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Labour loses grip of council coalition as trio quit in stitch-up row

Exclusive: Labour no longer largest party in Stroud’s long-running rainbow council after selection backlash

caroline m.jpg
Caroline Molloy
1 July 2022, 5.30pm
A candidate favoured by Keir Starmer, pictured, was 'parachuted in' to the Stroud Labour Party shortlist, sparking a row in which three councillors quit
PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Labour has lost its leadership of a council coalition in south-west England after a row over a ‘parachuted in’ parliamentary hopeful favoured by Keir Starmer saw three councillors quit the party.

Thursday’s resignations included the council’s Labour leader Doina Cornell, whose bar from the shortlist to be the party’s parliamentary candidate at the next election triggered the backlash.

Deputy Labour group leader Trevor Hall and a backbencher then announced their resignations from the party at an emotional meeting of the Labour group last night, multiple sources told openDemocracy today.

The move wipes out Labour’s status as the largest party in the ruling “rainbow coalition” and leaves the future of what is believed to be the longest standing cross-party alliance in the country uncertain. The Greens have now overtaken Labour as the largest party with 13 seats to 12.

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Last night local Labour members delivered a further snub to party HQ, voting two-to-one to adopt a local GP, Simon Opher, as the town’s parliamentary candidate, rejecting Salisbury-based former MEP Clare Moody, a lobbyist with the company Grayling seen as the leadership’s preferred choice. Cornell had been seen as the local favourite and was expected to win the candidacy had she been allowed to run.

The former mill-town and its leafy surrounds is a key Labour target – having swung between the two main parties in recent years, it fell narrowly to the Tories in 2019.

Its council has been run by the progressive alliance for 10 years, even though the Conservative opposition is the largest single party with 20 seats. Both the council and the parliamentary seat encompass a diverse area, home to an affluent Cotswolds set and a long-standing working class population now hit hard by the cost of living crisis, alongside a steady influx of green-minded incomers (the district boasts Britain’s only vegan professional football club, and elected England’s first green councillor in the 1980s).

One of the remaining Labour councillors, Laurie Davies, told openDemocracy she felt “frustrated and very sad” to lose Doina from the party, although she “understood” the town hall chief’s decision, having “always had faith that she would have made a good MP”.

Davies added that her biggest worry was that the Conservatives might now seize control of crucial committees providing services to working class families.

Cornell today slapped down the local Tory MP’s claims that she had resigned as council leader, saying she remained at the helm for the time being, but that “the co-operative alliance will collectively decide how this goes forward, as we always have done”.

The coalition partners are understood to be due to make a decision about the leadership of the council by 21 July.

Steve Hyndside, deputy leader of the Green group on the council, told openDemocracy that he was “proud to be a member of an administration with Doina as our leader” and had been “impressed by her willingness to reach out across party lines and do what’s best for Stroud district”, adding that “we’re absolutely committed to making sure the alliance sticks together so we can crack on with our priorities and don’t open the door to the Tories”.

The Greens, as the largest alliance partner, could now reasonably be seen to have a claim on the leadership. Another possibility being mooted locally is that Cornell, who enjoys considerable cross-party goodwill, could stay on as leader despite now sitting as an independent.

But it is unclear how the national Labour Party would react to either scenario.

The ructions in Stroud follow a similar story in Wakefield, where the deputy council leader was blocked from standing, as well as in Hastings, Peterborough, and elsewhere, as parties rush to fill candidacies amid rumours of a snap election.

The Guardian today reports that the “ruthless” quashing of left-wing candidates is causing some concern amongst Starmer's critics and even allies, with internal sources suggesting the behaviour was now "extreme" and would have blocked the likes of Angela Rayner and Clive Lewis.

The national party remains unrepentant, stating that the bans were about “weeding out candidates who could cause electoral damage when the election comes” – a statement that has prompted an angry backlash from senior councillors like Hastings' Maya Evans and Stroud's Cornell, who pointed to their “track record” and “years of electoral success”.

Cornell, who has led the council for the last four years, is seen as “soft left”, consensual, and loyal to the leaderships of both Corbyn and Starmer (whom the local party backed for leader).

The panel that rejected her candidacy is understood to have focused on several old social media posts, accusing her of “downplaying the issue of antisemitism”. She has called the accusations made against her “spurious and partisan”, pointing to her Jewish heritage and the fact she had family members who were murdered in the Holocaust.

She was informed by Labour’s general secretary David Evans that a panel made up of national and regional officials had ruled she would not be able to progress to a vote of party members as “the panel was not satisfied that Cllr Cornell’s responses met the high bar that Labour expects of its prospective Parliamentary representatives”.

Cornell is also understood to have made private criticisms in relation to a disciplinary proceeding for another party member.

Elsewhere in the country, the Greens today bagged a high-profile defection in Manchester Labour councillor Ekua Hulme.

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