WALTER CRONXITE, our political editor, on a leaked report over the rumbling row in Croydon Labour over a selection stitch-up that saw Tony Newman’s favoured candidate put forward for last November’s Fairfield council by-election
A internal party report, leaked to Inside Croydon, alleges that there was a conspiracy between senior Croydon Labour councillors and officials, headed by Tony Newman, to make sure that a hand-picked colleague was installed as their party’s candidate in last November’s Fairfield by-election.
Newman has already been under fire for his handling of the resignation last September of Councillor Niro Sirisena, after what Croydon Labour described as a “serious incident”, which caused the ward by-election to be held. Although Newman was made aware of allegations of a serious assault by one of his councillors, his first action was not to report the matter to the police but to meet Sirisena and secure his resignation from the council.
And now Newman, the leader of Croydon Council, has done his utmost to avoid having to answer to the allegations in this latest report, which was drafted by a retired solicitor and long-standing Labour official who was shocked and saddened by the manner in which Jose Joseph, the by-election candidate who had been democratically selected by local members, was shunted aside for Newman’s favoured candidate.
That candidate was Caragh Skipper, an employee of the Labour Party. She had stood as a candidate in the 2018 local elections but lost a Labour-held seat in Addiscombe East. After that, Momentum supporter Skipper was twice rejected by local party members when seeking selection in council by-elections, first in Norbury and then in Fairfield ward.
Yet when the ballot papers for Fairfield’s by-election were produced, it was Skipper’s name listed as the Labour Party candidate. And Skipper was duly elected to replace Sirisena as one of the ward’s three councillors.
Croydon Labour’s LCF – the Local Campaign Forum – did not hold any meetings between October and mid-December last year, until after the General Election. But when it did meet, it received the report from David White, the former secretary of Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party, which provided a withering account of the events that led to Skipper being put forward as the party candidate.
“It’s my view there was a deliberate plan, known about and orchestrated by Tony Newman and Clive Fraser, and put into effect largely by Jack [Buck, the Labour Party administrator], to ensure that Jose would not become the candidate and that Caragh Skipper would,” White wrote in his report.
“After their proposal for an all-women shortlist was rejected by the LCF they thought Jose Joseph would be unsuccessful in the selection meeting. When, contrary to their expectations, he won they determined to use any means at their disposal to remove him.
“A hard-working BAME member of the Party, who lives and works in Fairfield ward, has a market stall in Surrey Street and runs a scheme to feed homeless people, has been deprived of the chance to serve as a councillor.
“The democratic right of Fairfield Ward Party members to choose their local election candidate has been negated. The LCF, which is supposed to control the candidate selection process, has also been effectively sidelined.
“London Region officials were at best unhelpful and at worst complicit in what has happened. There is no point in the LCF asking London Region to mount an inquiry, as they would themselves be one of the subjects of the inquiry.”
The LCF operates with three delegates from each of Croydon’s CLPs attending meetings, plus Newman and two of his closest aides from within the Town Hall’s group of Labour councillors. When White’s carefully detailed and researched report was put to a vote of the LCF last month, it is understood that it was defeated. Newman had succeeded in getting it rejected.
White’s report has never been discussed or distributed among the borough’s 41 Labour councillors – it certainly was not on the agenda of last week’s Labour group meeting, nor has it been put to the party members.
Until, that is, today. Inside Croydon reproduces the report in full here:
1. Members will be aware that Jose Joseph (“Jose”) was selected by members of Fairfield Ward Labour Party on 10 October 2019 to be their candidate in the forthcoming by-election in that ward. Jose was removed as candidate the following day and nomination papers were submitted for another candidate who was subsequently elected.
2. Dan Frost (“Dan”) and Michael Higgs (“Mike”), who at the time were Chair and Secretary respectively of the LCF, issued a statement on 13th October containing their account of what happened. This is an attachment to this report [Inside Croydon published the LCF statement in October – here]
3. Jose has also made a statement… This includes an authority for all LCF members to discuss his financial and personal matters.
4. A number of people have expressed concern that the democratically selected candidate was not allowed to contest the by-election. I gave an undertaking at Croydon Central CLP’s AGM on 24 October that if re-elected as an LCF delegate I would try to ensure that there was a full inquiry into what happened. I have therefore collected together further information, with the aim of assisting the LCF in this task.
5. The first email from Mike on 11 October began as follows:-
“At the shortlisting meeting last night Jose Joseph was selected by the members as the candidate. This morning the council ran a financial check as part of submitting the nomination. Jose owes the council several hundred pounds in market rent/commercial fees. As part of his nomination he submitted the council tax/rent form declaring he did not owe any monies. The view of the council’s lawyer is that they will not accept a nomination from anyone owing such debts.”
6. Most of the facts stated in the above paragraph have turned out to be incorrect, as follows:-
i) According to the statement of Mike and Dan checks took place before the selection meeting, ie on 9 October. There was therefore time to put any doubts about candidates’ eligibility to them before the selection, rather than leaving matter to be settled in a period of less than 4 hours on 11 October.
ii) Jose did not owe the Council “several hundred pounds in market rent/commercial fees”. A statement later obtained by Jose from the Council shows that he had 4 accounts with them (market rents, business rates, basement storage and council tax). All of these accounts (involving payments totalling nearly £3,000.00 per month) were up-to-date with the exception of the business rates account where there were arrears of £410.00 from the 2018/19 accounting year.
iii) Jose did not fail to reveal information on his application forms. The financial form only asks about Council rents and Council Tax. He had no arrears in respect of either of those.
iv) Most importantly, the statement that “the view of the Council’s lawyer is that they will not accept a nomination from anyone owing such debts” is not true [our emphasis]. Not only is there no such rule, this is not what the Council said. In an email to me of 26 November the Council’s Director of Law and Governance states:-
“Having made enquiries, it appears that the first notification that a Council Officer had of this matter was when the Deputy Returning Officer received a telephone enquiry the final day for the submission of nominations (Friday 11th October) from the Labour Party agent [Jack Buck], regarding the validity of a Labour Party nomination. No individual was named in the conversation but the agent was under the impression that an outstanding debt to the Council would cause a nomination to be rejected. The Deputy Returning Officer advised that candidate nominations are checked on face-value, and any outstanding debt or alleged debt would not affect a nomination submitted.
This advice was again provided to another representative of the Labour Party later on in the day.”
v) The incorrect statement of the legal position referred to in iv) was also repeated by Oliver Davis of London Region on the morning of 11 October. This was corrected later in the day, but only 20 minutes or so before the deadline for deciding who was to be the candidate.
7. Mike and Dan consulted members of the LCF on 11 October about what should be done. However, as a decision had to be made within 3 or 4 hours, not all of the LCF were available or able to comment. Those who commented did so against the background of the erroneous legal advice.
8. It is noted that among the first people to respond to Mike’s email were the 3 councillors on the LCF (Tony Newman, Clive Fraser and Jane Avis), all of whom expressed the view that Jose should be replaced. Their lead, and the fact that members had been told it was not possible for someone to be a candidate if they owed money to the Council, undoubtedly influenced the views of other LCF members who commented.
9. It has been ascertained that Sarah Jones, who is an ex-officio member of the LCF, also commented. Dan has confirmed he received a call from her at 10.56am “stating her opinion on the situation – that there was a credibility problem with not having declared an outstanding debt”
10. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the 3 councillors and the MP were primed to contact Dan or Mike to set the scene in the email chain to the effect that Jose should not be nominated. I have asked the councillors and Sarah to comment and give details of communications they were party to on the morning of 11 October but they have not so far responded (apart from Tony who has said my request for information is beyond any remit I or anyone else has). [our emphasis]
11. Unknown to most LCF members on 11 October Fairfield Councillor Chris Clark was also involved in events on that day. That is not necessarily a problem in itself. Indeed Chris might have helped to sort out any misunderstandings and help Jose take whatever action was necessary to be allowed to continue as candidate. However instead Chris appears to have taken the side of those seeking to exclude Jose, as appears from a message he sent another member of the party later in the day (which has been made public on social media) as follows:-
“He was eligible in terms of membership, and not paying your market fees doesn’t rule you out in itself – but part of the application form is “Is there anything in your background that might bring the party into disrepute?” To which he said no.
Where he had owed the council that money for 2 years, agreed a payment plan with officers then cancelled it the next day. And when asked about it today, he told different people different things. He told Dan he was paying it over the phone today. Then he told me and Jack that he’d phoned the council and they said he didn’t owe them money. The LCF debated how to deal with it and they agreed by email that he could not continue. We could not take the risk of having someone with that question mark hanging over them, especially when we couldn’t trust that he was telling us the truth. And that’s before we consider the 1* rating for cleanliness his fish shop got. I think the LCF will need to beef up its background checks in future, but this doesn’t happen unless people have concealed something dodgy”.
(note on just one aspect of this: Jose does have a fish shop but in fact it has a 3* rating)
12. There would appear to be breaches of the Data Protection Act by, among others, Tony Newman, Jack Buck and Chris Clark. As part of the application process to be on the panel of candidates applicants authorise “the Council’s Chief Executive to provide any information about…current dealings or standings with the Council, which may include financial records…to the Chief Whip of the Labour Group”. Jack as Agent would not appear to have had authority to conduct the financial check. Tony Newman would not appear to have had authority to check with the Director of Finance about Jose’s accounts or payment plan. Chris Clark was not entitled to the information he subsequently released to another member of the party.
13. It will be seen from the chain of emails on 11 October that officials at London Region, having emailed early in the day saying a candidate is not eligible if he/she owes the Council money, sought to opt out of any responsibility for the decision about the candidature at the end of the day. This left Dan and Mike with an almost impossible task of making a decision in a few minutes, when it had just been officially confirmed that a major part of the information given to LCF members when they were asked to comment was wrong. I have asked Oliver Davis of London Region to give details of all communications he had with the Agent and others during the day and to explain how and why the legal advice was changed late in the day. He has refused to reply, saying that the decision about the candidature was made by the officers of the LCF and that I should direct enquiries to them. I have also written to the Regional Director and the Governance and Legal Unit but have received no replies.
i) Jose was unfairly removed as a candidate for the Fairfield by-election after he had been democratically selected by ward members.
ii) The Agent Jack Buck reported to the LCF Chair and Secretary that the Council’s lawyer had advised that someone owing money to the Council was not eligible to be a candidate. This was not true [our emphasis].
iii) Jack also failed to report fairly to Dan about whether Jose had made a payment to the Council.
iv) Chris Clark as a ward councillor could and should have ensured that any misunderstandings were clarified and assisted Jose to take steps to ensure that this candidacy could continue, but failed to do so.
v) Dan and Mike did their best in very difficult circumstances to consult all concerned and make a fair decision. I believe they made the wrong decision but was largely due to incorrect information being given to them and undue pressure being applied.
vi) There were apparent breaches of the Data Protection Act by Tony Newman, Jack Buck and Chris Clark.
vii) It’s my view there was a deliberate plan, known about and orchestrated by Tony Newman and Clive Fraser, and put into effect largely by Jack, to ensure that Jose would not become the candidate and that Caragh Skipper would. After their proposal for an all-women shortlist was rejected by the LCF they thought Jose Joseph would be unsuccessful in the selection meeting. When, contrary to their expectations, he won they determined to use any means at their disposal to remove him.
viii) A hard working BAME member of the Party, who lives and works in Fairfield ward, has a market stall in Surrey Street and runs a scheme to feed homeless people, has been deprived of the chance to serve as a councillor.
ix) The democratic right of Fairfield Ward Party members to choose their local election candidate has been negated. The LCF, which is supposed to control the candidate selection process, has also been effectively sidelined.
x) London Region officials were at best unhelpful and at worst complicit in what has happened. There is no point in the LCF asking London Region to mount an inquiry, as they would themselves be one of the subjects of the inquiry.
Inside Croydon contacted David White, but he declined to comment. It is understood, however, that other avenues of complaint are being pursued by Jose Joseph and his friends and colleagues in the party, who remain appalled at the treatment he has endured at the hands of the local Labour leadership.
Newman is spending the weekend at the seaside with Croydon Labour colleagues, where his conduct over the handling of Sirisena’s resignation, his failure to report a serious assault to the police, and the Fairfield selection stitch-up was not originally going to be up for discussion.
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