Earlier this week a by-election was held in the Devon town of Totnes - where I live - to elect a new district councillor. The election went smoothly, was well fought by all candidates, turnout was decent, and in the end the Liberal Democrat candidate won. At the count, the different parties and independents congratulated each other on a cleanly fought campaign, hugged (genuinely, this is Totnes), and went their separate ways.
I dearly wish the story could have ended there. But no. This being British politics in 2016 - the whole thing has quickly and efficiently descended into a festival of farce, point-scoring, and political opportunism. In the new political world, it seems, even tiny district council by-elections can't be allowed to go off without a bang.
The controversy surrounds the fact that the Labour party, and more specifically the Totnes CLP, didn't field a candidate. After the result, Labour MPs Ben Bradshaw and Neil Coyle took to Twitter to condemn the CLP for choosing an 'ineligible candidate,' and for having been 'taken over' by Corbynites and entryists. Their words have been retweeted hundreds of times, and the story has even made its way into the national press. But what really went on? Well, it just so happens that I played a small role, and as such know a little - and certainly more than Ben Bradshaw or Neil Coyle - about the truth behind the headlines.
Corbynites take over Totnes CLP choose ineligible candidate who runs as "Independent" & lose our only seat on South Hams council! Well done!— Ben Bradshaw (@BenPBradshaw) July 28, 2016
Utter shambles & incompetence from entryists costing Labour a council seat. Party must move on under Owen Smith https://t.co/QcIb5VVY1X— Neil Coyle (@coyleneil) July 28, 2016
Back in May 2016 veteran Labour councillor David Horsburgh - twice Mayor of Totnes - called time on 24 years of representing the town, triggering the by-election that has caused so much fuss.
Mr Horsburgh was Labour's only representative on South Hams District Council, and naturally the Totnes CLP and the national Labour Party wanted the party's presence on the Council to remain. So they did what any party would do - they put out a call to members, looking for someone to stand as a Labour candidate in the election. No one came forward. They put out another call, and another, but still there were no takers.
Finally, barely 24 hours before the deadline to register candidates, they had an offer. Alex Mockridge, a young woman looking to make her mark on politics for the first time, filled with the energy and enthusiasm of youth. Surely the perfect candidate? Not according to the CLP, who said no. She had not been a member of the Labour Party for a year, and as such was ineligible according to party rules. It's worth noting that this is not a legal matter - the CLP could, had they wanted, requested special dispensation from the national party to get Alex on the ballot as a Labour candidate. But they didn't. Because they didn't want her, and seemingly would rather have had no candidate.
To her great credit, Alex decided to run anyway, as an independent. Very reluctantly the Totnes CLP agreed to back her, but this backing in practice took the form of informal advice and nothing more. No money changed hands, there were no Labour roses on any campaign materials, and all campaigning was done strictly as an independent.
Thank you Ben! https://t.co/q6KjO8Kpea— Alex Mockridge (@VoteMockridge) July 28, 2016
There has been plenty of conjecture and speculation as to whether or not the CLP funded the campaign. I can confirm that they did not. They offered to pay for some leaflets, but they had already been bought and paid for, so no financial backing was given. I personally contributed more money to Alex's campaign than the Labour Party did.
With her candidacy confirmed less than an hour before the deadline, Alex got to work on campaigning, and did so with such enthusiasm that her campaign blew away the constraints of party politics and brought everyone together. The CLP offered advice, a well known local Liberal Democrat - this guy - put up a sign in his front garden where the Lib Dem one usually goes, and even Conservative voters helped with the leafleting. It should have been a positive story about bipartisanship and proper, progressive politics. Instead it’s been hijacked by MPs with an axe to grind.
The Tweets from Ben Bradshaw and Neil Coyle - that came after Alex came third in the election, receiving almost three times as many votes as the Conservative candidate in an area with a Conservative MP - were baseless attacks clearly meant to damage Jeremy Corbyn. Instead they've succeeded only in damaging their own reputations, and possibly even the political ambitions of a young woman who wanted to make a difference.
To suggest that Labour lost the election because the CLP selected an ineligible candidate is simply not true. The CLP did not select a candidate, and were very reluctant to back Alex when they did. Calling it a Corbynista infiltration, or Trotskyite entryism, is equally as absurd. Alex is a Corbyn supporter, yes, but it’s hardly much of a takeover if there isn’t any candidate willing to stand, is it? And the apparent disarray at Totnes CLP can hardly be due to it being run by Corbynites, when as I've already mentioned, they didn't want one as a candidate in the first place.
Trying to blame this situation on Corbyn reeks of opportunism. Perhaps that's to be expected. But to drag an 18 year old into it and try to smear her, scapegoating her and her political beliefs as the reason Labour lost, despite the fact she wasn't a Labour candidate but was the only party member willing to at least try to fight the election, is unforgivable.
It would be nice to think that the truth will out, that the facts laid out above will get through to Ben Bradshaw et al and make them think again. But they won't. We are living in a post-fact world, where truth is relative, experts are shunned, and all opinions, no matter how demonstrably false they may be, are considered equal. The Labour Party can try to use this as an excuse for more self-destruction if it wants, but it should leave Totnes out of it.
Deej Sullivan is a journalist and campaigner. He regularly writes on drug policy for volteface.me, London Real, and many others, and is policy & communications officer at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK. Follow him on Twitter.
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