By Greg Hadfield and Frank le Duc
It has also instigated “a consultation” on what threatens to be a fundamental restructuring of the 1,400-member Brighton and Hove District Labour Party “to ensure that the objectives for branches as set out in the Labour Party Rule Book are being met”.
The shock decision to suspend the Moulsecoomb and Bevendean branch – “pending an investigation” – has fuelled concerns that the city party’s ruling executive plans to marginalise even further the influence of grassroots members.
Malcolm Powers, the unelected regional director employed by the Labour Party, broke the news in an email seen by the Brighton and Hove Independent.
In the email to Robert Brown, chairman of the Moulsecoomb and Bevendean Branch Labour Party, Mr Powers said: “During the period of the suspension, the Moulsecoomb and Bevendean branch will not be able to meet or conduct any formal Labour Party business.”
Mr Powers did, however, assure members they could still campaign for the party.
His intervention was condemned as “an insult to democracy” by one well-informed Labour Party figure.
The party insider said: “This has been brewing ever since a single city party – to replace the three separate constituency parties – was formed more than two years ago.
“The executive committee is a law unto itself. They just want members to deliver leaflets, make phone calls, and raise funds – so that they and their friends, the so-called ‘super-activists’ can get on to the council. They’re not interested in discussing politics or listening to what rank-and-file members think. They are determined to trample party democracy into the ground.”
Grassroots members are particularly angry at the treatment of Councillor Leigh Farrow, the long-serving party member, who was suspended last month from the panel of approved candidates after a complaint that he swore during a private meeting with two fellow Labour councillors.
In the 10-minute pre-meeting immediately before the meeting of the Brighton and Hove City Council Housing Committee on Wednesday 18 June, Councillor Farrow – one of three Labour councillors in Moulsecoomb and Bevendean – swore at Councillor Chaun Wilson, the party’s housing spokesman, when she passed on voting instructions from Councillor Gill Mitchell, the Labour group whip.
Councillor Mitchell subsequently had Councillor Farrow removed from the Housing Committee, making him the only Labour councillor not to sit on any council committees. Previously, she had him removed from the Planning Committee, after strongly disputed allegations about his behaviour towards a council officer.
Councillor Farrow successfully appealed against a previous attempt to deselect him as a council candidate during his recovery from a double heart-bypass operation. Friends believe he is the long-suffering victim of “a witch-hunt”, with city party leaders wanting to instal a favoured candidate of their own.
The 59-year-old councillor is expected to attend a South East Regional Labour Party disciplinary hearing in the next couple of weeks, accompanied by a representative of his union, the GMB. He has until Monday 1 September to submit a deposition.
He has told friend that he accepts he “mis-spoke” and has offered his unreserved apologies for any offence caused.
Councillor Farrow, however, has rejected defamatory attempts to establish a “pattern of behaviour” and accusations that he failed to meet the requirements of the Labour Party’s “candidates’ contract”.
Mr Brown, the branch chairman, has written a letter of support. In it, he states: “With knowledge and experience of the character of the area, I wish it to be known that by deselecting a popular sitting local representative, the present action against Leigh could very well cause voter apathy as well as demotivating local party activists.
“Given the working-class demographic of Moulsecoomb and Bevendean, there is too surely a high risk of contributing to an increase of support for UKIP and/or delivering the council seat to the Tories. The impact upon the parliamentary campaign can only be negative also.”
Earlier this month, members of Moulsecoomb and Bevendean Branch Labour Party voted unanimously to support him.
Before the meeting, there was a report of a leaked “crisis” email from Mr Brown to the three local councillors – Anne Meadows, Mo Marsh, and Leigh Farrow – as well as to Nancy Platts, the Labour parliamentary candidate for Brighton Kemptown.
In the leaked email, Mr Brown warned: “If they (ward party members) turn up and find that one of the councillors has been deselected without consulting the ward members and if Leigh is not reinstated to his post, I can see members leaving the party because it is undemocratic and a hidden few are overruling the members’ wishes.”
At the meeting, the anger of members was fuelled when an email from Mel Davis – the chair of the city party and a close friend of Councillor Mitchell – was read out, saying the meeting should have been cancelled. Mr Brown’s request for information about the allegations was rebuffed on the ground that the matter was under investigation.
The branch had asked for a member of the city executive to attend but this did not happen.
Since the suspension of the Moulsecoomb and Bevendean branch, a series of questions have been asked by members, including Councillor Anne Meadows, who was herself suspended after an anonymous claim that a gift had gone missing while she was mayor. No evidence could be found to support any wrongdoing on her part.
The questions being asked by grassroots members are:
- What is the reason for the suspension of the Moulsecoomb and Bevendean Branch Labour Party?
- What has the branch done wrong as we have consistently abided by Labour Party rules?
- What is Malcolm Powers actually investigating?
- If there is a consultation about the city party, why is Moulsecoomb and Bevendean the only branch suspended while this happens?
- What is the consultation and investigation?
- What do they mean by restructuring?
- What is the timeline for this consultation?
- When will the results be made known?
With the city party due to hold an all-member meeting on Saturday 6 September – with all members invited from all 18 branches – it will not be long before answers will have to be given.