This week we are interrupting our regular schedule to bring you an examination of how each local political party appears to be preparing for the May 2019 elections.
To finish the week, we are taking a look at Medway Labour.
On paper, the omens should be pretty good for Medway Labour heading into the 2019 local elections. With a confusing national picture that has seen them polling roughly equally with the Conservatives, a string of council blunders, and facing a set of councillors that seem tired, Medway Labour should be well placed to mount a challenge to control the council.
The problem is that we’ve been here so many times before. 2011 and 2015 should have been fruitful years for the party for similar reasons to those above, yet Labour rarely seem able to capitalise to improve their standing. As such, a few minor seat fluctuations aside, Medway Labour have held pretty much the same number of seats on Medway Council for the past 16 years.
Could 2019 be their breakthrough year?
28 is the magic number in Medway politics. To win a majority on the council, a party needs to win 28 seats. Aside from being the largest party when the unitary was formed, Labour has never won control of the council on the current boundaries. Their best result was winning 17 seats in 2003, and they have remained at roughly the same point ever since.
There is a case that there is perhaps some (lower case M) momentum behind Medway Labour following their success in the Rochester West by-election last year. Managing to turn a fairly solid Tory ward red demonstrated what the party could do with the right candidate, campaign, and resources. But it’s obviously easier to throw everything at one ward in a by-election than it is to fight all 22 Medway wards at once, which is the prospect looming in May.
It doesn’t help much that the party is struggling to keep some of it’s own councillors on side. Cllr Sam Craven in Luton and Wayfield decided to walk away, citing an unpleasant culture within the party. Four more longstanding councillors have decided to stand down at the election.
All of which necessitates an influx of new candidates, and it’s here where where things start to look a little more challenging for the party. Despite being less than four months out from the elections, the party has only selected 33 of 55 candidates.
Why is the main opposition, a party which should reasonably be able to challenge for the control of the council in May, struggling to select enough candidates to seriously bring the fight to the Tories? Clunky internal processes, a resistance to activists joining the party from leftist groups like TUSC, and a lack of willing volunteers all seem to be playing a part.
But still, 33 selections have been made. And what selections they are.
Two Strood councillors will attempt a comeback in 2019: Stephen Hubbard in Strood North and Isaac Igwe – a councillor whose main achievement in his first term was hiding in a toilet to avoid a vote on gay marriage – in Strood South. Several other candidates will stand again after failing to win achievable seats in 2015.
Other candidates that were selected and announced have ended up being replaced due to the internal processes of the party or worse.
Becca Hufton was announced as a candidate for Chatham Central but withdrew her candidacy.
Rav Jassal was selected as a candidate in Princes Park before deciding to stand down, only to then decide to stand back up again.
Funmi Ayeni was announced as a candidate for Strood South but withdrew to try and replace Hufton in Chatham Central, a battle which she lost and has potentially left her without a seat to fight.
Matt Broadley, the former secretary of Medway Momentum, was selected as a Luton and Wayfield but was deselected and suspended from the party following an incident at party conference that resulted in a police caution. Given the speed that the party deals with disciplinary issues, it’s questionable whether or not this matter will be resolved by the 2023 local elections.
Part of the slow and awkward selection process lies in the unwieldy internal party structures The party is divided into both constituency parties and then further still into ward branches. This results in a somewhat bizarre and potentially unrepresentative scenario where the six people who turn up to a meeting on a rainy night can choose the candidates in that ward.
Party discipline is also complicating some of the internal workings. The younger and more vocal demographic of the party – at least compared to that of the Tories – inevitably means some internal conflict is carried out publicly via social media. While not facing some of the vicious public spats other constituency Labour parties seem to see, conflicts do sometimes spill over into the public domain. These disputes are often allowed to fester, partly because party processes, in an attempt to be fair to all, are often ineffective and slow moving.
This situation is somewhat exacerbated by the reluctance of Medway Labour leader Vince Maple and others in positions of leadership across the three constituency associations to get involved with internal conflicts. While attempts to remain fair to all is laudable, we have had several members comment to us that this position allows a certain amount of abuse and disputes to go unchecked within the local party.
Mirroring the national party, Medway Labour seems to have several factions competing for their own interests, though publicly they manage to portray a surprisingly united front much of the time. One place where they didn’t was through the various splits and infighting with the Medway branch of Momentum, where things got so bad it was effectively closed down by the national office.
The only Medway ward where their activists seem to cling onto power is the Labour branch is Strood Rural, which still hasn’t selected any candidates and probably won’t trouble the electorate in May.
However well the party does in May, the route to winning control of the council will not be easy. Currently holding 15 seats, to get to 28 would need an almost unprecedented surge in support.
A route to something in the region of 21 seats is viable, but after that it starts to get more questionable. A very good day could see the party winning 24, which still leaves them four short.
Winning control, while not impossible, would certainly be an uphill struggle and would mean flipping seats the party has never won like Watling or Princes Park.
With what we’re seeing from the local party so far, despite the best efforts of party activists who do seem to be out on the doorstep regularly, we won’t be holding our breath for a Labour sweep of Medway Council come May.
What are your views of Medway Labour?
Could they find themselves in control of the council in May, or will they somehow find a way to throw the opportunity away?
Let us know in the comments, on Facebook, or via Twitter.