By Sharon Noonan-Gunning
The old London docklands ward of Rotherhithe in the Bermondsey and Old Southwark (BOS) constituency of suspended Labour MP Neil Coyle is a predominantly working class area which will suffer greatly with the cost-of-living crisis. Discontent is brewing. Rotherhithe needs trusted political representation that will fight hard for its communities. So, in a democratic vote, the local branch chose, Sharon Noonan-Gunning – long standing community activist and LP member – as one of their candidates for May 5th.
Despite desperate times facing our community, some local Labour party members together with Regional Labour campaigned to remove Sharon Noonan-Gunning and impose the person who lost the vote.
As a sitting councillor said, “This is not a good look for Labour.” Not only is it an injustice for the branch, community and candidate, it is a dangerous turn for democracy in our local Party, selection of candidates and elected councillors. It reflects badly on Southwark Labour. Despite feelings of hurt and alarm, we must fight back and organise to defend our communities.
Why and how has this happened to a democratically selected candidate? My credentials are on record through motions moved, minutes of meetings, campaigning materials and so on – and of course, on the Internet. I am a known community food activist with strong experience in building tenants’ and residents’ organisations and campaigning around domestic violence, racism and food and health issues.
Tackling health and nutrition inequalities, hunger and malnutrition are my key priorities since becoming a dietitian 20 years ago, and achieving a doctorate in Food Policy in 2018. With others, I set up Food Inequalities Rebellion as a means to enable the food and health rights of communities and conditions of nutrition workforce that are being marketized and charitised. I belong to Critical Dietetics, an international movement of nutrition workers that focuses on social justice, and links our work with internationalism, and food and land democracy.
During and since the pandemic I’ve worked with community food projects, including at Millwall FC, to organise free and affordable foods into our communities. This work has come together to form the SE16 Right to Food Alliance. I have 27 years of Labour Party membership. I joined when 16 years old, left in the 1990s and rejoined seven years ago. I have always been a trade union member and only ever voted Labour.
I have a good Labour Party record in BOS: branch chair, acting secretary, ward organiser, delegate to the CLP from Socialist Health Association. In 2018 my motion calling on London Labour to actively support Grenfell residents was unanimously passed by the CLP and Regional Conference.
Similarly, more recently, the Right To Food is now in Southwark Labour’s Manifesto and Socialist Agenda for Southwark. I am a respected member of BOS’s women’s forum. Thus, I have broad support among members because of issues I bring into the CLP and the work I do. In September 2021, the Southwark Local Campaign Forum found me suitable for the long list of Labour candidates.
My socialist beliefs drive my campaigning. As a socialist, I have always had deep political disagreements with Neil Coyle and his associates at the centre of BOS. As in other constituencies we suffer from a ‘centre-right alliance’ of political and personal self-interest. The feeling amongst Rotherhithe grassroots socialists was that despite making it onto the long list, the local ‘centre-right alliance’ would not allow me or any other grassroots socialist to become a councillor. In October 2021, a ‘concern’ was raised with the LCF and I was called for second interview. I was again found suitable to represent Labour.
As the selection process began, a narrative was constructed that sowed doubt in my personal integrity and chipped away at my reputation and character. It was rolled out into community with statements such as ‘She is not who she says she is’ and garnished with urban myths. This narrative was amplified by statements of refusal to ‘work with me’ if I was selected.
But I was selected. I later found out, ‘concerns’ continued to be raised with the LCF such that they were concerned that I was being bullied. Against this background, on 15th March I was called for second reinterview on ‘change of circumstance’ related to social media use. This time it was by London Region LCF with appeal to the London Regional Board. At no time was the Southwark LCF informed or involved in this. They were bypassed.
The re-interview took place on 30th March. I was provided with two pieces of evidence. Other questions were asked and evidence presented with no notice. My level of campaigning experience and commitment to Labour were questioned. A blog that I wrote in 2019 about the general election and food inequalities was presented. The panel argued it supports illegal budgets. It does not, and I clearly stated that I do not. It was resolved that I be removed as candidate.
Being presented with new evidence at interview lacks natural justice. I couldn’t remember. My lack of memory was framed as ‘vagueness’ and ‘not entirely honest’ which continues the constructed narrative and attack on my personal integrity. The appeal was held on 31st March. I wholeheartedly rejected the accusations made and provided written evidence and witnesses to the appeal: Simon Brears, Secretary of Southwark LCF; Cllr James McAsh, Chair of Southwark Labour Group; Ian Byrne MP (Right to Food/Fans Supporting Foodbanks).
The local LCF secretary stated that along with bullying, he was concerned that I was being treated differently to men called for re-interview, and candidates accused of social media misdemeanours had been tackled locally through training. Differential treatment raises equality issues. I have made a Subject Access Request to examine this and understand the links between Local and Region.
The 2019 blog became the main issue. The data source in question is an article by socialist solicitor, which first appeared in the Haldane Magazine. It argues “that it is possible for socialist labour councillors to present legally compliant no cuts budgets based on existing powers.”
My understanding is that this enables councils to use reserves and other revenue streams as many already do. However, the panel Chair commented that the solicitor also writes for the Socialist Party. This challenging of sources used by academics, who wish to be involved with Labour, is a worrying development.
The whole process generates an environment of fear and intimidation. I can speak out because I am 60 years old but young socialists are scared about the impact on their careers of supporting me or following a similar path.
Deselections have happened across London and nationally. So what does this say for sanctity of the local branch? In 2019, Keir Starmer said candidates will not be imposed. Now we see the reality and the future. Not only will socialists not make the long list, but ‘preferred candidates’ will be imposed if socialists win the vote. What does this say for Labour’s connections with communities?
The victimisation we face in our own Party is experienced every day in workplaces, where the dividing line is between worker and employer. The manoeuvres of local centre-right alliances such as in BOS and Rotherhithe are understood in the same way by our communities. Trust in Labour and its representatives is in danger. How can communities trust those who manoeuvre for their own interests and ambitions and prevent democratically selected socialist from standing?
Local Labour’s centre-right alliances are using the intervention by region to shift the blame saying ‘it wasn’t us’ and leading local representatives to say ‘it wasn’t me’. They acknowledge the injustice while denying their complicity in my victimisation. Locally, we need to challenge why and how I was removed, that is, to challenge whose interests the Party serves.
In areas like Rotherhithe, the Lib Dems and the right will benefit unless we remain on-side for our communities and the working class. In SE16, out of the pandemic, incredible stories arose of collective care within communities, as services failed and people organised to stop hunger and malnutrition. This was beneath the radar of the official food parcels system. The networks that emerged now come together under banner of the Right to Food. It is their commitment to community that inspires me to continue the fight.
Such movements should find a home in Labour but my deselection casts doubt on whether this is wanted by the leadership. Instead the disconnect with communities deepens.
Sharon Noonan-Gunning is a long-standing community activist, Labour and trade union member, and lecturer in public health nutrition. As a community food activist and dietitian with a PhD in Food Policy, she focuses on tackling malnutrition and hunger through campaigning for the Right to Food.
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