definition sailed through, a brutal demonstration of who really holds the reins.

The battle for Chingford at the 2019 General Election was a similar damp squib. In the run up, Labour Party Two announced that ‘This is a once in a generation opportunity to bring about change’. Its candidate, Faiza Shaheen, was local and suitably Corbynista; the sitting MP, Iain Duncan-Smith plausibly could be painted as a pantomime villain (‘Director of Death’, in Momentum-speak); the Greens were standing aside; while the socio-economic character of the constituency, as one Labour member commented, was becoming ever more favourable, with the once dominant ‘white “working-class done good”’ supplanted by those described as ‘“more middle-class with a conscience”’.

All seemed set fair for a rousing finale, and accordingly the national Labour Party poured in resources, while local activists, reinforced by squads from all over the country, canvassed day and night. For her part, Ms. Shaheen made numerous public appearances, often backed by newsworthy supporters, from senior Labour figures like Angela Raynor and David Lammy, to show biz stars like Billy Brag, Hugh Grant, and Ken Loach, not forgetting the ubiquitous far-left journalists Owen Jones and Paul Mason

Nevertheless, on election night, it was Mr. Duncan-Smith who emerged victorious. Turnout had increased by 2.9 per cent, and Labour’s vote was up 1.9 per cent compared to 2017, but that was not enough to gain the seat.

The reasons for Labour Party Two’s failure to make more of an impact are revealing, and worth a short detour.

Doubtless, Labour Party One’s opposition is part of the story: two can play at ‘resolutionary socialism’, and back room stitch-ups.

But Labour Party Two also is to some extent the architect of its own fate. For one thing, though it has a large paper membership, persuading more than a small proportion to do the drudge work continues to be challenging. Exchanging tweets or memes with the like minded is one thing, it seems, getting stuck into running a political organisation, day in, day out, quite another.

In addition, Labour Party Two’s approach to the electorate can grate. One informed journalist who followed the 2019 Chingford campaign felt that the kind of politics being pursued ‘may seem self-righteous and hyperbolic, leaving many crying out for a different tone’. That Waltham Forest Momentum was an early exponent of downplaying anti-Semitism in the Labour-Party doesn’t help, either, especially given the ongoing EHRC investigation and the incoming Starmer leadership’s very different take on the issue.

Finally, it’s likely that, for some of local Labour Party Two’s leading figures, the organisation’s current standing is anyway not uncongenial. Their authority, status, and much valued self-identity as ‘lifelong socialists’, true keepers of the faith, are all preserved. More prosaically, they do not have to grapple with the difficult trade-offs and problems that come with power, thus leaving lots of free time for scheming and protest.

To conclude, in overall political terms, Labour Party Two undoubtedly differs from Labour Party One.

Nevertheless, that accepted, the extent of the difference is less dramatic than some of those involved like to think. There is, for example, a shared aversion to transparency, and speaking the unvarnished truth, with much business done behind the scenes; and a common habit of allowing political expediency to trump morality. The ends may contrast, in other words, but not necessarily the means.

As for Labour Party Two having its own viable programme for Waltham Forest, it hasn’t, and clearly couldn’t care less.

So, if Labour Party Two took over the Town Hall tomorrow, it would undoubtedly fly the Palestinian flag, but what else it might do remains a mystery.

From the perspective of the ordinary resident, all of this is rather disappointing. Labour Party One, together with LBWF, desperately need well-informed critics, but the sad truth is that, in its present guise, Labour Party Two remains quite unable to supply them.

Postscript

In recent months, Momentum (nationally and locally) has begun to fracture. Far from being the best thing since sliced bread, as was so vociferously claimed previously, there is now a growing feeling amongst sections of the rank and file that the organisation has lost its way.

Thus, a briefing paper featured on Waltham Forest Momentum’s Facebook page charges the national leadership with a long list of sins, including having capitulated to those who criticise Labour for anti-Semitism; misled ‘a new generation of young activists without ever seeking to educate them on the history and systemic capitalist nature of the EU’; disengaged from class politics; and – for the bystander, most comical of all – adopted ‘policies largely framed by entitled young intellectuals’.

Meanwhile, neighbouring London Borough of Haringey, often dubbed the first Corbyn council, is also collapsing into acrimony, as Dave Hill discusses here:

https://www.onlondon.co.uk/dave-hill-haringey-labour-is-a-snake-pit-of-fanatics-and-feuds-its-time-its-poison-was-purged/

‘Neither use nor ornament’, indeed.

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