Ecclesall Labour Party – A candidate lost and found

Ecclesall Labour Party membership during the Corbyn revival was well over 700 members but has now fallen back to around 500 members, of which about a dozen or so will attend a routine ward meeting. The numbers will perhaps be larger when both the Left and the Right rustle up their supporters for a showdown. But overall the lack of energy and commitment is tangible, as if some form of vampiric dulness is draining its life force. 

Like the rest of Hallam, it was once a Conservative heartland, represented by the slightly baffled looking and sounding ‘Knight of the Shire’ Sir John Osborn who was replaced by the Thatcherite pantomime villain Irvin Patnick, until the constituency was liberated by the Liberal Democrats in 1997. However, even Nick Clegg’s intense charisma was insufficient to save them from the taint of the ‘Coalition’ with the Tories and in 2017 Jared O’Mara became our first ever Labour MP. His selection reflected the benign neglect that the Party’s machine (nationally and regionally) has shown for the constituency and more especially the ward. O’Mara was pretty much the sum of all that could go wrong with the process; no politics, no experience and no skill set — together with a history that would have benefitted from some prior checking out. Nevertheless almost without official organisational support, he won on a wave of local left activists doing the ground work. In 2019 and for much the same reason, Olivia Blake, a careerist shrinking violet of a leftist persuasion so soft it could be used for marketing toilet tissue, retained the seat. 

As with the constituency, so the ward steadily drifted from being a conservative wasteland to a core part of the Liberal Democrat electoral strength, to which they held on to relentlessly as its strength in other parts of the city has ebbed and flowed. In the last local elections they received almost 3000 votes, with Labour just second, nosing slightly ahead of the Greens with just over 2000 votes each. 

The May 2022 elections remain to be conducted, but we in Labour do not have much to make us feel confident. Starmer’s dismal failure to capitalise on the Tories’ dreadful performance, the ineptness and timidity of the Sheffield Labour Councillors, in uneasy and clumsy coalition with the Greens, armed with a local manifesto bursting with a lack of commitment to anything, and the woeful legacy of the Tree debacle are not fertile ground to harvest an upswing. 

And so the Ward set out to find itself a new candidate for the 2022 local elections. Being such a no hoper of a Labour seat, Ecclesall finds itself traditionally at the end of the queue for choosing centrally approved candidates, but this year the pond was drained before Ecclesall could dip its beak — with one exception, Lee Rock – an openly committed hard left socialist activist, with a history of TU representation and campaigning for socialist causes, domestic and international, and inter alia, the convenor of Sheffield Labour Left. 

Left to its own devices the system should have allowed Lee to go forward and be selected by Ecclesall. For some reason though, it did not happen that way. The scheduled selection meeting in December 2021 was cancelled with no clear explanation and the reconvened meeting in February had mysteriously acquired two new approved candidates: one a soft leftist from elsewhere in the city and the other a hard rightist who had recently moved into the ward. Come the day of the meeting, Lee’s supporters had organised ourselves diligently. The target was to allow Lee to present a campaign manifesto of firm, ‘Corbynite’ flavour. The expectation was for Lee to be knocked out in the first round and for his votes to reluctantly transfer to the soft leftist in the second round. 

Lee’s presentation was first class: committed, coherent and combative. The soft left candidate was incoherent, unassertive and lacklustre. The hard rightist was inconsequential and unprepared, very much phoning in her presentation. 

Amazingly, Lee won a majority of the votes in the first round, later confirmed as 25 of 43 of the votes cast. Despite the chair–advised by his executive colleagues– refusing to announce the detailed results of the election, we understand that the hard rightist candidate managed only to attract 15% of the votes cast. The meeting was then drawn to a hurried and confused end. 

At the next meeting the hard right candidate submitted a motion that, while appearing to support Lee’s candidacy was actually a coded attack that sought to muzzle his campaigning stance and strap him to the Region’s lukewarm careerist mayoral candidate and give slavish support to Starmer. This was successfully amended to an unconditional vote of confidence in Lee and his policy stance. The exec/campaign team looked out of their Zoom windows a little non-plussed and sheepish. 

A few days later Lee received a letter from Labour HQ informing him he was facing expulsion on a trumped up inconsequential charge. A previous suspension and two other abortive attempts at disciplining him had failed humiliatingly for the apparatchiks. 

The subsequent ward meeting on the 14th of March was a strange affair, quorate only by the skin of its teeth. The Left had a good presence, and our arguments were supported by some of the unaligned members present. We knew that were we to try to submit a motion on the suspension it would be ruled out of order and we would fail to get a two-thirds majority for a vote of no confidence in the chair to overrule that decision. 

Instead we had what was an ostensibly comradely and informal discussion in which an agreement not to force the issue procedurally would be responded to by the Executive expressing the Ward’s unhappiness about the suspension of our candidate up the party organisation. We were also reassured by the unsuccessful right wing candidate that they had no intention of seeking the candidacy. 

And so having debriefed my Left comrades, I went to bed thinking something, however slight had been reached, that there had been some minor recognition that the bogus suspension of Lee was too much to take and that the democratic decision of the Ward was a sovereign one worth defending, even if only with a whimper. As usual in such cases I was clearly too trusting of the integrity of my Ecclesall comrades and I should, of course, have listened to my favourite historian’s dictum, ‘De omnibus dubitandum’. [Everything must be doubted] — a principle that is not disproved by current Labour Party behaviour. 

A few days later Lee received formal notification that he had been expelled from the Party. 

A constituency meeting was imminent. I submitted an emergency motion that endorsed the selection of Lee Rock, called on the constituency to protest his expulsion to regional office and beyond and refuse to campaign for an imposed candidate. This was ruled out of order by the chair, who also refused to take a challenge to his ruling. My only option was to move a more difficult vote of no confidence, again knowing we did not have the numbers to succeed–nevertheless we put on a good show losing by 29 votes to 35, with 2 abstentions. 25 members then left the meeting in disgust at the undemocratic nonsense we were being forced to endure. 

And then a few days later, all the apparent comradeliness, mutual understanding and agreement that had been present in the earlier ward meeting, melted into air and I was forced to face the real conditions of Ecclesall Labour Party; without any explanation, without any communication, formal or informal, without any comradely tip off or early warning, we received from the ward secretary a coldly worded formal invitation to a selection meeting at which we would be invited to select a candidate from a short list of one, which consisted of the very unsuccessful hard right candidate who had so clearly indicated at the previous ward meeting that they would not be seeking the candidacy. 

We did what we could. Facing us was a very quiet and undemonstrative ward chair and executive supporters. There was a number of faceless bureaucrats from the LCF, the constituency chair lurked about unannounced and a number of old right supporting members, who never otherwise show their faces, were present to do as they were told. I challenged the chair over his failure to act on his commitments from the previous meeting and was ruled out of order. I tried to move a vote of no confidence in the chair and was ruled out of order by one of the bureaucrats. Then it was announced that the motion to go to a vote to select (as set out in the agenda) was not necessary and should not be put — the logic being that if the candidate was not selected they would be imposed anyway. We protested this as best we were able, and again were left with no option but to remove ourselves, ‘en masse’ some ten of us (out of 24) from the fiasco. In our absence there was an unanimous vote in favour of the candidate. 

This afternoon I received through my letter box, a poster to put in my window and a very sparse leaflet from the new candidate asking for my support… 

Tim Plant, Sheffield Left & Ecclesall Labour Party