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Labour Party must pay £123,000 compensation to sacked Asian councillor

The Labour party has been ordered by an employment tribunal to pay former Birmingham Labour councillor Raghib Ahsan £123,000 after a 13-year legal battle. Although Raghib’s legal costs were funded by the Commission for Racial Equality, Labour’s own legal costs will bring its total bill to well over £500,000.

Raghib Ahsan, although now a solicitor, used to work at the Rover works, was president of the Birmingham Trades Council in the 1980s and a councillor for the Sparkhill Ward between 1991 and 1998. Three years ago, the Law Lords found unanimously in his favour on his claim that he was discriminated against by a selection panel in the run-up to the 1998 local government elections in which he was replaced with a white candidate who had not even been a member long enough to qualify under the party rules. Raghib Ahsan was also prevented by party officials from standing for Labour’s national executive for which he had been backed by the centre-left Grassroots Alliance.

The story is well told by Lord Justice Hoffman in his judgement:

Between 1991 and 1998 Mr Raghib Ahsan was a Labour Party councillor for the Sparkhill Ward of Birmingham. The ward has a large Pakistani population and he is from Pakistan. When the 1998 local government elections were approaching, he hoped to be readopted as the Labour candidate.

Ordinarily, the candidate would have been chosen by the Sparkhill branch of the party. But when the selection process was due to take place, late in 1997, the Sparkhill branch had been suspended for nearly three years. The reason was that, early in 1995, articles had appeared in the Observer and the Daily Mail in which it was alleged that local councillors of Pakistani origin or associated with the Pakistani community were helping Pakistani residents to jump the queue for housing grants. The journalists made free with words like “sleaze” and “scandal”.

One of the councillors named in this connection was Mr Ahsan, who was known to be an aspirant for adoption as prospective parliamentary candidate for the Sparkbrook constitutency, which included the Sparkhill ward. The newspapers linked the housing grant story to another story that large numbers of Pakistanis, real or imaginary, had suddenly joined the Birmingham Labour party. The implication was that Mr Ahsan was recruiting or inventing countrymen to support his parliamentary ambitions.

The reaction of the Labour Party national executive was immediately to suspend four constituency parties and their branches, including Sparkhill. These were mainly the wards with the highest concentration of ethnic minority groups. In the event, after inquiry by the party, no evidence was found of any impropriety in connection with housing grants on the part of Mr Ahsan or the other Pakistani councillors. They appear to have been doing no more than advising or encouraging their constituents to exercise their statutory rights.

The executive’s concerns about new members were addressed by requiring all members to attend in person at the Labour Party office to verify their membership. Again, no evidence of any abuse involving Mr Ahsan was found. Nevertheless eight branches remained suspended throughout the 1997 general election campaign and they remained suspended when it came to the selection of candidates for the council at the end of 1997. The suspended wards included (with one exception) all the wards with a significant Pakistani population.

As the branches were suspended, the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party decided that the candidates would be selected by a panel from the Regional Executive Committee. On 19 December 1997 Mr Ahsan and others were interviewed by the panel, consisting of five members. He was not chosen. The candidate chosen for the Sparkhill ward was a white man from the Fox Hollies branch, a Mr Ian Jamieson.

Twelve Birmingham Labour branches — mainly inner city branches in areas with large BAME populations — remain in “special measures” today. Raghib Ahsan was shortlisted as a candidate for the 2002 elections but suspended after being accused by a rival of “intimidating” other party members. He was suspended pending investigation of “allegations concerning violence, intimidation and serious membership abuse amounting to fraud” but once again cleared of any wrongdoing but he left Labour in 2003.

Although it must be a source of regret that this issue has cost so much money to the party (and indeed to the public purse), Raghib Ahsan was extremely badly and wrongly treated and much maligned by people acting on behalf of the Labour Party. He did, however, receive widespread support in Birmingham and beyond. As was reported in the Muslim News:

Almost 3000 local voters signed a petition demanding that he be allowed to stand. Over two-thirds of the membership of Sparkhill Labour Party also demanded the right to select him as their candidate. Many others who have written letters of protest to the Labour Party, including Lynne Jones MP, Roy Hattersley, six local head teachers, Sparkhill Youth Association, Community Education Association, school governing bodies, local Labour Party and trade union branches.

Raghib Ahsan said:

It is the end of a very long struggle that took over my life for many years but I am very pleased that I have been awarded compensation. All of the allegations against me were unfounded and my deselection was entirely unjustified. Now I feel as though I have been vindicated.”

The action that was taken against Raghib Ahsan, although it involved racial discrimination, was politically rather than racially motivated. He was on the left of the party in an area in which the Right is strong — and in particular the shadowy right-wing Old Labour factional machine Labour First run by local MP and former trade union fixer, John Spellar. Unlike Progress, Labour First has no open membership or pretence of internal democracy. In the run up to parliamentary boundary changes which would significantly affect Birmingham constituencies, Labour First and its supporters in the regional party bureaucracy were determined to consolidate their political dominance. Raghib Ahsan was just one of the victims.

Most of the protagonists are still around: Keith Hanson, the Birmingham regional organiser, has remained in post throughout. John Spellar himself remains — how should we put it — active and well-connected throughout the movement. In today’s Telegraph, he describes the payout as “absurd“:

Mr Ahsan was a fairly controversial figure in the Labour Party. He was involved in a long-running controversy that some felt damaged the image of the party locally. But there are political factions and battles in every political party. For a court to stick its nose in and get involved is absurd. It demonstrates the sheer arrogance of the legal system.”

Whilst he makes no apology, it is notable that he makes no defence either. Raghib Ahsan is more magnanimous:

I don’t think Labour has learnt the lessons it should have learnt from the way I have been treated. I don’t think the party is inherently racist but I think there are still some racist practises which persist and I hope it reassess its selection procedures. I hope that one day I get an apology from them. But I don’t think that will happen.”

Readers may note some similarities between this case and the case of Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets: Muslim councillors associated with the centre-left of the party, a large Muslim party membership, well-connected local right-wing MPs, allegations of corruption, membership irregularities and intimidation, many years of “special measures” and the suspension of internal party democracy. Party officials, aware of the enormous ultimate cost of their actions in Birmingham, were much better at covering their tracks in Tower Hamlets. That, of course, is why Cllr Helal Abbass (who came third in the mayoral selection and brought the final complaint against Lutfur Rahman) was imposed as the Labour Mayoral candidate, and not John Biggs, the white London Assembly member who came second and was without any involvement in the complaint.

3 Comments

  1. Lilian El-Doufani says:

    I saw this kind of behaviour when CLP Secretary. In the run up to the Iraq war, members asked to have a discussion meeting and send a resolution to HQ. To be fair, I did organise one and let everyone argue it out. A resolution was passed urging Blair to get a second UN resolution. Another right-wing former parliamentary candidate contacted regional office and insisted it should be ignored because we were not quorate. They demanded a huge number of people should attend any meeting to validate it as quorate. We had a lower percentage on our records. Listening to the right-wingers would mean that no party meeting in 20 years had been quorate. But that’s what regional office did. I resigned as Sec and left the Labour Party. I know Politics is dirty and you fight to win but if we’re not democratic, we’re nothing. Lots of members also resigned in protest.

  2. Gary Elsby says:

    It gets worse by the day.
    Wasn’t Lutfur Rahman paid a vast sum on the steps of the Court on the day justice was to be decided.

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