David Singleton: How Janet Daby won the Lewisham race with ease
Daby stressed her anti-Brexit credentials while her main rival was busy shooting herself in the foot.
The precise moment at which Janet Daby secured a win in the Lewisham East selection race can be pinpointed to 3.52pm on Thursday 17 May.
That was when supposed frontrunner Sakina Sheikh took the unconventional approach of suggesting that she would rather listen to the Labour whips than to party members in her own back yard. Even worse, in the same breath she boldly declared that anyone disagreeing with Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit was having a tantrum.
"I understand the anger of many on Brexit but I wouldn't defy the party whip on the issue,” she tweeted, to the amazement of local Labour members. “I want Lewisham East to be represented in govt. South Londoners don't have strops, they make history."
To be generous to the wannabe MP, she may not have composed this tweet on her own. But whoever did advise Sheikh to insult the electorate made a staggeringly bad judgement call. If they have not been taken out and shot yet, then they have got off lightly. Not only did Lewisham vote 70 per cent for Remain in the EU referendum but everyone in Lewisham knows that the local Labour party has a distinctly Blairite and pro-EU feel.
Explaining the bad call, insiders suggested that the Sheikh campaign wrongly thought that there were plenty of passionate Corbyn supporters silently waiting in the wings. "There are Blairites at one ends of the party in Lewisham East and Corbynites at the other," said a source in the run-up to the vote. "In the middle there’s a huge chunk of unknowns."
But this merely suggests Sheikh, who only joined the Labour party in 2015, failed to pay attention to the recent race to be Labour candidate for mayor of Lewisham. The winner was Damien Egan, a highly-rated local councillor and trade unionist from the centre-left, who stood on a "pro-EU, pro-migrant" platform. Significantly, Egan was not backed by Momentum and did not set any great stall on the Labour leader throughout the campaign. Yet he easily saw off the threat from Paul Bell, a vocal Corbyn supporter who did have the backing of Momentum. If there was an appetite for aggressive Corbynism last September, then Lewisham Labour members did an excellent job of hiding it.
While Sheikh was busy shooting herself in the foot and trying to win over non-existent Corbynites, Daby was running an impressive campaign that resonated with local members. She wisely stressed her anti-Brexit credentials and her readiness to defy the Labour whips if it came to it. Branding herself the “unity candidate”, Daby also played up the fact that she twice voted for Jeremy Corbyn and has been a councillor in Lewisham East since 2010, unlike Sheikh who only became a councillor this month and Claudia Webbe who was always on the backfoot as a councillor in Islington.
On the eve of the hustings, the Sheikh campaign weaponised Owen Jones with local members receiving an exclusive invite to go door knocking with the well-known columnist and left-wing activist. It’s not clear whether the Jones factor was a help or a hindrance for the Sheikh campaign, but one leading figure in the local party is dismissive about the influence of left wing celebs in his hood. "There’s huge support for common sense in Lewisham," he jibes.
The final self-inflicted nail in the coffin for Sheikh came at the hustings on Saturday when she was the only candidate who failed to praise much-loved outgoing MP Heidi Alexander. Daby and Webbe both got loud applause when they paid tribute to Alexander, but the loudest cheers went to Daby when she promised to fight against Brexit. Daby also made the most of the gift that had been given to her by her opponent when she considered whether she might "have a strop" about Brexit.
In the end, Daby picked up 63% of the vote, while Sheikh took 29% and Webb got just 8%. The results beg the question of why Sheikh was ever the favourite in the first place. They also suggest that the mastermind behind the Sheikh campaign should be kept well away from Labour’s general election efforts.