Election ’17: Does Your Labour Candidate Really Support Corbyn?

Uncertainty lingers about Labour candidate for Portsmouth South Stephen Morgan’s true feelings towards Jeremy Corbyn and the progressive policies of the Labour leadership. Mark Wright makes an appeal for transparency.

As part of S&C‘s election coverage, I have been interviewing local politicians and commentators to find out their thoughts on a range of topics. A few weeks ago, I emailed Stephen Morgan to set up a meeting (Update: full timeline below). He replied the same day asking when would be convenient. We agreed to chat the following afternoon.

Appointment arranged, I prepared my questions. Top of the agenda was to clear up an incident from last year that has concerned a number of S&C readers, amongst others on the local Left. In June 2016, Morgan, along with over 600 other Labour councillors, signed a petition expressing no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to lead the Labour Party.

The document Morgan put his name to reads: ‘It has now become clear … that he [Jeremy Corbyn] is unable to command the confidence of the whole party nor of many traditional Labour supporters we speak with on the doorstep … We urge Jeremy Corbyn to make way for the new leadership that our communities so desperately need.’

I wanted to ask Morgan if his stance on the Labour leadership had changed since then and whether he would, if he won Portsmouth South on June 8th, be a supportive team player in the event of a Corbyn government. There may well be (yet) another power struggle within the party, and a lot of voters in Portsmouth South would feel cheated if the man they elected on the understanding that he was pro-Corbyn ended up, once he’d got into parliament, opposing or undermining Corbyn.

To give our readers a clearer sense of which wing of the Labour Party Morgan belongs to, I also intended to ask about his views on the legacies of both Tony Blair’s administration and Britain’s role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

A few hours before our proposed meeting, Morgan contacted me again. He apologised and told me he would have to cancel as he had other commitments to attend to. He went on to state that he was happy to re-schedule but only under the proviso that I submit my questions in advance so that they could be inspected by the Labour Party’s Regional Communications Officer. I did as he requested.

I am still waiting for Morgan’s response.

Update: On the evening of 6th June, we received Stephen Morgan’s interview responses, which you can read in full here.

This has been a disappointing experience. So far I have interviewed Ian McCulloch, Green Party candidate for Portsmouth South; Gerald Vernon Jackson, Liberal Democrat candidate for Portsmouth South; and Darren Sanders, Liberal Democrat candidate for Portsmouth North. All three were happy to meet without prior knowledge of my questions, and all were warm and open. Of the candidates from the main parties, only the Conservatives Flick Drummond and Penny Mordaunt have not given me an interview.

I would not have taken the aggressive Jeremy Paxman approach to Morgan; in fact, I was offering him an easy, straightforward opportunity to clarify his views. Given the level of public scepticism towards politics – and towards the motivations of politicians – such cagey and evasive behaviour is unhelpful. It is more redolent of the Blair age of spin and control freakery rather than the ‘new politics’ of Jeremy Corbyn. If a political candidate wants our vote, we have the right to know exactly what we can expect in return for it.

Just as I was about to give up on any hope of hearing again from Morgan, the plot thickened. Last night, as we were preparing this post for publication, S&C contributor and Labour activist Claire Udy – who has been working with Morgan almost every day of the election campaign – contacted us and agreed to answer some questions about him, though not as his ‘official spokesperson.’

When we asked why Morgan had signed the petition, she claimed he had done so accidentally. ‘It was a vague email that went out to councillors,’ she told us. ‘He clicked to find out more, and it said “Thanks for signing”.’

Indeed, the Labour List report on the petition states that, ‘The list below was edited when it emerged that a small minority of councillors had inadvertently given approval for the inclusion of their names by clicking on an email signature button.’ However, Stephen Morgan’s name remains on that list to this day, which implies he didn’t request it to be removed. We asked Udy why not.

‘No idea,’ she said. ‘Stephen has never been involved in anything controversial at all and, I’ll be honest, when I saw this [his signature on the petition] for the first time my heart sank. A few of us were pretty angry given that we were pro-Corbyn and had helped him on the doorstep during the 2016 local elections. We talked to him and he explained what happened, and we’re happy enough to take him at face value.’

Did she know what Morgan’s view of Jeremy Corbyn is now?

‘He’s in full support of the leadership and is appreciative that this campaign wouldn’t have been half as successful if it wasn’t for the massive intake of members since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Stephen’s been a member for 20 years and seen a lot of history in that time, and nothing ever like this.’

She added, ‘If I thought Stephen was anti-Corbyn, I wouldn’t put my heart into this campaign. Stephen is a well-educated and caring individual who has listened to us all and has been a contributing factor of the reuniting of the party locally.’

She didn’t know what Morgan’s attitudes to Tony Blair and the Iraq War were.

We then put it to her that Morgan’s reluctance to discuss these subjects with us himself and his failure to take his name off the petition might appear suspicious to our readers.

‘I can understand the cause of the suspicion,’ she said, ‘but this has never been brought up by people on the doorstep and, out of all of the media outlets, you are the first to do so. Out of all the questions he has been asked in this campaign as well as the thousands of lobbyist emails, he’s barely been asked these sorts of questions. People want to know his opinion on things that really matter like education, cuts to social care and the NHS.’

While we are grateful for Claire Udy’s perspective on Morgan, we are not much nearer to finding out what the man himself truly believes or why, if he did mistakenly sign the petition, his name is still on it.

There is still time for Morgan to make his position clear before June 8th. He might want to give his potential voters the reassurance and transparency they deserve before they head to the booths this Thursday.

Update, 7th June 2017: This article has received a lot of attention and comment from our readers on social media, particularly on Facebook, with some questions asked about the timeline of the interview.

We first contacted Stephen on 24th May, along with all other candidates. Stephen agreed to an interview for 30th May. He cancelled the interview the day it was due to be conducted and requested the interview questions, stating for the first time that the questions would ‘need to be vetted by the regional comms officer’. We sent the questions on the 1st June and received his full response on the evening of 6th June. At the time of writing and publication, we had received no response, as the original article stated.

All candidates received the same core questions, with some specific questions set for each party, for example, asking the Liberal Democrat candidates about tuition fees.