Thousands of people who joined Labour to support Jeremy Corbyn are being “deliberately” excluded from local party activity, a leading member of its National Executive Committee has suggested.
Claudia Webbe said she had picked up the issue during her work on the Democracy Review, which is examining the impact that the party’s huge surge in membership has had on political engagement.
Webbe said the recent low turnout in the Lewisham East by-election selection had underscored a failure to engage new members.
Webbe said that some “moderate” constituency Labour parties (CLPs) had not “embraced” the huge influx of people who had joined or rejoined since Corbyn’s 2015 and 2016 landslide leadership elections. “Some of it, sad to say, is deliberate,” she said.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, she also called for more Parliamentary selection panels to include black and minority ethnic (BAME) members and urged radical reform of disciplinary processes to deal with a backlog of anti-semitism allegations.
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Webbe, a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) since 2016, is one of nine Left candidates standing for election to the party’s ruling body this summer, and is backed by both Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.
The election for the nine constituency places on the finely-balanced NEC will see yet another battle between the Left and centrist groups Labour First and Progress as they fight over the future direction of the party.
A long-standing ally of Corbyn, aide to Ken Livingstone and an Islington councillor, Webbe has been a fierce critic of Labour MPs who have criticised their leader, declaring previously that some of them “forgot what the real world is about”
She is currently helping Corbyn aide Katy Clark and NEC member Andy Kerr lead the Labour Democracy Review, which is conducting a root-and-branch look at all levels of how the party works.
But even though the party has more than doubled in size to around 550,000 members since Corbyn became leader, many are still not involved in the activities organised by their local CLP, she said.
Webbe was backed by Unite for the recent Lewisham East selection race but lost out to local councillor Janet Daby. Daby, backed by moderates who dominate the local party’s executive, won by an overwhelming margin of 288 votes to her nearest rival’s 135 votes.
Webbe, who won just 35 votes, said that the experience had laid bare the need for new members to be better included.
“We’ve got 1,600 members in Lewisham East but only 400 or so  came out and exercised their right to vote,” she said.
“That was about 29% of those entitled to vote. I would expect on an important matter like this that happens only once in a blue moon that over 50% of members exercise their right to vote.”
The central party’s decision to fast-track its selection process in just over one week had partly been to blame, Webbe suggested.
“We always have postal votes when we run a selection, we didn’t on this occasion because there wasn’t sufficient time. If there was more time, of the 1,600 members more of them would have participated.
“And more of those members are members who have joined since Jeremy Corbyn ran for the leadership. A large proportion of them have not yet engaged with their local party because their local party has not yet embraced them. From my conversations, speaking to people on the phone this would be the first time they’d participated in anything, should they have come along.”
After winning an extension to the timetable, Lewisham East CLP decided to maximise turnout by holding its selection meeting on a Saturday, before the Royal Wedding began.
But Webbe suggested this move had excluded key minority ethnic voters.
“The whole thing about participatory democracy is you do have to enable all of the people all of the time to be able to participate.
“Because of our cultural differences, for example my sister who lives in Lewisham, is a Seven Day Adventist. We had the selection on a Saturday where people like Seven-Day Adventists could not participate.”
Webbe said that if she’d had more time, she “could have overcome my opponents’ rather narrow arguments” that because she was from Islington she was not local enough for Lewisham.
“Such narrow arguments would confine Sakina [Sheikh, her Momentum-backed rival] to Lewisham East forever because she’d never be able to stand anywhere else. I think that’s a very naïve argument.”
There was a wider issue at stake, Webbe added. “I’m on the Democracy Review and part of what I pick up is that where it comes to new members or those members who rejoined since 2015, there are some CLPs that have not yet reached out to those new members. That’s the sort of issue that’s being picked up.
“If I take my own CLP in Islington South and Finsbury, we actively go out and embrace new members.
“Some say they haven’t got the resources to do so and that the membership has grown so significantly that the notion of all-member meetings cannot work for them because just to hire a venue is too expensive. So, some of it is structural, and some of it, sad to say, is deliberate.”
Webbe told Skawkbox this week about the first time she was alerted about the possibility of a Lewisham East by-election.
“Lewisham East was a strategic move to create a credible all-left, all-BAME shortlist. I was at my own count in the council elections in Islington when I got the call,” she told the leftwing site.
The count took place on May 4, four days before sitting MP Heidi Alexander had formally declared she would quit, but amid rumours that she was waiting to announce her resignation until after the local elections were over.
Asked from who she got “the call” from, Webbe replied: “I’ve got no comment to make on that.”
When asked if the leader’s office had phoned her, she said: “It’s not about who gave me the call…When I say ‘the call’ it’s a phrase. It’s a significant calling.” So it wasn’t a phone call? “I’ve got no comment on that, it’s going off track for me to comment on that,” she said.
“All I would say is that the notion of trying to bring about change within the party and more diversity has been a notion ongoing for some time. It’s about waiting for the opportunities to arise. There’s a group of us working on this project for some time.”
Webbe stressed that Corbyn’s leadership had been crucial in giving new opportunities for candidates from diverse backgrounds.
“Under previous leaderships, as experienced as I am, I would not have been allowed on the shortlist [in Lewisham East]. I say that with the greatest of respect to previous leaders. I would not even have been allowed. I’m the most experienced person in my view and they [the local party] didn’t even have me on their shortlist.”
“I put myself forward to say ‘you know what, we exist as credible, experienced black women in the party’. I’ve been well over 20 years as a member of the party and active in all aspects of the party.
“Like many others, I’ve suffered from lack of opportunity and a lack of recognition and racism. I work twice as hard as my white counterparts, without a doubt and I’ve always done so.”
Webbe added that with a BAME population of around 50% in Lewisham, it was “only right and proper” that Labour’s selection for the newly Parliamentary vacancy was subjected to an all-women, all-BAME Labour shortlist.
“For a long time, London has been crying out for an increase in BAME representation and Lewisham is an example of that.
“There was nothing in law that allows an all-BAME shortlist. That’s de facto, not designated. If you are going to create change however we have to be cognisant of a reality on the ground, which is you have a community that is diverse and vibrant and is significantly BAME. Even more so, when you break that down it’s significantly African-Caribbean.
“Lewisham was one of those seats that symbolises a lack of progress and a lack of change and unless you do something quite radical you are not going to get that change. Hence the party had an all-female, all-BAME panel that was longlisting and shortlisting. That is the Labour party making a conscious effort to bring about the change we want to see. That was sending a very clear message.”
The NEC’s shortlisting panel was made up of Shadow Cabinet minister Kate Osamor and NEC members Sarah Owen and Yasmine Dar.
Webbe pointed to remarks by Sarah-Jane Marsh, chief executive of Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Trust, who said this week she was refusing to sit on future appointment panels that did not include a BAME member.
Marsh had told SkyNews: “If you walk into an interview room and are met with a white wall, you are going to think this organization is not for me, or ‘They are going to think I’m not for them’.”
Webbe said: “A Birmingham NHS chief executive said they were not going to sit on a recruitment panel any more where there isn’t somebody who isn’t BAME. Often the barriers to getting a representative longlist or short list is the people making the selection. You’ll note that this selection panel [in Lewisham East] was itself all BAME.
“With Jeremy Corbyn as leader we have a leader who has transformed the party as no other. And we have a new general secretary.
“When you look on the screens at Prime Minister’s Question time and you look at the benches behind Jeremy Corbyn you will see in the Shadow Cabinet a much more diverse Shadow Cabinet than we’ve ever seen. This has not happened by chance, this is a leader that’s taken this issue quite seriously. That needs to be reflected not just from the top but throughout the party.”
Tipped as the next chair of the NEC’s powerful Disputes Panel, Webbe said that the backlog of anti-semitism cases had to be tackled. She suggested a combination of alternatives to referring cases the formal disciplinary body, the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) and reforms to the NCC itself.
“We are a party that has grown quite significantly. When the National Constitutional Committee was set up it was set up to only deal with a handful of cases per annum. It wasn’t set up to deal with the volume it now deals with therefore it’s difficult to refer everything to the NCC without there being a backlog created.
“So, we need to find a way of not just sorting out how we deal with cases prior to them being referred to the NCC but we need to deal with how do we get an NCC that is also fit for purpose. Because it is not at the moment going to be able to handle in quick time two hundred odd cases.”
“The backlog was caused because of the NCC. What we’ve done is created smaller panels prior to things going to the NCC. We can look at things in more detail and instead of things more readily going to the NCC, it may not need to go to the NCC. It may just be that there are lesser sanctions.
“The NCC, it takes two years to get the case seen and the ultimate sanction is expulsion from the party. It may not be that all cases need to lead to that outcome, and we have different options for sanctions, but ultimately we need to look at the NCC. A handful of complex cases is what the NCC was meant to deal with. So we need reform of the NCC, that is what we need to look at.”
Webbe, along with Jon Lansman and other Left candidates for the NEC election, has this week confirmed she would serve a full two-year term. Some activists fear that moderate contenders would have to replace leftwingers if any NEC members quit, as Jennie Formby had to when she became party general secretary and was replaced by Eddie Izzard.
But does that two year commitment mean she effectively rules out running for other Parliamentary seats?
“It’s a self-imposed rule. There’s a commitment that we’ve all made to serve two years. But one can never say never. We cannot predict a week in politics, let alone a whole two years. I know that after more than 20 odd years in this party that nothing is predictable and change can happen.”