H & St P: The briefings, the pokes, the myths and the nudges of Labour’s clean fight


SO, we are almost there, tomorrow is the big day for the final five in the race to succeed Frank Dobson. Labour’s protracted selection campaign finally reaches its climax at St Pancras Church, where members are due meet after lunch to cast their vote. It seems a long time ago since that summery party in Kentish Town councillor Jenny Headlam-Wells’ house, in which Frank, having made his big retirement announcement the week before, pleaded for a nice clean contest, and all of the would-be successors around the table nodded manically in agreement. For even if the candidates themselves have not got involved in backstage briefings, scratching at their rivals – some of their supporters have, whether they were asked to or not. So, on selection eve, here’s a final round-up of those behind your back stories that perforated the clean fight of the last few months. The conspiracy theorists, you’ll see, have had a field day.


WHEN this all started, Ed Miliband said to nobody’s surprise that he would not endorse a single candidate for his home neighbourhood. Yet nobody really believes that given the choice he wouldn’t pluck for Sir Keir Starmer. It’s even said that someone of Sir Keir’s profile would be fast-tracked into a cabinet role, should Labour win the general election next May. There were jokes, shared in semi-jest, when Emily Thornberry left the role of shadow attorney general in the wake of the mess in Rochester, that Sir Keir would be sought even more, as there was now an obvious place for him at the top table. This apparent path to the big game, however, has led to inevitable chitter chatter about whether he would be in a position to vote against HS2 if he is, by then, holding a senior position among Miliband’s inner cabal. Sir Keir has laughed it off, as he does when you suggest that if he doesn’t win here, a safe seat can still be found elsewhere for him. The we don’t want someone thrust on us uprising seen in other Labour safe seats, meanwhile, has not materialised in the way we might have expected.


WHEN she was running to become leader of Camden’s Labour group, Sarah Hayward emailed councillors to say that she was so committed to the task of council leader, there was no chance of her deserting the post for a personal parliamentary quest. I had initially remembered this wrongly, thinking that she had said that this guarantee only ran up to this year’s local elections. But the email was dug out early in this process, and sure enough, she had made a much longer pledge to stay put. In a question and answer paragraph, she had written: “Are you doing this just to be an MP? No. I’ve never stood for selection, let alone for Parliament. I am not on the parliamentary panel of candidates and I won’t stand for Parliament or selection as an MP while I am leader of Camden.” Asked what gave, she said she had meant what she had said when she said it, but things had changed. No matter, she added, as the councillors to whom she had made the vow were not, in the majority, bothered about her change of heart and were now actually supporting her campaign. “In hindsight, it was a mistake to have said it because you never know what will happen,” Sarah said. ” But it was said in good faith not for any nefarious reasons that people might try to attach to it.”


IT’S not a bad line is it?, the one Dr Patrick has used repeatedly in the last few weeks: “At the moment there are more than twenty lawyers in the Parliamentary Labour Party but at present Labour, the party of the NHS, does not have a single doctor.”

Some people have suggested that the NHS can ill afford to lose someone of his skill and sense, but it’s a good two-birds-one-stone figure, which boosts his appeal while splatting his lawyer rivals. Trouble is, when it came to an event like the open hustings last week, all the one-off questions given to him were on the NHS, playing into the hands of those sceptical enough to believe he is little more than a single issue candidate.


FOR the briefest of moments it looked like Raj Chada was in trouble when the burping Labour Party database noted him down as not paying his full fees. Silly. This was on a membership spreadsheet sent to the various campaign teams at the official start of the contest. There was a cold sweat panic, just for a second, and even talk that he might not be eligible to stand, before the error was realised and the information was corrected. Raj came back with a public reminder that he had donated £1,000 to the local party before May’s local elections.


THIS one seems like a fair do. Ken Livingstone doesn’t hold a vote here. I think Lord Neil Kinnock lives on the wrong side of the Camden-Islington border in Tufnell Park. There are more examples too. Sir K unleashed a cast of familiar faces right at the start of the contest, setting the tone for the early skirmishes in which endorsements trumped debate and policy ideas. In response, Sarah Hayward wheeled out Lord Prescott and Lord Smith, neither of whom hold a vote in the constituency either, and later India Knight, who, extra points for this, at least does qualify to vote as a Primrose Hill resident. Raj Chada rolled out Neville Lawrence, awkwardly on the same day in which Doreen Lawrence spoke up for Sir Keir. But in the end, a high share of the celebrity endorsers who have popped up since October will simply be spectators. 


WHEN he takes to the stage tomorrow, Sir Keir Starmer will no doubt talk about his role in high profile cases on human rights and social justice. I give it three minutes max before he mentions his work on McLibel. You can’t fault the guy for showing off his CV, but midway through this process it was noted that he was less forthcoming about a human rights case for none other than Silvio Berlusconi. The whispers had it that he could have found some way of wriggling out of such work – given the controversial nature of the client – if he wanted to. Starmerites remind us, however, of the old ‘cab rank’ rule applied by law firms, a sort of rotation system which stops lawyers from turning down work when the queue of cases revolves around to them. It’s meant to make sure nobody, however horrible their alleged crime is, goes without legal representation.


I ONCE asked David Miliband, while he was visiting his old school Haverstock, why he had gone into politics and decided to speak for people without ever having had a ‘proper job’. The old thunderbird wrinkled his nose and said: ‘I think Foreign Secretary is a proper job’. But later he took the hint on board, as I tell it, and did some work experience at the school as sixth form teacher, having been rejected for the Labour Party leadership.

Career politician has become quite the slur in recent years, with voters apparently wanting to be represented by those who have at least shared a bit of life experience, rather than politicians and researchers, and other forms of party hacks, who have spent most of their adult lives simply talking to one another. It’s a curious thing, for Sarah’s big name endorser Lord Prescott made the claim that voting for his favourite would be a change from ‘smooth talking professional politicians’. It was read by nearly everybody that he meant Sir Keir… but Sir Keir has clearly had a career, a profession away from politics, in the world of law. The term can’t apply to Raj either, who has slugged away at Hodge, Jones and Allen forever, nor the business CV of Angela Pober – and clearly not of Patrick French, who works at UCLH as a HIV consultant.

So it was, that when Angela was interviewed ahead of the selection committee interviews, the term was bounced back towards Sarah. ‘A career local politician’, Angela said of Sarah, noting that ‘Westminster bubble’ pictures with the shadow cabinet weren’t necessarily worth all they might seem. Maybe it was a silly choice of attack line by Prezza, given Sarah isn’t really up against any career politicians, but Sarah is disadvantaged in this argument, if you ask me, by the way people often dismiss careers in PR and communications, often unfairly. For this was Sarah’s day job before she became council leader. None of them have really followed the David Miliband route.


ANGELA Pober makes no secret of wanting to be an MP. She has a truckload of confidence and is not frightened to say what she thinks, even if it upsets local colleagues. She wants the pace to quicken and does not seem to see four years on the backbenches at the Town Hall as the best use of her experience and skills. She hasn’t put her name up for every seat going, but it is true she did apply for Hampstead and Kilburn last year and, in the past, a seat in Reading. More recently, she was shortlisted in Salford, which was interesting in itself because it came so soon after her election as a councillor in West Hampstead. She even pledged to move to Salford if she was selected, which would surely have triggered an uncomfortable by-election in a council ward which Labour had just fought hard to prise from long-serving Liberal Democrats. This all leads to the open goal criticism from Labour’s opponents in West Hampstead that there is now a councillor in place distracted by bigger aims and ambition. 


EARLIER this year, the London Assembly member Tom Copley, a mastermind of local elections past, was puffing about his interest in Holborn and St Pancras. Then, after hyping his own cause for several weeks, he suddenly announced he was no longer going to stand in the contest and would endorse his old mucker Sarah Hayward instead. The rumour mill cranked up and spurted out a tale of Tom stalking out the ground before Sarah’s own declaration of interest. Nonsense, he insists. As conspiratorial as all this sounds, far-fetched and so on, it would have been hard to imagine the two of them, good friends, battling this one out over the long haul. They might have cancelled each other out, and ruined a beautiful palship.


AS much as Sir Keir Starmer is the favourite for tomorrow’s final showdown, there was a hiccup in the nominations stage when he failed to win a nomination from the Highgate branch. For sure, it stung. Who got it instead? That meddlesome Dr Patrick French, who upset the applecart by winning on his home turf in possibly the best attended meeting of that part of the process. Dr F might still have been kept off the final shortlist if his success had been limited to his home neighbourhood, but the following night he followed up with another nom from Cantelowes too. While it was a very hyperlocal approach, tactically it made sense to go hard in the run up to those meetings in his home territory, because without at least one nomination he would not have qualified for an interview and his race would have been run. It was vital he won there. That being the strategy, it’s true that he did not have the same power in other areas where a familiar pattern of Starmer-Hayward-Chada developed among the nominations in branches where he is not as well known. That said, with each little victory, his campaign has been able to expand. Expect second preference votes for him to be dotted around the constituency tomorrow.


YES, he did. I was in it too, as I interviewed the pair of them ahead of the 2006 local elections, an event with which, if everybody is honest, the then Prime Minister did little to help Labour’s suddenly desperate cause in Camden. Raj has a nervous smile on his face as Blair, up to his eyeballs in Iraq at that stage, rushed in to rescue the day with a roadshow stop in King’s Cross. It was one of the worst ideas Labour could have come up with and revealed how Blair, or those around him, had not properly realised how unpopular he had become, even in core areas. When the picture cropped up again in recent weeks, someone contacted me and said they had remembered Sarah Hayward being in the room too and, come to think of it, she was there, helping with the press arrangements. But she wasn’t the leader of the council them. Raj was, and some still say that he should have been strong and said to Blair: No, Tony, let’s give it a miss this time. It would have been a striking rejection, one that would have not impressed certain wings of the regime he had just taken over from, and one which would have inevitably been leaked, for better or worse, for public attention. He would forever have been the council leader who said no to Blair from that moment on, a gamble too far.


THERE has been this kind of underlying assumption from some members that, I don’t know, because he wears a sharp suit, or because he has the perfect quiff in his hair, something like that, that Sir K must be a Blairite slickster. It comes with the problem at the top of this blogpost, that he is seen as a ‘leadership’ candidate – even if the leader is now Ed Miliband and not Tony Blair. He has desperately asked people not to attribute any labels on him before hearing him speak to varying success. To counter it further, there have been big plays about things like an endorsement from Ken Livingstone to try and show that he hears the left of the party. You know, like it or not, people still talk in Blairite-Brownite terms about those who seek to run high in the Labour Party, and it sets a trap for those following on from those years of internal scrapping. If you speak too warmly of Blair, you are accused of being right wing, a marketeer. If you speak about him with rage, there are plenty of protectionists who are ready to accuse you of trashing Labour’s record from 1997 onwards. There are many who believe the evil-Blair, Blair-is-bad line undermines the successes of those three election wins and simply isn’t healthy.

It was interesting how the candidates reacted when asked about Blair in the New Journal this week. There was splintering fence-sitting, a hedging of bets. Sir Keir was the least critical. If Raj, meanwhile, wants to be the left candidate in the final five, and is aware that there is ground to make up in this contest, it might have been worth him going for broke in his responses to those questions. He was cautious, still playing on the same turf as Sir Keir and Sarah, when I suspect he holds much greater frustration with the worst excesses of Blair’s government.


HMMMM. Maybe this part of the cost of being the boss at the Town Hall. Maybe it stems right back to the fact that the group was split on whether they wanted Sarah to be leader of the group in the first place. Famously, famously locally, she won by just one switched vote in 2010. There has been endless pub talk ever since of how she should have reacted to this close run thing. The recurring criticism from beaten insiders is that she didn’t bridge the gap between her supporters and the Tulipistas within the group, instead outflanking the defeated with a dominant leader approach. Maybe that’s history being re-drafted by those who lost that night, and it’s not a view that Sarah, or her supporters, are likely to approve. She would point to the success at May’s local elections – a record win – as vindication for her work and how wounds have been healed. But there are councillors – and council staff too, apparently – who believe that Sarah takes not suffering fools to a different level. We don’t see it, but people gossip about a fierce side. She rails against the word ‘bossy’ and ‘feisty’ because, and she has a point, those labels are almost exclusively used for women. But there is a sniff this week that people do have a fear factor about saying no to Sarah, to the extent that it may distort her own polling for this contest. 


THIS is an awkward one for Raj, because people forget that he was only handed a few months to stop the ship sinking in 2006. His name is engraved on the wall at Camden Town Hall, but it’s just an enduring reminder of how short a time he was in charge. It was a hurricane moment. Labour losing Camden? Unthinkable. And yet, for lots of different reasons, it happened and Raj was at the wheel.

It’s a long time ago but in backstage briefings he is painted as the man who lost Camden for Labour. It’s an easy, cheap shot. If he doesn’t come through tomorrow, however, those 2006 elections might still represent the moment Raj’s chance to be the area’s MP was lost. After all, he could’ve been going in to the hustings with eight years of council leadership under his belt, and a stronger platform to brake Sir Keir’s locomotive.


WHERE have you been all this time, then? That’s been the reaction in some quarters to Sir Keir’s perfect timing, riding into view just as Frank Dobson was ready to retire. His get-out to not being around previously is that his job as director of public prosecutions was politically restrictive, barring him from being active for Labour. This means he was never there on those cold Saturday afternoons manning the street stalls. He didn’t go door to door with leaflets. By-elections came and went in his home ward without a peep out of him. It’s hard to argue that he should have risked his job and got his hands dirty with some local street-fighting for the party. But there is a lasting whisper among some of the people he wants to call constituents that there must have been some ways he could have subtly lent a hand. The clockwork timing of leaving his job and the vacancy arising is bread and butter for local conspiracy theory trackers.


IN the end, the unions have not played a huge role in this selection contest, but there was always going to be a scramble for their support. It’s the best way to peacock some left wing credentials. Raj went early and hoovered up GMB and UNITE, but he missed out on Unison – who chose Sarah instead. But then Unison were pretty much duty bound to endorse Sarah as their rules say they must favour its members first. This was handy for Sarah, who had signed up earlier this year. Oh aye, said the sceptics, how convenient. Camden’s Unison branch secretary George Binette later appeared in Raj Chada’s campaign video, albeit in a non-speaking part, for a bit more intrigue. Sarah, it should be said, explained her union membership had nothing to do with the selection contest, and more about her council work.


WHEN Angela Pober says she has suffered personal attacks during this process, maybe she meant the sniffy response to her nomination in Holborn and Covent Garden from some quarters. It was not that the Holbonistas loved Angela, came the briefing, it was more game-playing in Camden’s maverick deep south, a way of undermining Sarah – not just for now, but for what might lie ahead too. It all meant that Sarah couldn’t say that she had been nominated in every ward, not that such a claim is vital; more nice than vital. But it can’t have been nice for Angela to hear, if she did hear these stories, for she seems to jet around all over the place for work and was Skyping live from New York when the open hustings began. The record books will say she won her place on the slate fair and square.


GUIDO Fawkes bust this one out on his Order-Order blog, although it has been talked about through the summer. Was Sir Keir even eligible to stand? This was queried on the basis that you need at least a year on the membership clock to go for a seat and he hadn’t passed the qualification period after re-joining the party following his departure from the CPS. Twinned with the lasting catcall of ‘leadership choice’, this was all too much for some to digest and the whispers began. The briefing was that somebody on high had dragged out Frank’s resignation and that strangely long period that followed before the selection contest officially began. Frank had actually played a delicious guessing game during the course of this administration. He was going, then staying, then going again. He was about to announce his retirement but then pulled back, as the story goes, so his farewell moment did not clash with England’s World Cup match with Costa Rica. The idea that Sir K would have instantly been stopped from standing is not quite right had the timings been different, however. There is an appeals process he could have gone for, and given his high profile – and ready-made excuse of being politically restricted as DPP – he would almost certainly have been cleared to stand. 


RAJ not only lost control of the council in 2006, he lost his Gospel Oak seat as well. A debate in the background is what he did after that. He is accused by critics of plunging himself into his successful legal career and not getting his hands dirty enough as Labour fought back to power in Camden. Certainly, Sarah emerged as bigger influence in the comeback campaign of 2010. Supporters of other candidates have been telling members in recent weeks that Raj withdrew from the action. He didn’t stand for the council again when opportunities arose, but he didn’t lose touch completely – he’s the constituency chair after all. Maybe he thought the baton had been passed to a new leader of the opposition in Anna Stewart and then Nash Ali, and hanging around too much would be like the way Sir Alex Ferguson always used to be unhelpfully peering down on David Moyes at Manchester United. As a misguided Liverpool fan, he wouldn’t take kindly to that analogy, though.



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