ANALYSIS: How the real fight to become Lewisham East MP is taking place within the Labour party

Posted On: 
13th May 2018

When Heidi Alexander dramatically quit as MP for Lewisham East she sparked off a bitter contest - not between the major political parties - but within Labour itself. 

The race to be Labour's candidate in Lewisham East is threatening to become bitter.
Credit: 
PA Images

UPDATE: This article was written before Phyll Opoku-Gyimah dropped out of the race on Sunday 13 May.

With the former Shadow Health Secretary having been re-elected last year with a majority of more than 21,000, the seat is an all-but guaranteed £77,000-a-year job with all the trimmings for whoever gets to be the the party's candidate. The jostling for the coveted Labour nomination is therefore the real process whereby the next MP will be picked, with the subsequent by-election likely to be little more than a formality.

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A string of hopefuls from across the country have thrown their names into the hat. But for most, the hours perfecting applications will have been better spent enjoying the weekend.

During Sunday and Monday, scores of bids will end up on the scrapheap as a three-person panel on the party's ruling National Executive Committee whittle down a short-list from which the Lewisham East constituency Labour party will take its pick.

But the notion that the process will be based on the quality of the applications themselves is for the birds. In all likelihood, the Labour leadership has already chosen the candidate it wants and the two or three others it could live with.

A key element of the decision will be who is most likely to play ball in the Commons voting lobbies and tow the leadership line. Alexander was a thorn in the side of Jeremy Corbyn - the first MP to quit her job in the exodus after the EU referendum and a dogged campaigner for a soft-Brexit. The risk of handing the job to someone even half as unhelpful is too great not to control the process with something of a Blairite grip.

One of those in the frame - Sakina Sheikh - fancies her chances as a unity candidate. She was one of the first to declare her candidacy just days after winning her seat on the local council. Sheikh sees herself as a shoo-in with her local roots and her links to the moderates on the council, but her ultra-confident nature may turn some in the local party against her. Sources say she is “convinced” she will make the shortlist and has been boasting about the “connections and respect” she enjoys with senior figures, including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Sheikh has found favour with some young Corbyn fans - but her hopes of employing her connections to win the blessing of the leadership were thrown off course as two other candidates announced their intention to stand.

Claudia Webbe - an Islington councillor, NEC member and strong Corbynite - will certainly fit the bill for some. She has been endorsed by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and appears to have the backing of Diane Abbott, who retweeted a supportive message from Mobo founder Kanya King. However, Webbe’s defence of Ken Livingstone after the ex-London mayor was suspended for comparing a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard might work against her. She might have enough cachet with those at the top to win the coveted blessing of Corbyn - but her full-throated backing of the Labour leader is unlikely to warm the hearts of Lewisham moderates.

The third name at the centre of the race is Phyll Opoku-Gyimah - a PCS union official and co-founder of UK Black Pride. So-called ‘Lady Phyll’ is said to be the favourite among top Labour figures, and as a black lesbian could be a triple-boost for Labour's equality credentials in the Commons were she to become an MP. Her anti-establishment reputation (she refused an MBE in protest at the British Empire’s record on race and sexuality) will appeal to the left, while being slightly less of a Corbyn-fanatic than Webbe could help the moderates grit their teeth and back her. The Guido Fawkes website has already trawled her Facebook and picked out a post in which she appeared to compare the plight of Palestinians to the Holocaust - which could put some off.

Rumour has it that the the Lewisham East shortlist will be all-women and all-BME (despite the party making clear at the start the application was open) - so the likes of councillors Kevin Bonavia and Joe Dromey (son of MPs Jack Dromey and former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman) are unlikely to get a look in.

Some moderates - despite agreeing on the need for a minority-boosting selection - believe the decision is being used to rig the process, giving the NEC wider scope to parachute in its favoured candidate and avoid allowing a centrist on the selection ballot. The Blairites in Lewisham East - led by former Blair aide and CLP chair Ian McKenzie - certainly still know how to strategise to make their voices heard. They claimed victory this week when the NEC caved to demands and pushed the selection date back to 19 May after outrage about the rushed process. So expect protests from these quarters if local BME women such as Lewisham deputy mayor Janet Daby and councillors Brenda Dacres and Rachel Onikosi are overlooked on the shortlist.

The level of control being exerted by the NEC flies in the face of claims that Labour is now a member-led body under Corbyn. The by-election selection is the first since Momentum founder Jon Lansman - a major proponent of membership control - was voted onto the party's ruling body. But the process so far would make a Blairite blush. Momentum itself is yet to decide whether to back a candidate for the selection at all - which is just as well, since it remains unclear who to direct to spread the message on the ground. The Lewisham branch of the campaign group has split into two factions, both claiming to be the official entity, one led by old-school Alliance for Workers' Liberty members and another by young pro-Corbyn types.

The average voter in Lewisham East will likely wake up on 15 June with a new Labour MP and only a vague notion a political contest has taken place at all. The preceding campaign between the major parties is unlikely to alter the strength of Labour support in the seat. What very few will realise is the real battle to succeed Heidi Alexander is actually happening now.