Will Jamie Driscoll’s departure be a repeat of the Livingstone London mayor fiasco? asks Trevor Fisher
Julie Ward’s article in the current Chartist on the exclusion of Jamie Driscoll from Labour’s North East mayoral selection rightly said outrage was continuing amongst party members. Jamie Driscoll has now resigned from the Labour Party to stand as an independent with considerable support. The Northern Echo rightly said, “It is a bit rich that a party which constantly talks of devolving more power to local communities then more or less imposes a candidate from central office upon those communities.”
This is not an isolated incident but part of a worrying pattern. The top-down approach is now standard for paid positions, and while it is right that there should be appeals, as Mayors Burnham and Rotheram stated, the NEC was told in July that all appeals on parliamentary selections had failed, suggesting the rule is now ‘the centre is infallible’. Ann Black commented: “I am not convinced that an appeal process with a 100% rejection rate [is meaningful],” and that the NEC debate included “some [who] felt that the party should do more to rebut the charges of ‘Stalinism'”. The Driscoll affair shows more than just high-handed centralism.
Livingstone: the lesson of history
There is a growing lack of credibility, as decisions lack serious long-term thinking and awareness of the lessons of history – in this case, the parallels with the blocking of Ken Livingstone from the London Mayor position two decades ago. When Labour set out to implement the manifesto commitment to set up a mayor for London, Ken Livingstone, former leader of the Greater London Council (GLC), announced he would run to be the Labour candidate. This caused ructions at the top of the party: Blair as PM no more wanted a left-winger as Mayor than Thatcher had wanted a left-wing GLC. Knowing how popular Livingstone was among members, it was decreed a one-member-one-vote ballot would not take place. To dilute Livingstone’s popularity among members, an electoral college of one third members, one third affiliates and one third MPs/MEPs was set up, and with the elected reps reflecting an anti-left position, they swung the vote for Frank Dobson, the Blair candidate, who won by 51% to 48%. However, Livingstone, knowing about the Blair campaign against him, called Dobson a “tainted candidate”, said he was forced to choose between “the party I love and the democratic rights of Londoners” and ran as an independent, knowing he would be expelled by Labour. With polls indicating the voters supported him, he ran away with the election, securing 58% of first- and second-preference votes, with the Tory, Stephen Norris, second and Dobson third.
When an unnamed spokesman dismissed Driscoll’s independent campaign on the grounds that “independent candidates only get tiny votes”, they should remember Ken Livingstone’s success. As the Northern Echo also wrote, “we now have the prospect of Labour re-running the 2000 London Mayoral contest, when Tony Blair tried everything to stop Ken Livingstone, with the result that Livingstone won as an independent”. Whether history will repeat itself remains to be seen.
The reasons why
The immediate issue is why the machine took the decision to stop candidates for parliamentary selections at the long list stage – so members do not get to hear the case made in support of a choice. There are two apparent reasons. An official one, advanced by Baroness Jenny Chapman, Starmer’s former chief of staff, is that the decision showed the party was “taking the North East seriously… This is about getting the best outcome for the people of the North East. If the Labour Party has to upset a few people… to get there then I support that.”
Driscoll, however, referred to the other alleged reason – that he was being punished for talking to Ken Loach, whose films and politics are deemed to be unacceptable. Driscoll told the BBC: “What I did was talk to Loach at a theatre about films and art, not about politics or anything to do with the Labour Party. Nobody in the North East believes that’s promoting antisemitism in any way.”
He then went to the heart of the matter, the way this decision is part of an established pattern of making selection decisions at the centre. “We’ve seen a pattern of behaviour across the Labour Party of people being taken out. What I am asking for is just to let the members decide. Why is it people in London taking me out?”
It is the last paragraph that is crucial. Along with the ‘weaponisation’ of antisemitism, which is increasingly controversial, there is a growing sense that decisions are being made on factional not reasoned bases. This means the Driscoll affair is of more importance than just to the North East of England.