NEC report back

Report of the NEC meeting held on 21 September 2010

Emergency Item: The Tower Hamlets Mayoral selection

The following report is my account of an emergency item about the Mayoral selection process in Tower Hamlets that came up at September’s NEC meeting. In the near future I will give a full report about the other issues on the agenda.

This is a flavour of the “discussion” at the NEC on 21st September about the Tower Hamlets mayoralty, based on notes taken at the time. It is not a verbatim transcript, and people may not have said exactly what they are reported as saying here, which is unintentional. However, this is roughly what happened. Comments in italics are my own.

There was nothing about Tower Hamlets on the Agenda. At the beginning of the meeting, Ann Black (in the Chair) said that after the apologies and obituaries she would take an emergency item of Any Other Business about Tower Hamlets. NEC members had a large file of tabled papers waiting for them. She adjourned the meeting for fifteen minutes so that everyone could read the papers. The trade union delegates spent the fifteen minutes having a caucus meeting in another room.

After the adjournment, Ray Collins, the General Secretary, introduced the item. He said that the NEC wasn’t sitting in judgement, but had to decide if there was a prima facie case to investigate. There were three issues of concern: 1) the entitlement to vote, in the sense of the eligibility of membership; 2) people having their membership paid for them, particularly by the selected candidate; 3) the general conduct of the selected candidate, particularly in the light of the allegations that have been made, his conduct at the Labour Group, and the allegations made by the Dispatches programme and Andrew Gilligan’s blog. Ray said that he believed that there was a prima facie case for an investigation, arising from the letter of complaint dated 20th September from Helal Abbas. The Party had taken steps to run the selection properly, but any process is open to abuse. The analysis of the voting shows that the final margin was 25 votes to Lutfur Rahman, over the combined votes of Abbas and Biggs. Given the queries about the voting, this is a very close result.

There is also the issue of intimidation, some of which happened at the Labour Group meeting. Last night, Party officers met senior party members from the Borough, including Rushanara Ali MP, who said that allegations about Lutfur’s conduct had been made before, and that during the Parliamentary campaign he had publicly refused to support her as a candidate. Whatever decision we reach today, there must be an investigation, and if there is an investigation, we have to suspend the candidate and impose a new one (this sentence makes no sense to me). The NEC could consider any of the shortlisted candidates. We could be subject to legal challenge, but the advice from our solicitors is clear.

Harriet Harman then spoke. She said that there were two questions: firstly can we suspend our selected candidate? Yes, we can. Secondly should we do it? Yes we should. It’s a difficult decision, but we should do it. This is a bottom-up process, arising from complaints on the ground. The mayoralty is a very important office, TH is an Olympic borough and will get about £1bn extra resources, under the control of the Mayor. We are in the run up to the London Mayor election, and there is the position of the two Labour MPs. Endorsement would be the easy route. There will be more allegations. We have to use our judgement. When we investigate allegations, we suspend the member concerned. We could find ourselves with a suspended candidate, or Mayor. He will go to Respect, they’ve already said they won’t stand a candidate against him. Then Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick would be toast. The Party is more important than any individual, and the reputation of the Party is the most important. There will be a row, but better a row now than later on. I support the unanimous recommendation of the officers. (No written recommendations were ever put.)

Ann Black then opened the debate, saying that anyone who wanted to speak would be able to do so, but that she didn’t want anyone to question anyone else’s convictions or motives.

Dennis Skinner spoke first, raving on about how he was opposed to Mayors. Nothing of any relevance to this case was said. He then left the meeting.

I then said that I knew most of the people involved in this case and had done for many years, although the person I knew least well was Lutfur Rahman. I pointed out that I had met him at a restaurant several months ago, where there were Asian and white women, not wearing hijabs, and alcohol was served, so that’s how much of a Muslim fundamentalist he is! I said that all membership applications in TH were dealt with by the Regional office, have been for many years, and that the local CLPs aren’t allowed to have anything to do with them, so if there are irregularities whose fault is that? During this time, the membership in TH has halved, so if someone is buying up memberships he clearly isn’t very good at it. The voting was on 4th September, yet now we have last minute complaints dated yesterday. Complaints have come in from disappointed candidates, I understand their disappointment, but they are hardly neutral in this. Helal Abbas, who says in his letter that there has never been any complaint about him or investigation, is really Abbas Uddin, who won the Spitalfields by election by 9 votes in ’84 or ’85, I know because I was there, and later had to stand down as a councillor because he was bankrupt. He also had to be forcibly prevented from hitting Lilian Collins at a Shadwell selection in the ‘90s. We were promised an investigation by David Triesman (previously General Secretary) which never materialised, clearly the Party is selective in what it chooses to investigate in Tower Hamlets. Respect is a busted flush in TH, Respect councillors have been allowed into the Labour Group by the Regional office, with no consultation with the Labour Party, many of whom were against it. If Respect won’t stand a candidate, maybe they can’t find one! At the voting on 4th September, at which no postal votes were allowed, members had to take their cards and photographic proof of identity, eg passports, so how could there have been impersonations? The Borough Party secretary was asked to leave the room in which the voting took place, so this was all in the hands of the Region. Ken Clarke announced to the media outside the count that Lutfur was the candidate, and is on You Tube doing so. I am very concerned that Andrew Gilligan is being given a say in who the Labour candidate is. The Dispatches programme was absolute rubbish and the MP involved was censured by his GC for taking part. Lutfur is the candidate supported by the majority of the local Party, which is why the intention was to keep him off the shortlist in the first place. (I shouldn’t really have brought that up, but I was so angry). If he isn’t endorsed as the candidate we could lose the election and the Tories might win it. Then they’ll have control of a £1bn budget.

Keith Vaz then said that he was on the first panel, and had said that mistakes were being made. If allegations have been made, we should have the person in and ask them about them. I’ve had allegations made about me in the past. Anyone can make up allegations, especially if they’ve lost an election. If we let the local MPs chose a Mayoral candidate we’re on a very slippery slope. We haven’t followed procedures and now there are noises off. I gave Andrew Gilligan a job as an intern 20 years ago. He was dismissed because he had forged references for his CV. The last time this matter went to court, it cost us £70 thousand, and we were advised by the same solicitors who have given this legal opinion. I don’t accept the officers’ recommendations. Regional office is a problem. I’m happy for the officers to interview the candidate, then if they’re not happy, suspend him. We can all produce dossiers, we don’t want to get involved in a faction fight in TH. The spirit of the law is that you should put allegations to the person involved.

Pete Willsman than said that the dossier had come in right at the last minute to try and bounce the NEC, and that it was contrary to natural justice that the person had not seen, never mind had a chance to respond to, the allegations.

Norma Stephenson said that we have to act within the spirit of the Party. The report from the Labour Group meeting made my mind up. We need an investigation into this selection, and also into Regional office.

Keith Birch said he supported Norma because the allegations needed investigation.

Jeremy Beecham said that we have to sort this out and we can’t just ignore Gilligan, he will do real damage. ID doesn’t show where you live. There are serious questions about the ballot, and a prima facie case to look into, as an emergency.

Peter Wheeler said there might be problems and we might be taken to court. If we suspended Lutfur Rahman, how would we get a candidate?

Angela Eagle said I was on the second panel, and I didn’t shortlist him. It’s not right that people feel they have an entitlement to be a candidate, and take us to court (Angela was imposed as a candidate in Wallasey in the first place). There are problems with endorsing the candidate, there is a prima facie case to investigate.

Peter Kenyon said that there was a probability the candidate would stand against us anyway (not a point likely to win the NEC over). Anyone can make a case against anyone – look at the case that was made against Ken Livingstone, and look where that got us. We should investigate soon, before the nominations. I’m not confident about an investigation, I’m still waiting for the outcome of the investigation into Erith and Thamesmead. This is not a bottom-up case, not according to what I’ve heard from local members. We need a rapid investigation by people who have not been previously involved.

Jack Dromey said the London region shouldn’t investigate. There are serious allegations, Lutfur publicly refused to support Rushanara Ali. Now Respect is supporting him. There are reports this morning that he is being investigated by the electoral commission. It is not practical to have an investigation and then another NEC by Friday. We have to take the risk that he will stand.

Ray Collins then came back and said that this was not about our processes, it was about the conduct of an individual. Even Keith Vaz and Peter Kenyon admit the allegations are serious. We have to act immediately.

Harriet Harman said that there is no easy path but we have to exercise our responsibilities. We don’t want a hiatus between now and Friday. I am more concerned about Rushanara’s allegations than about Gilligan’s. We need to agree another candidate now.

Keith Vaz said that it could be unlawful, we are proposing to agree a new candidate before there has been an investigation.

Ray Collins said that was not the case. There is a prima facie case for an investigation. The suspension is an administrative action.

Ann Black then tried to clarify what we were voting on, no recommendations being written down. The first vote was that: “We believe there are allegations that require investigation, which need to be investigated outside the London region, and that therefore we take administrative action to suspend the candidate.”

There were lots of votes in favour of this, with myself, Peter Kenyon and Peter Willsman voting against, and Keith Vaz abstaining.

The second vote was put by Norma Stephenson, that the candidate be Helal Abbas. Pete Willsman moved John Biggs, as he at least came second in the ballot. There were 16 votes for Abbas, 2 for Biggs, with 5 abstentions ; myself, Peter Kenyon, Ellie Reeves, Andy Worth and Keith Vaz.

My suspicion is that they put forward Abbas so as not to leave themselves open to the charge of deselecting a Bangladeshi and replacing him with a white man. All papers in the dossier were collected in, and I left the meeting.