First published on Telegraph Comment
It is amazing how quickly the Jeremy Corbyn project has emulated everything it says it hates. The Labour leader does not have just one senior spin doctor, but three, and is advertising for yet another. Last week they tried to u-turn on Corbyn’s lifelong position on free movement because focus groups and polling tell them they have little option – and then did not quite manage it.
Last night Labour selected its candidate in Copeland. The tactics used by Corbyn’s inner circle – not least the reported involvement of leader’s office staff David Prescott and James Schneider – would make Millbank Tower in the heady days of New Labour blush. Reports have circulated that membership lists were made available to preferred candidates well in advance, that canvassing calls were made from within the leader’s office and that national trade union political officers were picked off and put behind one candidate.
Election supremo Jon Trickett took his eye off the ball of the UK-wide general election which he tells us he is planning for so as to take full control of the shortlisting process. Alongside Momentum’s temporary owner Christine Shawcroft and Unite political officer Jennie Formby, Trickett ensured the hard-left controlled the process.
Local councillors Tim Knowles and David Southward were blocked from the final shortlist. As was the GMB union’s favoured candidate Tom Docherty – who came second behind Jamie Reed in the pre-2005 selection. Union branches were told to get behind the candidate of the leader’s office or “keep out”, one local insider tells me.
The stage was set for a Corbynista gain: one more desperately needed parliamentary nomination for John McDonnell if the hard-left decides that Corbyn is not up to the job and they need to switch leaders to avoid being killed off at the next election.
But alas. The machine politics involved left a distinct smell of something untoward in the air. Party democracy rose up. Local members picked one of their own. Gillian Troughton will fight the seat for Labour.
I have never met Troughton but on paper she’s a turn up for the books. She is a former doctor turned volunteer for St Johns Ambulance. She served the Copeland area as a Labour councillor. A Christian Socialist, Troughton – alongside fellow Cumbrian Rachel Burgin – masterminded the campaign to thwart the British National party’s attempt to win seats in Whitehaven in the 2009 county elections. She used her links with the local church, key clergy and the Bishop of Carlisle to humiliate Nick Griffin and his party.
But it is her links with the NHS – and the Tory mistreatment of her local Primary Care Trust that is a gift to Labour’s by-election fight. She is a personification of the campaign against the proposed cuts to A&E and the maternity wing at the local hospital.
The Sellafield plant is not so much political for her, as personal: her husband works in the nuclear supply chain. She kicks off the campaign in pretty simple terms: “I’m pro-nuclear; no ifs, no buts”. In addition she is full square behind the proposed Moorside nuclear power plant, describing it a “fantastic opportunity”. She pledged to “make sure our community gets what it deserves”.
The Tories are on the back foot and will try to smear this great candidate – but it will not work. She is not a candidate of any particular wing of the Labour party, she is the candidate of the local Labour party.
Labour has held Copeland – and its predecessor Whitehaven – since 1935. It has had strong working class MPs throughout. Reed is well liked locally and known for being a phenomenal champion of his community. He leaves – largely for family reasons – for a new role that will improve the lives of those in West Cumbria. Troughton is the Labour standard bearer now – local, pro-nuclear and a fighter for our NHS. The time for leader’s office games is over, it’s game on.
Richard Angell is director of Progress