The future of a Teesside council has been left in disarray after its Labour leader and other cabinet members resigned from the party.
Redcar and Cleveland Council leader George Dunning, his deputy Sheelagh Clarke, the mayor, cabinet members and other senior councillors resigned this morning.
The move is the latest development in a bitter internal Labour dispute and comes after the councillors were not selected by the party in their seats in May’s council elections.
Ten councillors – including more than half of those on the council’s cabinet – staged a public protest outside the Redcar office of Anna Turley, Labour’s candidate for the Redcar seat in the General Election.
An informal meeting is taking place today in which the group will speak to cabinet members still in the Labour Party, and also approach independents to debate how the council can continue to function.
The most pressing issue is the need to pass a budget before the end of March, which includes a vital decision on whether to raise council tax.
But the Liberal Democrat group on Redcar and Cleveland Council have now confirmed that they will table a motion at next Thursday’s full council meeting calling for Cllr Dunning to stand down as leader.
Speaking at the protest in Redcar, Cllr Dunning said Redcar and Cleveland residents have “nothing to worry about”.
Cllr Norman Pickthall, cabinet member for corporate resources, said: “The direction of travel is that we will agree the budget, with a 0% council tax rise.
“All the work has been done. Other councillors would be foolish to reject it.”
Asked if he thought Labour would again win control of the council in May, Cllr Pickthall said: “I don’t think so. Not if the councillor who wants to become leader succeeds.”
Cllr Dunning said that South Bank councillor Sue Jeffrey wanted to become leader of the council’s Labour group.
The ten councillors who resigned from the party were Steve Goldswain (Eston), Olwyn Peters (Eston), Norman Pickthall (Teesville), Mark Hannon (Kirkleatham), Vic Jeffries (Marske), Brian Briggs (Skelton), Carole Simms (Normanby) and Wendy Wall (Normanby).
Their total membership in the party spans 230 years.
Cllrs Goldswain, Briggs and Pickthall were deselected as Labour councillors in November.
Cllrs Dunning, Clarke, Hannon and Jeffries were deselected at a meeting on Sunday, the culmination of a rift the council leader says exists between the leadership and Tom Blenkinsop, Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, Anna Turley, and councillors Joe Keenan and Dale Quigley, who work in Mr Blenkinsop’s office.
Mr Blenkinsop said earlier this week that “he wasn’t part of the selection process”.
Ms Turley said in a statement today:
“I am sad that the councillors and members who didn’t get selected don’t feel they can continue to be part of the Labour movement without being paid councillors, but the party cannot be held to ransom.
“There were simply other candidates who won their elections and they deserve their opportunity to serve their local communities.”
Ms Turley was out campaigning when the councillors staged their protest at her Milbank Terrace office.
A Labour Party statement said the decision was “disappointing but unsurprising”.
“The selection process in Redcar &; Cleveland has been fair, robust and competitive. The Labour Party expects the highest standards from our councillors and council candidates. These expectations include that a candidate demonstrates a willingness to campaign in their community all year round.
“The selection process is still ongoing but local members have begun to choose a new team of candidates drawn from a wide range of backgrounds, including a postman, a steel worker, a cobbler, a barmaid, and a netball coach.”
Cllr Sheelagh Clarke has now called for an independent inquiry into allegations of bullying, and the selection process which saw senior Labour members rejected by their party.
Cllr Peters said she had suffered a nervous breakdown because of bullying – and that she supported the deselected councillors who she said “represented what Labour is all about”.
Cllr Goldswain has also complained about bullying.
Chair of the Redcar Constituency Labour Party, Neil Bendelow, claimed earlier this week that there had been “no complaints” about bullying.
However, Cllr Vic Jeffries said he had made an official complaint around three weeks ago – which had been acknowledged.
Mr Bendelow said: “We had no complaints from those councillors who have spoken about the issue in the press. But we have had a complaint from Cllr Jeffries – the first I have ever had to deal with – and it will be dealt with by Labour Party process.”
Speaking after ripping up his 30-year Labour Party membership this morning, former mayor Cllr Jeffries said: “It is a very, very sad day.
“I am weighing my options up. I am a socialist and I believe in fairness, transparency and truth.”
Cllr Brian Briggs said: “I used to help my father with party business when I was a boy. I am Labour through and through. It is with a very heavy heart that I resign my membership.”
Independent mayoral candidate for Middlesbrough Len Junier, and fellow Middlesbrough councillors Pervaz Khan, John McPartland and Derek Loughborough supported their Redcar and Cleveland counterparts at the protest.
All but Cllr Loughborough were deselected by Middlesbrough Labour Group last year.
Cllr Junier said: “I think that this shows that party politics on Teesside is in terminal decline.
“It is the rise of the Independents. I hope we see a repeat across Teesside.”
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 04 Feb 2015