Tawdry affair of Fairfield candidate coup and the double agent

EXCLUSIVE: The scandal surrounding Labour’s candidate selection for the Fairfield by-election looks set to worsen after a lengthy mea culpa was issued by the Local Campaign Forum, as WALTER CRONXITE reports

For the few, not the many: Caragh Skipper out campaigning this week with just five comrades – including Tony Newman and three councillors on Newman’s allowances payroll

The two most senior officials in Croydon Labour’s LCF – the Local Campaign Forum, responsible for internal selections and campaigning – have expressed “deep misgivings” about the conduct last week of the selection process for the Fairfield council by-election.

The chair, Dan Frost, and secretary, Mike Higgs, have called for an inquiry to be held into the sequence of events which saw Surrey Street stall-holder Jose Joseph selected by ward members last Thursday night, but dumped as a candidate by the local leadership on Friday morning.

In a very long memo to Fairfield ward members (though not distributed to other party members in the borough), Frost and Higgs criticise “the ambiguities in the application forms” as well as the unreliable legal advice provided by the party’s professional staff at London Region.

It does not take much reading between the lines to draw the conclusion that the officials are also critical of the conduct of Jack Buck, the paid Labour organiser and election agent for Croydon, who just happens to be a good friend of Caragh Skipper, who was installed as Labour’s candidate as a consequence of last week’s clusterfuck.

“There is a clear need for issues like this to be settled well in advance of a selection process, and for the selection process to be made more transparent and accessible,” Frost and Hicks wrote in the email which was sent to ward members last Sunday, and which Inside Croydon today reproduces in full for the first time.

The widespread disgust with the way Labour dumped Jose Joseph as its democratically selected candidate for the Fairfield by-election has continued all week, with friends and comrades rallying round the Surrey Street stall-holder to compile evidence of malpractice by the local party leadership.

Other grassroots party members have shown solidarity with Joseph by boycotting campaign sessions for Skipper, as was shown at the poor turnout for her campaign launch last Saturday.

The Fairfield council by-election has been called for November 7 following the sudden resignation as a councillor of Niro Sirisena.

Council leader Tony Newman and the local Labour leadership have gone to great efforts to cover-up the real reasons that deputy cabinet member Sirisena was forced to resign.

Sirisena, who was elected as a councillor only in May 2018, quit after what Croydon Labour described as “a serious incident”, and which Newman this week admitted was a matter under police investigation.

After doing their utmost to sweep that potential disgrace under the carpet, Newman and his numpties have excelled themselves in creating a further scandal over the selection of Sirisena’s replacement.

It seems unlikely that the 2,000-word email, distributed to Fairfield’s 100-or-so Labour members last Sunday, will do much to end the widespread disaffection.

Signed off by Frost and Higgs as the LCF’s chair and secretary, the lengthy missive is a dire account of how Joseph’s candidature was undermined almost from the moment he was selected, and how the LCF – instead of doing its utmost to support the party’s democratically elected candidate – set about trying to undermine him.

With poor and conflicting advice on selection rules provided by the London Region Labour Party, the LCF’s version of events – not all of which is accepted as being entirely fair, or accurate – only reinforces the widely held suspicion that Joseph was “stitched up” by Newman and the local party leadership.

“It’s all very tawdry,” one member, still angry a week later, said today.

“What happens amounts to nothing short of a coup, by the leadership, against the democratic will of the membership.”

Another, a senior officer in one of Croydon’s Constituency Labour Parties, said, “What they have done to Jose is evil.”

Jack Buck (right), Caragh Skipper and the now unmentioned Niro Sirisena have worked closely together for some time

Witnesses at the selection meeting last Thursday (October 10) relate that Buck, the paid Labour employee and stooge to Newman, spent around half an hour on the phone outside the Fairfield selection meeting immediately after Joseph won the ballot of ward members.

As the employee of Newman’s Town Hall Labour group, Buck plays a central role in organising the party’s campaigning and its administration, and therefore wields considerable influence. He is usually appointed as the party’s election agent, whose job it is to support all Labour candidates and handle their administrative duties.

Buck and Skipper – also now a Labour Party employee – are long-time associates and members of Momentum.

Some believe that when making his calls, Buck was implementing a Plan B, to ensure Skipper was put forward as the candidate for the safe council seat at all costs.

Nothing in Frost and Higgs’ email – which it is reasonable to assume was cleared with Newman, Buck and others before it was issued – undermines that suggestion.

And the moral blackmail included towards the end – “The imperative now is for Labour Party members to rally around our candidate in this important by-election” – only reinforces the feeling that, yet again, Newman and his party machine in Croydon have managed to deliver a balls-up of immense proportions.

What follows is the unedited script of the LCF email, sent to Fairfield Labour members on the evening of Sunday, October 13. Where necessary for clarity, editorial annotations have been added inside square brackets and in italics.

This is a statement co-signed by the Chair and Secretary of Croydon Borough Labour Party Local Campaign Forum (LCF), regarding the course of events which led to the nomination of Caragh Skipper as the Labour Party candidate for the forthcoming Fairfield by-election.

Following the initiation of preparation for the by-election on the 25th September, in view of the short timeframe for the selection of the Labour Party candidate – nominations were due at 4pm on 11th October – the LCF was entitled to proceed to nominate a candidate of its choosing, under the principle that whatever steps necessary must be taken to ensure that the Party stands a candidate in every election. Nevertheless, it was decided that every effort should be made to provide Party members in the ward the chance to democratically select a candidate of its own.

A true socialist: Jose Joseph with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

An LCF meeting to confirm the procedure for the shortlisting and selection meetings was arranged for 3rd October, and it decided to hold the two meetings back-to-back on 10th October. Potential candidates were required to express an interest in standing by 6pm on 8th October, to give them sufficient time to update paperwork and for the LCF to produce copies of their statements for the meetings. It is important that this timeframe be borne in mind, as it reflects the constraints under which LCF officers operated.

As comrades may be aware, the selection meeting which took place on [Thursday] 10th October nominated Jose Joseph as the Labour Party candidate. Jose received 10 votes, whilst the second-placed candidate – Caragh Skipper – received 9. Jose was duly congratulated and nomination papers were completed by the Agent [Jack Buck] and members of the ward.

On [Wednesday] 9th October, prior to the shortlisting and selection meetings, the Agent [Buck] had undertaken a routine check with the Council regarding the eligibility of the six people who had expressed an interest in standing.

At 9.45am on [Friday] 11th October, the Chair and Secretary of the LCF were informed that there was a chance that Jose Joseph would not be legally accepted as a nominee, owing to an outstanding financial dispute between himself and the Council which had not been noted on the paperwork submitted to the LCF.

At 10.30am, the Secretary circulated advice amongst LCF members provided by the Party Regional Organiser. Advice from the Governance and Legal Unit (GLU), which had seen evidence of the outstanding dispute, stated that the LCF was entitled to view the failure to disclose the outstanding dispute as grounds to replace Jose with the second-placed candidate.

Alternatively, the LCF was entitled to allow Jose the chance to settle the dispute with the Council prior to the 4pm deadline.

The Regional Organiser advised that “the LCF would need to confirm the candidate is willing to pay, and with the council in advance that payment could be processed in time, that acknowledgement of payment would be provided, and that the council would be able to accept his nomination on this basis.”

The Chair and Secretary [Frost and Higgs] agreed that Jose should be provided this chance, and this was indicated to members of the LCF, with the proviso that preparations would be made for the nomination of the second-placed candidate, should Jose’s nomination not be possible. The LCF were also advised that, were a decision not made by 1pm, Region would intervene and impose the second-placed candidate.

The Chair and Secretary, with support from the Agent, began to take the steps outlined, including attempts to ascertain from the Council whether the payment could be processed in time. At around 11.30am, the Chair met Jose on Surrey Street and advised him of the situation: that he would need to make a payment immediately, that there was a chance that it might not be processed in time, and that Region were imposing a time limit on the LCF.

Jose agreed that he would phone the Council and obtain acknowledgment of this payment, and then meet with the Chair again to discuss the next steps. Jose indicated that he was grateful that the Chair had notified him in person, and that he was being given a chance. He met the Chair again at around 12am and indicated that the Council had been contacted and a payment had been made, which the Chair communicated to the Secretary. The Chair and Secretary agreed that, should the Council agree to accept Jose’s nomination, even on the basis of his phone record, it should be submitted.

Although the email of 10.30am had not invited LCF members to comment, given the time constraints, there were a significant number of replies which indicated members’ opinions. A number of these stated that there were political as well as legal concerns with Jose’s non-declaration of the dispute with the Council.

The Chair and Secretary, in light of this, made efforts to contact members of the LCF who had not yet replied and suggested that they comment with their own opinions. When the Chair met Jose at 12am [they probably meant noon, 12pm, as opposed to midnight], he told him that these objections had been made and suggested that it would be appropriate for Jose to provide a statement explaining himself to reassure members of the LCF as to his suitability. The Chair offered to write a statement that Jose could dictate, but Jose stated that he would prefer to go away and compose something himself. The Chair requested that the statement be made available by 12.45am [12.45pm] at the latest, so that it could be circulated ahead of the 1pm deadline.

Just before 12.45am [12.45pm], Jose phoned the Chair and dictated a short statement for circulation to the LCF, stating that he had been unaware of the dispute at the time that he completed the application forms. The Chair emailed members of the LCF at 1.07pm with this statement and with an update on the overall situation, including the fact that Jose had informed him that he had settled the dispute. Following the phone call with the Chair, Jose met with the Agent [Buck] and informed him that he had not in fact paid as he did not believe that there was a payment to be made but was willing to do so if necessary. The Agent updated the Chair and Secretary of this at 1.08pm.

At around 12.45am [12.45pm], the Secretary was informed by the Regional Organiser by phone that there was a possibility that the original advice regarding Jose’s ineligibility was incorrect. Region promised a statement regarding the updated situation, which was received at 1.43pm. This stated that there was no legal requirement for the outstanding debt to be cleared, and that the decision regarding Jose’s nomination was a political judgement to be made by the LCF and given to Region by 2pm. In view of the tight timeframe, this meant that the decision was to be made by the principal officers.

The Chair and Secretary discussed the situation on the phone. Having spent much of the morning and early afternoon working to ensure that Jose would be nominated as the candidate, several aspects had to be considered. Whilst the legal requirement for Jose to settle the dispute had been removed, this was not something which Jose was aware of at the time that the Chair was misled about his having made the payment, despite the then-urgency of this request. [The LCF chair, Frost, was never ‘misled’ about the payment being made by Joseph. Inside Croydon has seen the council’s receipt for the payment]

Further, in light of a threat of legal action regarding the non-payment – regardless of whether it would have legally prevented him from standing – it was felt that the outstanding dispute was serious enough that it should have been noted in his application forms as a possible source of controversy. In addition, further information was provided in the LCF email chain which caused further concern about Jose’s suitability to be the Labour Party’s candidate in this by-election. On the basis of these factors, the Chair and Secretary determined that there was sufficient reason for the LCF to consider the political (as opposed to legal) aspect of Jose’s candidacy.

Newman (left) out on the campaign trail in the past with Skipper and another of her allies, Fairfield councillor Chris Clark

There was insufficient time to consult again with the LCF, but the Chair and Secretary noted the positions which had been taken by members of the LCF in the earlier email communication. One person was in favour of Jose standing in any circumstances; five people suggested that there were grounds for doubting Jose’s suitability to be the candidate; three people (not including the Chair and Secretary) supported the initial position adopted by the Chair and Secretary, to allow Jose the chance to settle the dispute but to adopt the second-placed candidate if necessary. [So that’s 5-4 of the Newman-dominated LCF in favour of overturning the democratic vote of members for “political” considerations, when there was no legal reason Joseph should not stand]

Given the need to make a decision to Region by 2pm, and to submit nomination papers by 4pm, the Chair and Secretary had a very short time in which to make a judgement. On the basis of the five LCF members who had already expressed concerns, and their own reservations about the way that Jose had handled the requests made to settle the debt [the debt was owed by Joseph’s business, not him, the candidate, personally; he paid the debt as soon as he was made aware that it was in some way seen to be an issue used to disqualify him as a candidate], the Chair and Secretary decided that the majority position of the LCF was most likely to be in favour of adopting the second-placed candidate in what had been a very close selection.

If the undeclared dispute had been enough to sway the decision of even a single ward member, that could have sufficed to have changed the result of the selection meeting. Region was informed of their decision and the LCF was updated in an email sent by the Chair at 2.05pm. Jose submitted a further statement at 2.35pm and called the Chair at 2.45pm, but by this point a decision had already been made.

Following this email, further members of the LCF contributed their opinions, and additional comments were made by some of those who had already. Following this round of comments, there were eight people (including the Chair and Secretary) in favour of adopting the second-placed candidate; five people who disagreed with the decision made by the Chair and Secretary; one person who expressed concerns about the overall process. This indicates that the Chair and Secretary did act in line with the majority position on the LCF, as well as their own judgement. A further statement summarising the decision was provided by the Secretary at 9.05pm.

Comrades are fully entitled to disagree with the conclusions that the Chair and Secretary reached.

The Chair and Secretary have deep misgivings about the conduct of this process, including the ambiguities in the application forms, the shift in the advice provided by the GLU, and the reliability of information which was provided to them about the nature of the dispute. There is a clear need for issues like this to be settled well in advance of a selection process, and for the selection process to be made more transparent and accessible, and it’s hoped that the appropriate lessons will be learned by all concerned. The Chair and Secretary would welcome an inquiry into this sequence of events by Region and/or the full LCF and intend to call a meeting of the LCF to discuss the selection and other aspects of the by-election as soon as possible after it has occurred.

We are grateful for the opportunity to serve as Chair and Secretary and hope it will be understood that we have treated this responsibility with the seriousness which it deserves. A difficult decision was made under trying circumstances to ensure that the Labour Party fielded a credible candidate in this by-election, and we sought to be guided by our commitments to transparency, fairness and democracy. It is for others to judge whether we have fallen short.

The imperative now is for Labour Party members to rally around our candidate in this important by-election, which takes place at a difficult time for the Party in national polls.

There is a real threat that the Conservatives could seize a vital ward in a marginal constituency, and we must come together to prevent this. We need to remember to conduct ourselves in a comradely and cooperative fashion, in line with our values as Labour Party members.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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