by Christine Tongue
How national officers stifled local enthusiasm for Corbyn.
Thanet has always been a bit odd politically. A home to corrupt politicians, dodgy deals, poverty and a feeling that nothing could ever change.
The local Labour Party, like the Blair government of the time, was not a shining light of socialism. I wasn’t a member of the party in those days, but of what I saw of it, they were a pretty toxic lot, with a few exceptions.
Always a poor, put-upon area, Thanet gradually changed as incomers bought cheap houses and brought their higher political standards with them, reinspiring local people to think that they didn’t have to stay downtrodden and voiceless.
But it was when Nigel Farage tried to become MP for South Thanet in 2015 that the left was galvanised. All the homeless socialists who had been drawn together through the Stop The War movement and anti-austerity campaigns found a cause to fling themselves into: saving Thanet from fascism.
We leafleted, picketed meetings and invented imaginative campaigns such as a continental breakfast in the street outside the Ukip office: we gave cakes to the Ukippers and lured them into conversation.
And we succeeded! Farage was humiliated.
It’s true we ended up with the abominable Tory Craig Mackinlay, one of the founder members of Ukip, as our MP. But you can’t have it all!
Anyway, we took the enthusiasm that beat Farage to the campaign for a Corbyn leadership — and we succeeded in that too. And I, and many others, joined or rejoined the Labour Party.
But we weren’t your average kind of Labour member. Our expectations were higher than just being better than the Tory crooks we’d got used to. We were from a campaigning background. We wanted socialism.
But to the old Labour guard — former councillors and people who had got used to tiny meetings and an endless routine of squabbling — we were seen as incomers, infiltrators: suspicious.
As in much of the country, the new members drawn in by Corbyn vastly outnumbered the old guard in Thanet. We worked hard for Labour and as positions became vacant we put ourselves up for election. We filled the local party’s executive committee and — though I’m not personally involved any more — the Corbyn supporters are still there.
But in 2018 we committed our greatest crime: we dared to select a pro-Corbyn parliamentary candidate.
Our choice was a relative newcomer, Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt. She was a committed socialist, who wanted to do something about the appalling levels of poverty in our district. She built up great support for her candidacy very quickly.
For eight months Rebecca threw herself into working for the constituency. She went to the Labour Party conference as our candidate, was accepted at all the candidate events, met shadow ministers and was warmly welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn. We thought we were on our way and were gearing up to get her elected whenever the next election came.
Then, just before Christmas 2018, came the bombshell. The national executive committee of the Labour Party announced that they would not endorse Rebecca as a candidate and that South Thanet should run the selection process again.
The vast majority of local members were incandescent with rage. We wanted our say! We didn’t want another imposed candidate as we’d had in 2017, and we didn’t want regional officials telling us to get on with something without listening to our views.
A member of the party’s south-east regional board and a regional officer came down to urge us to move on. They were not well received! There was shouting and slow hand-clapping and stormings out.
An emergency meeting was called and members voted overwhelmingly to fight on to get Rebecca endorsed. We were not moving on: we wanted our democratically elected candidate!
But someone snitched to the Labour officials and we were deemed to have sinned mightily in emailing our membership explaining how they could contribute to Rebecca’s legal fund to make her case for endorsement.
Our ability to send emails to members through the Labour IT system was stopped and has not been restored to this day; all emails have to go to regional officials — unelected, salaried staff — who check it, cut out bits they don’t like and send it out in their own good time. If you grumble you’re roundly ticked off. I know, because I’ve twice been acting secretary and had to deal with what can only be seen as censorship and bullying.
In the end Rebecca was cleared of the charges against her and reselected just before the 2019 General Election — and with a much greater majority than the last time. Her enemies refused to campaign for her and have been blaming her supporters ever since for… well, just about everything. We have been called a “cult” and political amateurs — and worse.
We lost the General Election but did a lot better than Labour did in other Brexit-voting areas.
So what was it all about? What was our great sin? Very simple really: we supported Jeremy Corbyn.
You only have to glance through the Labour Party report leaked earlier this year to understand the mentality of the paid officials we had to deal with. They saw Corbyn and his supporters as a dangerous poison to be flushed out of the Labour Party at all costs — even if it meant losing the General Election. They called us Trots and saw us as much bigger enemies than the Tories.
That’s why we’re now seeing a concerted purge of the party. Every trick in the book is being used to suspend and expel Corbyn supporters — especially anyone, like me, holding key posts such as chairs or secretaries of local parties.
Thoroughly demoralised, many Corbyn supporters are, of course, just resigning.
But I think they should demand that power in the party is taken from the unelected officials and the MPs and given to the members. They should stay and fight and demand change.
That’s what I would do — if they hadn’t kicked me out!
Christine Tongue is a retired film-maker and lecturer. She lives in Broadstairs and was, until expelled on October 26 2020, the secretary of South Thanet constituency Labour Party. She is an activist in Save Our NHS in Kent and disability campaign group Access Thanet. She was, and is, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. She has written for a number of publications including the Guardian and the Times Educational Supplement.
Whitstable Views: How You Can Help
- Make sure you share and like our articles on Facebook and Twitter, and whatever other social-media platforms you use.
- Follow the site to get regular updates about new articles when they appear. Press the “Follow” icon in the bottom right hand corner of your screen and that will take you to the option to sign up. (It disappears as you move the text down, then reappears as you move it back up again!)
- Leave comments on the site rather than on Facebook. Let’s get a debate going. All of our contributors are willing to engage with you if you leave a comment.
- To all writers out there, we would LOVE you to make a contribution. Read our submissions page for details on how to go about that: https://whitstableviews.com/submissions/
- Finally you can donate. As little as £1 would help. Details on the donations page here: https://whitstableviews.com/donate/