EXCLUSIVE: After the local Labour Party tried to cover-up the scandal of their botched handling of the Fairfield ward by-election last year, the resulting inquiry criticises the ‘questionable integrity and competence of paid party officers’. By STEVEN DOWNES
An internal Labour Party report, leaked to Inside Croydon, has found that local officials did fix the candidate selection for the Fairfield ward by-election last year, going against a democratic vote of members and putting Caragh Skipper forward for the safe Labour ward instead.
But the panel’s report recommends only a feeble apology to Jose Joseph, the Surrey Street market trader who was denied the opportunity to stand for the council.
And it makes no recommendation of disciplinary action against Jack Buck, the Labour employee and local election agent whose conduct at the selection meeting and afterwards did so much to oust Joseph and install Skipper.
The four-person panel, made up of officials from other south London constituency Labour parties, was critical of “the questionable integrity and competence of paid party officers”.
And the report reflects very badly on the way “accusations, allegations, acrimony and recriminations” were possible in the Labour Party in Croydon under the leadership of Tony Newman.
Because their review was delayed by covid-19 and the panel had taken so long to deliver their report (it was circulated on October 22, a full year since the events it was asked to investigate), the panel wrote, “Calling for disciplinary action at this stage is not a viable option.
“In the first place there is the possibility of it causing further reputational damage to the party. Secondly, the lack of a robust internal Labour Party process for dealing with complaints does not instil confidence in the panel that matters would be thoroughly investigated.”
Among the evidence considered by the panel in its deliberations was a report published by Inside Croydon which placed into the public domain the full account of events from two officials from Croydon Labour’s local campaign forum, Daniel Frost and Michael Higgs.
Frost and Higgs were misled by false and erroneous advice apparently given by officials at the London area office, information conveyed to them by Buck, and which led them to decide not to put Joseph forward as the election candidate and instead nominate Skipper.
Buck and Skipper, also a Labour Party employee, have worked together as activist colleagues as well as being members of Momentum. Buck, who is a ward councillor in Southwark, was appointed to his job as local party organiser in Croydon by Tony Newman when he was council leader.
Newman was also known to be keen to get Skipper a safe council seat after she lost a Labour-held seat (in Addiscombe East) at the 2018 local elections and then later failed to be selected for a by-election in Norbury.
The by-election in Fairfield ward had arisen under controversial circumstances.
Niro Sirisena – another friend of Buck and Skipper – was forced to resign as a councillor and Labour member when he admitted carrying out violent domestic abuse of his girlfriend. Newman had Croydon Labour put out a tweet describing it as “a serious incident”. The victim called it “an unforgivable violent crime”.
Sirisena penned his resignation after questioning by Newman and Labour group chief whip Clive Fraser. Newman has admitted that he never made any report of Sirisena’s assault to the police.
As Inside Croydon reported 12 months ago, “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.”
The review panel into the mishandling of the resulting selection process says that they did not receive full co-operation in their enquiries. “The response to email requests in some cases was disappointing… Not all requests were answered.” Disappointingly, the panel omitted from their report the essential detail of who failed to respond to their requests, leaving it to Inside Croydon readers to surmise and speculate who they could be.
The report states, “The series of events leading up to the eventual selection of the candidate led to reputational damage for the party. It is only fitting that steps need to be taken in order to avoid a repeat of this happening in future…
“All evidence made available to us was subjected to close scrutiny,” they say, without stating by whom.
“The panel has been mindful of the fact that the terms of reference require it to be constructive and forward-looking.” Someone was concerned with covering their arse.
“The report must not be used in such a way that further reputational damage to the party might result,” the authors of the report say, apparently failing to consider the potential for reputational damage if the party delivers a report that does nothing to correct or make amends for the deliberate undermining of a democratic ward decision last year.
The report’s authors say of Frost and Higgs: “It was their decision (based on false premises),” the report states, “that Mr Joseph should not be allowed to stand. It is accepted that they acted in good faith in making the judgment at the time. They were placed under considerable pressure during the course of the day. They were left to make a judgment call after having been provided with false information which they had earlier shared with LCF colleagues only to then [have] to retract the information.
“Both members fully cooperated with the inquiry and provided supplementary answers to questions raised.
“… It is the opinion of the panel that their judgement was faulty notwithstanding that the incorrect information provided by London Region was rectified. Although there was a simple majority of LCF members in favour of excluding Mr Joseph, the strength of minority support for not doing so was such that Mr Joseph should have been allowed to appeal the decision.
“However, time constraints prevented this course,” a factor which some in the local Labour party suggest that Buck and his mates used to their advantage.
Later, the report states, “It is ironic that early in the day (Oct 11th) when LCF members were made aware of the possibility of Mr Joseph not being eligible to stand, the risk of reputational damage to the party came to the fore.
“However, the reputational damage was caused not by Mr Joseph but by the exposure in the Croydon press of the botched handling of matters. The claimed undertones of intrigue, the abuse of power, evasion and malpractice that were made may well have undermined confidence in the local Labour Party.
“The regrettable series of events and the way in which matters were handled gave rise to genuine expressions of concern but also opportunistic criticism. Accusations, allegations, acrimony and recriminations are factors that should at all costs be avoided.
“The panel believes that the actions and comments or refusal to comment by key figures fuelled suspicion and mistrust amongst party members and members of the public. The fuelling of scepticism and distrust is not what the Labour Party has ever needed.
“It is to their credit that Mr Frost and Mr Higgs have acknowledged their fallibility. Unfortunately, no apology or acceptance that mistakes were made have been forthcoming from senior figures in the party.” Who could they possibly mean?
Oddly, perhaps, for an investigation that lasted six weeks, the panel’s report makes no mention of who the London Region official was who provided the “false and misleading information” about Jose Joseph’s (non-existent) debts to the council, which was used an excuse to block his candidacy.
Nor does it state who it was who is supposed to have got hold of this information, or why they passed it on to party officials.
The inquiry only happened after persistent work by Croydon Central Labour party stalwart David White, who in party meetings was repeatedly vilified for his efforts by Newman, among others.
“The report is a vindication for Jose and all those who saw him being wronged,” said one of his supporters. “But they have really let Newman and Buck off the hook when they least they might have done is insisted on a public apology, to Jose and to David.”
The local campaign forum is due to meet this week – the first time since Newman stood down as leader. According to one local Labour official today, “The LCF officers who ultimately made the decision to nominate Caragh Skipper were pushed into it by a deliberate lie and the panel should surely address that central fact.
“There has been a loss, as a result of a deliberate lie. Those responsible should be held accountable.”
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