Cllr Leigh Farrow: A Labour veteran denied justice by the party he loves

Councillor Leigh Farrow has given a fascinating insight into life inside the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove
Councillor Leigh Farrow has given a fascinating insight into life inside the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove

In the Pelham Room, the three Labour Party appointees sat as judge and jury.

In the privacy of the Pelham Room, on the first floor of the Brighthelm Centre, the three Labour Party appointees sat as judge and jury.

Watching on was Malcolm Powers, the party's unelected regional director, occasionally taking notes.

The chief witnesses for the prosecution had given their evidence: Councillor Gill Mitchell, former leader and now chief whip of the Labour Group on Brighton and Hove City Council, and Councillor Chaun Wilson, her friend and colleague in East Brighton.

It was 9.45pm when the hearing - a "kangaroo court", according to Councillor Leigh Farrow, the veteran party member and defendant - had to end. The room, airless and claustrophobic, had been booked only until 9pm, and the caretaker needed to lock up.

In truth, Cllr Farrow's fate had probably already been sealed. But the three-person disciplinary panel - chaired by Councillor Keith Dibble, former Labour Group leader on a council in Hampshire and chair of South East Labour - said they would sleep on their decision.

When Cllr Dibble shook hands, Cllr Farrow - and Robert Brown MBE, his character witness and chair of the recently-suspended Moulsecoomb and Bevendean Branch Labour Party - took some hope from the smile on his face. They were wrong.

After an ordeal that has, it turns out, gone on more than two years, Cllr Farrow, 59, has been banned from standing again as the chosen party candidate at next year's city council elections.

He has been a party member for 30 years; he has been an active trade unionist for even longer; he has served as a councillor both in Brighton and, in the early 1990s, in London. He is a working-class socialist who works hard to represent citizens in one the city's most deprived wards - and, significantly perhaps, one of Labour's safest strongholds.

In the midst of his ordeal, he suffered a heart attack and underwent a double heart-bypass operation. Supporters insist he is the victim of a "witch-hunt".

Even before the guilty verdict was delivered - by letter last Friday - there was talk of a hand-picked replacement being parachuted in by party officials. Meanwhile, UKIP has rushed to appoint three candidates in Moulsecoomb and Bevendean, hoping to take advantage of Labour's self-inflicted wounds.

Today, for the first time, in an exclusive interview with Brighton and Hove Independent, Cllr Farrow speaks about being the victim of multiple breaches of natural justice by a clique within Brighton and Hove District Labour Party - the City Party, which he describes as a "monster" that members unwittingly created when they merged three constituency parties nearly three years ago.

The party is now run by an elected but secretive executive committee (EC); when the party holds its next all-member meeting on October 22, it will be the first in nearly five months.

No EC minutes relating to its discussion of allegations against Cllr Farrow have been circulated; Cllr Farrow was not given an opportunity to discuss the allegations with EC members; and no explanation has been given why Moulsecoomb and Bevendean branch party was suspended, shortly after it voted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their chosen representative. Who is alleged to have sworn in front of - or at - Cllr Wilson, when the two met privately in advance of a housing committee in June. The expletive followed instructions, passed on from Cllr Mitchell, to vote in line with whatever the Green Party chair decided.

Even after everything he has gone through, Cllr Farrow is clear: "I want a majority Labour council and three Labour MPs representing the city. That's my aim.”

When asked if he would consider standing as an independent - which would result in automatic expulsion from the Labour Party - he chooses his words carefully: "Despite what has happened, I would prefer to remain a member of the Labour Party.”

"In the long term, the only way to protect working people through our political system is, I believe, a rejuvenated Labour Party. But the Labour Party must stick to its democratic principles and it certainly must stick to natural justice. In my case and the way Brighton and Hove District Labour Party has behaved, they have lost their way.

"It is not possible for the City Party to rejuvenate itself. I believe the members unknowingly created a monster."

Cllr Farrow has warned party leaders against ignoring the wishes of Moulsecoomb and Bevendean members and imposing a candidate to replace him: “It will be counter-productive. It is important the local branch and, therefore, the residents decide on a replacement."

It has been reported the local branch will be suspended until November. The two other candidates - Councillor Anne Meadows and Councillor Mo Marsh, both Labour stalwarts - are concerned they have been told not to print any election material until a third candidate is chosen.

So when did it begin to go wrong for Cllr Farrow? Almost ever since his election in 2011: "I didn't like the atmosphere on the Labour Group. It was all about what the leadership team wanted [Councillors Gill Mitchell, Warren Morgan, and Les Hamilton]. We were supposed to be the Labour and Co-operative Group, but I didn't feel there was a lot co-operation going on in the group.”

Cllr Farrow had crossed swords with party leaders several times before. His behaviour at a planning committee in 2011 caused some concern to Councillor Phelim Mac Cafferty, the Green chair of the committee. Cllr Mitchell, then still Labour Group leader, appears to have used Cllr Mac Cafferty's (mild) concern to demand Cllr Farrow resign from the committee. Which he did, reluctantly.

On another occasion, the case for the prosecution claimed Cllr Farrow was rude to a council officer in a discussion about housing repairs - an allegation he has rebutted: "I don't believe that I have done anything wrong with regard to my relationship with - or behaviour towards - officers. I've been firm but fair. Because my job, as a ward councillor, is to look after the interests of residents."

The real reason for the latest episode in this long-running "witch-hunt" may be more personal. In May - after Cllr Wilson announced she would not, for family reasons, be standing for council in 2015 - Cllr Farrow asked Cllr Morgan, by then Labour Group leader, if he would appoint him as her replacement as the party's housing spokesperson.

In a highly-contentious claim, some party insiders report that Cllr Wilson said she would quit and force a by-election if the housing portfolio was taken from her.

Importantly, it is not the first time party bosses have tried to stop Cllr Farrow from standing. Last autumn, he was the only sitting councillor not to be accepted onto the panel of "approved" candidates. According to Cllr Farrow, Mr Powers, the regional director, said - in a "terse" letter - it was felt Cllr Farrow was more interested in the ward where he lived (Woodingdean) than in Moulsecoomb and Bevendean.

When Cllr Farrow had his heart attack and operation, Mr Powers agreed to delay an appeal until January. The appeal was successful - thanks, in part, to a powerful contribution by Nancy Platts, the Labour parliamentary candidate in Brighton Kemptown, who was given unusual leave to give verbal evidence at the hearing.

Not so on this latest occasion, when Cllr Farrow was allowed only a "silent witness" - MIck Barry, a party member and retired solicitor - who could communicate only by way of scribbled Post-it notes during the fateful two-hour hearing on September 16.

Cllr Farrow says: "I mentioned at the beginning of the hearing that I would have preferred to have been represented by my affiliated trade union, the GMB. They said that was 'not part of the procedure'." So I had to be my own advocate."

Whatever happens next, Cllr Farrow is adamant: "I have been through an unjust procedure. I believe that I wasn't shown any natural justice by the City Party executive committee; I was found guilty by them without being able to say anything.

"I believe that the rigid procedures mean there is no natural justice. Not to be represented in such a serious matter is just plain wrong."