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We Need to Talk About Gorton

There is going to be a by-election in Manchester’s Gorton South. Sir Gerald Kaufman, the previous MP for the constituency, passed away in February, triggering the contest. Kaufman, at the time of his passing, was Father of the House, the title given to the senior member of the House of Commons who has the longest unbroken service. The Gorton constituency, a Labour seat since 1935, is the eighth safest of Labour’s 232 seats by percentage of majority, with majorities in excess of 17% since 1979.

All of this should, therefore, make for some dull reading. On the face of it, the seat is safely Labour and should remain that way whenever the by-election is called – current expectations are for 4 May. But something is afoot, and long-simmering tensions within the Constituency Labour Party (CLP) are reaching boiling point.

Under special measures since 2004, and with the CLP suspended last year due to “an almighty row within its Levenshulme branch”, which led to the police being called amid claims of vote rigging, abuse and intimidation, the candidate selection will instead be run by the National Executive Committee (NEC). Combine this with the fact that Kaufman never gave any of the factions within the Gorton CLP his blessing and the fractured loyalties within both the local and national party are proving difficult to conceal.

When the five-candidate NEC shortlist was announced, to the disdain of the left-wing of the party, and presumably the leadership, two candidates close to Momentum and Corbyn, activist Sam Wheeler and local councillor Julie Reid, were left off the ballot. In their place were Luthfur Rahman, councillor for Longsight; Amina Lone, councillor for Hulme; Yasmine Dar, councillor for Moston; Nasrin Ali, councillor for Levenshulme; and Afzal Khan, one of the North West’s soon-to-be-lost MEPs.

The controversy didn’t end there. According to a local councillor, supporters of the various candidates were already trying to exploit ethnic divisions in order to influence the selection meeting. All five candidates are of South Asian background: Rahman is of Bangladeshi origin, Lone, Dar and Ali are Kashmiri, and Afzal Khan is Pakistani.

Eventually the victor was announced and Afzal Khan was revealed as the Labour party’s replacement for Kaufman, having narrowly beaten Yasmine Dar, the candidate backed by Momentum. With the candidate selected, you could be forgiven for expecting this saga to come to an end, but this in-fighting has proven attractive to other candidates. George Galloway, expelled from the Labour Party by Tony Blair for comments made about the Iraq War, is standing in the constituency as an independent candidate and is already proving controversial. His comments that the all-Asian Labour shortlist is “just not good enough for the people of Gorton” has done little to allay fears that he will try and stir up racial tension to increase his vote share.

The Liberal Democrats, hoping that Galloway will split the Labour vote, are also eyeing up victory as they continue with their daunting task of rebuilding a parliamentary presence of note. Coming fifth in the last election, they have selected Jackie Pearcy as their candidate and Tim Farron has already made a visit to Levenshulme in support of the local Liberal Democrat Party and had some strong words to say about the veteran political figure Galloway. “His decision to enter the race is yet another consequence of the chronic splits and weak leadership in the Labour party. People in Manchester want change, they deserve better than a failed politician and a failing Labour party.”

Running against the Lib Dem candidate, the Green party have selected 36-year-old entrepreneur Jess Mayo, whereas the Conservatives and UKIP, who came third and fourth in 2015, have announced Shaden Jaradat and Phil Eckersley, respectively. Also contesting the seat are the Communist League, whose candidate, Peter Clifford, stood in the 2012 by-election in Manchester Central, and the Christian Peoples Alliance’s Kemi Abidogun.

Frustratingly for an area which has always appeared to be a diverse and tolerant place to live, the recent political movements by both the Labour party and the always controversial Galloway seem destined to cause tension where there isn’t any of note. Not only could this seriously threaten Labour’s chances of retaining this safe seat, but it could also lead to divisions within what has always felt for me as a close-knit, happy and magnanimous community, and it shows how the current chaos within the Labour party is having a knock-on effect on its constituencies.

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