Newington councillor James Coldwell is the first local politician in Southwark to quit Labour over the party’s handling of Brexit, citing the recent NEC decision not to fully back a second referendum as ‘the final straw’.
The councillor, who was temporarily kicked out of Southwark Labour Group by the whip in response to voting in favour of a ‘People’s Vote’ last November, published his party resignation letter on Twitter today.
In the insightful and incisive missive, delivered to the Labour Party’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, Coldwell said he had deliberated his decision over many months, and praised his ‘talented, passionate and tireless’ colleagues.
Leaving Labour after a decade, he said, was ‘nothing to do with them, and everything to do with the national party’. And, most importantly, Brexit.
“On Brexit,” he wrote, “Labour has been missing in action since the 2016 referendum.
“Young people in particular have been desperate for bold leadership, for someone to speak out and oppose Brexit for its inherent contradictions and unrealisable [sic] promises, not to mention the succour it provides to nationalists and xenophobes.
“Instead of seizing this opportunity, Labour has prioritised short-term tactics.”
He went on to describe the National Executive Committee ruling, which meant Labour will only look at the option of a second referendum if a general election cannot be forced, as a ‘fudge’ that had left Labour’s credibility ‘shot to pieces’.
In the run up to this month’s EU elections he described how Brexit vacillations are leaving Labour candidates floundering, before heavily criticising Corbyn’s leadership and foreign policy stances, and branding many of the party’s key pledges as ‘unrealistic and populist’.
But the most eviscerating analysis was reserved for the leadership’s handling over anti-Semitism and bullying claims, and the ramifications for his own constituency party, where ‘in place of debate and compromise there is rigidity and distrust’.
As the News has reported, Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency is riven between Corbyn-supporting Momentum members and those who continue to back their centrist MP Neil Coyle.
Coyle has been a vocal critic of Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit impasse, and Labour’s unwillingness to come out in support of freedom of movement.
He has also made short work of his own detractors in the party with a series of verbal sparring matches with allegations of bullying flung from both sides.
But despite the rhetoric he has so far pledged to stay loyal to Labour, telling the News previously a defection to the Independent Group was not on the cards.
Coldwell’s statement was met with praise by many on Twitter, including Remainers from across the political spectrum.
Well Done @JamesColdwellUK! I'm sure many former colleagues will be sad to see you leave but I respect your decision and courage. I'm sure you'll continue to do a great job representing your constituents. Best of luck
— Cllr Victor ChamberlaIN (@VMMChamberlain) May 1, 2019
Totally understandable, James. There are very many of us struggling with the same dilemma. I wish you all the best
— Pete Bowyer (@PeterCBowyer) May 1, 2019
Sorry to see this James, especially after all your support for @Remain_Labour.
I don't think the road back to returning Labour to our Centre-Left, internationalist and Pro-European traditions is 'impossible', but every time we lose someone like you, it gets a little harder.
— Andrew Lewin (@Alewin7) May 1, 2019
But in a statement sent to the News, Southwark Council leader, Peter John, attempted to downplay Labour’s lack of clear direction in navigating the deal-or-no-deal.
“I’m sorry that James has left the Labour Party. He is not alone in being frustrated by Brexit but I think it is the wrong decision to leave Labour at this crucial time for the country,” he said.
“There are lots of views in the Labour Party on Brexit and huge debate about how to find the best solution for the country, but the thing that unites all of us is a belief that we achieve more together than we achieve alone and that it is only Labour that can bring communities and the country together and puts our shared values into action.
“While the government wreaks havoc with its disastrous handling of Brexit, in Southwark, we are showing what Labour values mean: free swimming and gym use for all our residents, the biggest council house building programme in the country, more green flag parks than ever before and the best recycling rates in inner-London.
“Despite what the government is doing, Labour in Southwark will carry on improving our borough and ensuring it remains the diverse, welcoming and truly international community and a place we can all be proud to call home.”
On Twitter he took a somewhat less conciliatory tone, appearing to brand Coldwell’s decision as ‘self-obsession’.
Any resignation from @UKLabour is regrettable – but to resign over Brexit – a Tory/UKIP/Farage designed issue – is a mistake. Our vulnerable residents need Labour councils and Labour councillors to deliver the support & services they need – not more Brexit self-obsession.
— Peter John (@peterjohn6) May 1, 2019
Although Coldwell has left Labour, he has not formally stepped down as a councillor and has said he does not intend to trigger a by-election.
But there have already been calls for a fresh vote to be held, including from within the party.
Labour Goose Green councillor James McAsh argued: “I think it’s only right that you trigger a by-election.
“We are both councillors solely because the ballot had a Labour rose by our name.
“The people of Newington elected three Southwark Labour councillors.
“Perhaps they now want an Independent but they should be given that choice.”
If that comes to pass, it’s certain the Liberal Democrats would be eyeing up their chances.