It seems like almost every year that the Birmingham Labour Party tears itself apart over its selection of candidates for the following year’s local elections.
But with 101 seats up for grabs, as opposed to the usual 40 in 2018 and no opportunity to try again until 2022, this year has been a particularly fraught process.
In fact the Labour Party was so overwhelmed with complaints during the summer that the whole thing was suspended for a couple of months before resuming towards the end of November.
There are ideological wars between the new Momentum type members, who, inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, joined the party in large numbers in the last couple of years, and more centrist politicians.
This is on top of the existing battles based on personal rivalries, tribal groups and the simply ambitious looking to crush rivals. Some contests take place in the spirit of democracy – where arguments are put and members choose their favourite.
But amid many there are fierce disputes, accusations and rumours of foul play and demands for justice. As ever separating the sour grapes from the genuine gripes is frustratingly difficult.
The fact the Labour Party will not open up these selections to outside scrutiny makes it even more difficult to untangle the mess. They dismiss questions and queries with a no comment – as if the votes have the significance of a local bowls club’s committee election.
But Labour currently holds two-thirds of the council seats and based on the June General Election result is looking strong to continue.
It means that a great many seats, particularly in inner city areas like Aston, Sparkbrook, Bordesley Green and Handsworth are nailed on to be held by Labour again – they are safe seats. (The same is true for the Tories in Sutton Coldfield).
So in effect the elections have already been run; the contest is over. Those selected, often by a few dozen party members who is some cases may well be mostly friends and family, get the nod. For that they are guaranteed a four-year term with the £16,000 a year allowance and the status of being local councillor.
This is why these contests are so bitterly contested.
Even in Harborne, which is by no means safe Labour turf, there will be a third ballot after members twice complained.
There are recriminations surrounding other contests with claims that candidates are unsuitable individuals for a variety of reasons or that the system was loaded against their rivals. Favoured candidates getting multiple chances to get onto approved candidate lists, others denied a go with little explanation.
I’ve been copied into official complaints, sent anonymous tip-offs, been given off-the-record briefings (if any sound crooked they would be forwarded to the authorities).
But few are ever backed with tangible evidence or anything to distinguish them from unfounded smears.
Any Labour Party investigations are treated as internal matters not for public perusal – creating an atmosphere in which conspiracy theories and allegations of ‘stitch up’ thrive.
This constant rumour and innuendo is undermining the political process in this city.
In my dealings I find the vast majority of councillors to be decent individuals trying to do a good job, even if they have different views of the way the world should work to their rivals. But they too are undermined by all this noise as are their political parties.
In previous years I have suggested open primary elections as a means of clearing this mess.
A shortlist of candidates chosen by the party membership could easily be put to the local community - or a cross section of them to select the candidate.
And if anything the heightened activity this year makes the case for primaries in the safest seats even more compelling – whichever part of the political divide you stand on.