Lewisham East by-election: Brexit becomes key dividing line in contest to replace Heidi Alexander as Labour candidate

Labour members in the south-London constituency will decide on Saturday from one of four candidates to compete in by-election

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Friday 18 May 2018 16:36
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Labour candidates Claudia Webbe, Sakina Sheikh, Brenda Dacres and Janet Daby (Twitter: Janet Daby)
Labour candidates Claudia Webbe, Sakina Sheikh, Brenda Dacres and Janet Daby (Twitter: Janet Daby)

Brexit has become one of the key dividing lines in the race to succeed Heidi Alexander as Labour’s candidate for the Lewisham East by-election.

Party members in the south-London constituency will tomorrow decide from one of four Labour candidates to compete in June’s vote, with the winner set to defend the party’s healthy 21,000 majority. Barring a major hiccup that individual will become an MP in a matter of weeks.

When narrowing down the candidates, party bosses decided to impose an all-women, BAME shortlist and either Janet Daby, Brenda Dacres, Sakina Sheikh or Claudia Webbe will be picked by the members on Saturday morning.

They will replace Ms Alexander, a pro-EU campaigner, who resigned as an MP to work alongside Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, as his deputy for transport.

While all appear to have voted for Mr Corbyn in the leadership contest and oppose austerity, the candidates have differing views on Brexit policy, with one, Ms Daby, previously calling for a public vote on the final deal should Labour’s six Brexit tests not be met by Theresa May. Lewisham as a whole voted by nearly 70 per cent to stay in the European Union.

First to announce her candidacy following Ms Alexander’s resignation was 28-year-old Ms Sheikh, the newly elected Lewisham councillor and anti-Transatlantic trade treaty activist. She has the official endorsement of Momentum – the group set up to support Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership victory in 2015. With that comes the organisation’s substantial influence and ability to mobilise activists on the ground. Prominent left-wing activists have also pledged their support for Ms Sheikh, including the commentator Owen Jones and Mr Corbyn’s former spokesman, Matt Zarb-Cousin.

“I really want this and Lewisham really needs this,” she told The Independent. “I put myself forward because I’m the best candidate to serve Lewisham – both because of my national campaigning experience and because I’m embedded in the community here and know what they need.

“The only candidate that can win is the one who is local. I think in some areas the localness of the candidate is incredibly important and Lewisham is definitely one of them. I think in places where there is a high level of deprivation you find that the community resources one and other and heightens the sense of community. Only a local person knows what it is like to live here and struggle here.”

Unlike other candidates in the running, Ms Sheikh, who joined the Labour Party in 2015 to vote for Mr Corbyn, has made clear she would not defy the party whip on Brexit in the Commons.

“Brexit does sit heavy on my heart,” she said. “I voted to Remain, I campaigned to Remain. I deeply, deeply wanted to Remain. I was really upset by the referendum result, I was demoralised by it.

“That said, I respect the result of the referendum,” she added, making clear she believed Britain should now leave the EU.

Asked whether Britain should leave the single market, she replied: “I think that is the line we need to take in order to respect the referendum.” It is a key departure from Ms Alexander, who had been co-chair of the group of Labour MPs involved in the Westminster campaign for the single market.

Ms Webbe is running a ticket of political experience. The Islington councillor is a member of Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), a former policy adviser to Ken Livingstone, and she has the powerful backing of Unite union. Key allies of the Labour leader have also thrown their weight behind Ms Webbe, including the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott.

“Anybody who knows me, knows I would not stand without the clear encouragement of the leadership to do so,” she told The Independent.

Despite being the only candidate who is not a Lewisham councillor, she describes it as her “second home”, with close family members, including her sister, living in the constituency. She also helped found Operation Trident in 1998 which aimed to combat gun and violent crime in black communities in the capital.

“I am the strongest, most experienced candidate,” she said. “I haven’t just arrived at this agenda – I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for well over 20 years. I’ve got a huge track record within the Labour party.”

“I’m not somebody who has just been elected to office and hasn’t even stepped foot in the Town Hall yet,” she said.

On issues related to Brexit, she said she would vote on the basis of the needs of her constituents and on the basis of what is in interest of Lewisham East. “It is not guaranteed as a backbencher that I would necessarily vote with the whip,” she said. “What I’m interested in is protecting jobs and living standards.”

But she does not believe a second referendum is a viable option. “I voted Remain, London voted Remain,” she said. “But the country however obviously voted for Brexit – Labour constituencies up and down the country are polarised.”

“We’re also socialists and we’re democratic socialists. I believe in democracy and I believe that when the vote has been taken we cannot keep having the vote in order to get the right vote. The country voted Brexit and I believe as a democratic socialist we have to honour that.”

Lewisham’s deputy mayor, Janet Daby, who has lived in the area for 22 years, has described herself as the “unity candidate” in the contest and has the backing of the Fire Brigades Union and the public services union, Unison. She grew up in a single parent household on a council estate was the first in her family to head to university.

She made clear to The Independent she will continue with Ms Alexander’s work on Brexit, adding: “I oppose a hard Brexit and, if elected to Parliament, I will fight for UK to remain in the customs union and the single market. Leaving the customs union and single market will have a disastrous effect on the economy and, as usual, it will be the poorest who suffer the most.”

“I have lived in Lewisham East for 22 years. I have friends and family that live in my constituency and I've been clear about my position on Brexit from the outset of the campaign. I would not put myself in a situation in which I have to make the short journey back from Westminster knowing that I have just voted to make the residents of my community poorer.”

The fourth contender is 35-year-old Brenda Dacres, another Lewisham councillor, whose parents were part of the Windrush generation to come from Jamaica in the 1960s. She was the first in her family to attend university and is also a qualified barrister.

Ms Dacres did not respond when asked for comment on her candidacy. A post on her Twitter account, however, makes clear she will support the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer’s stance on Brexit.

But a blog on her official website, from August 2017, recalls how “devastated” she felt on the 24 June 2016 when the result of the referendum became clear.

“In the aftermath of the result, the Tory government is seeking to push through a devastating hard Brexit, including pulling out of both the customs union and single market,” it reads. “This would put hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk.

It added: “I believe that we should stand up for our place in the single market, on which hundreds of thousands of jobs, and our rights at work, depend. I believe we should stand up for free movement.”

“Labour Conference must demand adherence to Keir Starmer’s six tests and, if they cannot be met, a vote on the final deal must be called. With sixteen year olds having a vote – it is their future too.”

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