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Sunday Times 15 july 2018 400pxNews about the alleged "coup" within the Labour group on Enfield Council has finally appeared in the national media.  Last weekend's Sunday Times carried a report under the headline Labour council 'taken over' by clan.  In response, council leader Nesil Caliscan has called the claims of a plot "scurrilous".

The Sunday Times article, written by Andrew Gilligan, is mainly a repeat of information and allegations that we have already reported.  However, the opening paragraphs shift the emphasis away from alleged failure to follow established procedures when selecting candidates  - which is the crux of the matter currently being investigated by the Labour Party's national executive committee - and place it on ethnicity, religion and criminality.

"Labour's national executive committee (NEC) has begun an inquiry into claims that a London council has been 'taken over' by a religious minority group and the extended family of a convicted criminal."

The paper goes on to report that the people involved are "members of the Alevi community, a religious minority comprising Turks and Kurds" and points out that the proportion of Turkish or Kurdish-heritage Labour councillors is disproportionately high - 40 per cent, when they comprise only 10 per cent of the borough's population.

The convicted criminal that the report refers to is former councillor Nesimi Erbil, who was convicted of fraud in 2014 and in 2016 was found guilty to a public order offence - threatening a motorcyclist who had been driving behind his taxi.

What to make of this?

Cllr Caliscan's response to the Sunday Times article

"I am aware that over recent weeks, the right-wing press has been fed with false accusations in an attempt to damage the Labour Council. Although I have always maintained that it is important we are not distracted from the important job of running the Council so we can protect crucial services our residents rely on, I currently feel that I must put on record my concern about the racist smear campaign that is being spearheaded by a handful of individuals.

"The scurrilous allegations about candidate selections were looked into over a year ago and Party officials on behalf of the NEC said that the selections were properly run according to the Party’s rules. Members applying to be candidates were interviewed by completely independent panels comprised of three Labour members from outside Enfield, which the local party had no control over and who were appointed by the regional Labour Party.

"The actual choice of candidates for each ward was made by party members in that ward, as is the normal democratic process. Each member had one vote in one ward, regardless of whether they held an officer position.

"The claims being made amount to a series of smears with racist overtones. A number of complaints have been made to the Labour Party about discriminatory language and attacks towards the Turkish-speaking community. Indeed, you’ll be aware, because the General Secretary Jennie Formby emailed members last week to clarify, following a misleading email sent to some members, that all complaints were being looked into in order to restore positive working relationships.

"A recent article in a national newspaper is nothing less than a disgraceful smear designed to create conflict within our party on the basis of ethnicity. The article is littered with deliberate inaccuracies, such as stating that I appointed the Cabinet. The Labour Group elected councillors to the Cabinet in a secret ballot – a process which takes place every year in the Labour Group. Apart from the former leader of the Council, every single former cabinet member who stood for election to the cabinet was re-elected.

"The article is in a right-wing newspaper with a long track record of attacking the Labour Party and is written by a right-wing journalist who used to work for Boris Johnson. They are attempting to stoke up ethnic divisions within our Party, turning member against member on the basis of religious and cultural backgrounds, in a way that has no place in our democratic, anti-racist party.

"Accusations of ‘entryism’ and the refusal of a small minority of individuals to accept democratic outcomes is nothing new. Labour members who have the interest of the Party in their hearts are working to strengthen the support for Labour locally and nationally – fighting against Tory narratives.

"I have always grounded my politics in equality and anti-racism. Like you, I will continue to put Labour first, locally and nationally. I am committed to leading Enfield Council, standing up for our public services and fighting austerity. I will ensure our Labour values of fairness and equality are at the heart of everything we do at the Council."

Excerpted from an email sent to all Labour Party members in Enfield

The first thing to point out is that the fact that some councillors are related to a convicted criminal is not, of course, of the slightest relevance when judging their suitability to hold public office - something which the Sunday Times completely fails to point out.  Could it be that a Murdoch-owned newspaper is trying to blacken the reputation of Labour councillors by association?

It is also of questionable relevance that so many new councillors are Alevis and of Turkish or Kurdish heritage.  Close relatives more often than not come from the same "community" and share religious beliefs.  And some of the councillors who are alleging that a coup has taken place are Turkish themselves.  So the emphasis placed on the ethnicity and religion of the new councillors looks rather like "dogwhistle politics".

As for over-representation of a particular group, that's hardly unusual in UK politics - just look at the over-representation of men in parliament.

What we should be concerned about, in my view, is whether rules were broken to facilitate an organised takeover by, for want of a better word, a "clan".  And whether there is evidence of nepotism or of inadequate safeguards against it.

According to the Sunday Times, the relatives of Nesimi Erbil are Susan Erbil (his daughter), Elif Erbil (niece), Gunay Dogan (nephew), Sinan Bosztas (an inlaw), Ergin Erbil and Saray Karakus.  Five of these were newly elected this year. The paper further states that other new councillors are "business associates or relatives". 

If the number of family members had been growing gradually over some time, that would be one thing, but the fact that so many were new faces this year and that so many sitting councillors were deselected would be consistent with an organised "takeover".

I think therefore that there is plenty for the national Labour Party to investigate without bringing religion or ethnicity into the equation.  What's more, throughout the UK political parties should ensure that candidate selection processes are watertight, especially in boroughs where first-past-the-post means there is effectively "single-party rule".  And nationally there should be a debate about a possible limit on the number of closely related councillors.

For the time being, though, we should stick to the principle of innocent until proven guilty and judge the new council on its record.

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