An internal Labour battle over the Manchester Gorton by-election risks gifting the seat to the Liberal Democrats, party sources have told HuffPost UK.
Attempts by Jeremy Corbyn’s allies to skew the candidate selection towards supporters of the Labour leader have backfired amid claims of chaos and incompetence, insiders say.
The by-election for the traditionally safe Labour seat, which was prompted by the death of Sir Gerald Kaufman, is expected to be held on May 4.
But following the loss of another heartland constituency in Copeland, MPs and activists fear that the party’s handling of Manchester Gorton is allowing the Lib Dems - second placed in 2010 and 2005 - to steal a march in the contest.
No MP has yet been assigned to lead the Labour by-election campaign, while Tim Farron’s party have selected a candidate and produced their first leaflets.
Applications for Labour’s candidacy opened on Monday and close next Monday. A week later its ruling National Executive Committee panel will interview and shortlist contenders, before a candidate is voted on by local members on March 22.
Allies of Corbyn see the by-election as a prime way to get a new MP who reflects the new party membership and their support for the leader’s grassroots politics.
As first revealed by HuffPost UK, local Momentum activist Sam Wheeler - who introduced Corbyn as his mass rally in Salford last year - is being touted by the Left as a candidate for the seat.
But HuffPost UK has also been told that the Leader’s office and its allies have made a series of missteps over the affair, ranging from under-estimating the black and minority ethnic nature of the Manchester constituency to inexperience in knowing party mechanics.
Initially, allies of Corbyn wanted an all-women shortlist, but that met resistance from locals who pointed out that would exclude some Asian men who could be the popular choice of members.
A finely-balanced, four-strong panel was drafted to oversee the shortlisting, with two Corbyn-sceptic members MEP Glenis Willmott and MP Shabana Mahmood, and two pro-Corbyn activists Andi Fox and Claudia Webbe.
Events took a new twist on Monday when NEC officers met to consider two new names put forward by the leader’s office for the panel: local Salford MP and Corbyn supporter Rebecca Long-Bailey and veteran MP Keith Vaz.
Vaz was added because of his long-standing championing of black and minority ethnic candidates and in his capacity as BAME representative on the NEC.
Despite its large and growing ethnic communities, Manchester’s five Labour MPs are made up of four white men and one white woman, former Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell.
One local figure points out that the Asian community, many of whom have been very supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, will be crucial because it can turn out in large numbers even in a low turnout by-election.
But it was Long-Bailey’s inclusion that sparked a row at the conference call meeting on Monday, and she was removed after a motion was passed by a single vote.
Corbyn allies claim that deputy leader Tom Watson had staged an ‘ambush’ in the meeting of the NEC officers, but critics say that Corbyn failed to turn up for the meeting and could have prevented it. Unite’s Diana Holland was also absent.
HuffPost has been told that Long-Bailey’s exclusion centred on the close links between her office and Sam Wheeler, the Momentum activist seen as a ‘rising star’.
Leftwingers began ringing unions about Wheeler within hours of the news of Kaufman’s death two weeks ago. Wheeler, who is from Longsight in the constituency, has told friends he had no knowledge that his name was being touted in the selection battle.
It is understood that leading Momentum activists have been ringing around to rally support for Wheeler in recent days too.
One insider said that the row had been driven by “inexperience” on the part of the leader’s office. The fact that six names, rather than five, were suggested for the by-election panel - allowing a possible tied vote - was one example cited.
It is still possible that the by-election panel will include Wheeler on its longlist and shortlist, but some sources claim that he is being pushed by Momentum and Unite the union rather than Corbyn himself.
Among other contenders is local MEP Afzal Khan, who declared his candidacy this week. Other local Manchester City councillors are also being urged to run, including Julie Reid, a pro-Corbyn councillor, and Luthfur Rahman, chair of the local Gorton Labour party.
Fellow councillors Rabnawaz Akbar, Amina Lone and Mike Amesbury are also weighing up their chances, according to the Manchester Evening News.
But with the leader’s office in London still not having appointed a lead MP to oversee the campaign, one insider said: “They’ve not been focusing on the real threat - the Lib Dems”.
Kaufman had an impressive 24,000 majority in 2015 but the Lib Dems pulled in nearly a third of the vote in the 2005 and 2010 general election and hope to run Labour close if there is low turnout.
The Lib Dems hope to capitalise too on the large Remain vote in the seat, and have portrayed Corbyn and Theresa May on the steps of No.10 together in their new leaflet.
Another complicating factor is that former Respect Party MP George Galloway is threatening to stand in the seat if Labour fails to select an Asian candidate. Galloway was seen visiting mosques in the constituency last weekend and could split the Labour vote if he stands.
Wheeler is still seen by his supporters as a strong contender to get on the party shortlist, but he could fall at the final hurdle if Momentum activists fail to turn up in sufficient numbers at the selection meeting.
Like many other areas, Manchester Gorton Labour party’s membership has seen a substantial influx of students and academics and others in the past 18 months as Corbyn mobilised for his two leadership election victories. But the “Jeremy joiners” don’t always turn out in person for local party meetings, one party source said.
The Gorton CLP has been in ‘special measures’ following factional rows and irregularities and no proxy votes will be allowed at the selection meeting. Shortlisted candidates will be given less than two days’ access to the members’ list before the final hustings.