Emma Dent Coad, the only Labour politician to win Kensington in its true blue history, spoke to Urban Dandy about the Labour party’s decision to bar her from standing at the next general election.
Architectural historian, author, activist, and local resident Emma Dent Coad was elected to Kensington and Chelsea council in 2006. She campaigned on the full range of issues impacting residents in the most inequitable local authority in Britain including housing rights, poverty, and air quality. Dent Coad’s background in housing made her an ideal choice to be Labour’s 2017 parliamentary candidate in a constituency home to oligarchs and royals yet has seen a dramatic life expectancy decline in the borough’s poorest wards once austerity economics was imposed in 2010.
The councillor’s 2014 report, updated after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, The Most Unequal Borough in Britain, used incontestable data to lay bare the shocking inequity of the borough where at one end 51% of children live in poverty vs at the other only 6% suffer this indignity. Dent Coad’s 2022 book, One Kensington, cemented her reputation as an expert on the impact of neoliberal economics in the borough.
On Friday, June 11th the final seat in the 2017 general election was declared and Dent Coad was elected MP for Kensington: a first-time Labour gain. Winning by 20 votes, Dent Coad joined the activist Labour MPs’ Socialist Campaign Group in parliament. The role of socialists diminished under New Labour, but backbenchers like Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and Diane Abbott kept community-based democratic, internationalist socialist politics alive in parliament. Labour’s left-right, democrat-technocrat schism had widened under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, yet New Labour was confident enough in its political project to co-exist with anti-war backbenchers and their frequent rebellions.
Three days after the Kensington constituency victory, the fire at Grenfell Tower brought the local issues that Emma Dent Coad had campaigned on to national prominence, crystalizing her parliamentary priority: justice for Grenfell.
Party leader Corbyn and other Campaign Group members were supportive of North Kensington; but Labour’s bureaucracy was dominated by factional enemies, intent on sabotaging the leadership, and as came to be revealed, actively worked to deny Labour an election victory. The harassment of Diane Abbott, the diversion of funds from left-wing candidates in marginal seats to right-wingers in safe seats and smear campaigns were among the methods deployed by this group, which included Iain McNicol, Labour’s then General Secretary. In 2017, Labour finished just 2227 votes short of being able to form a government.
Internal Labour documents leaked in 2020 showed senior party bureaucrats favouring cronyism over Corbynism. They preferred Tory rule with all the misery that brings to their own party’s kinder, more equitable, leadership. As the leaks became public (albeit not reported in the mainstream news) Dent Coad revealed her campaign had received little support from Labour HQ even when it became clear that an historic win in Kensington was on the cards.
Dent Coad explained: “When the atrocity of the Grenfell Tower fire ripped through my neighbourhood, I was finally sent help from McNicol’s office. However, it quickly became clear that this was not the help requested; I needed assistance with my casework team, who were struggling to help those impacted by the fire, but instead the general secretary sent someone to police me.
“I had been going out every day, mostly on my own or with a couple of colleagues. There was no feeling at that time that I was in any kind of physical danger. However, on day three while I was addressing a crowd of local people, including a group of very distressed young men, my ‘helper’ attempted to drag me away, saying “Ian McNicol says you must get out of here”.
“Out of here? I lived there – and still do. These were my neighbours.”
Despite McNicol’s and other fifth columnists’ efforts, Dent Coad represented the shocked people of Kensington with grace and constant solidarity, pushing for justice against a series of hostile Home Secretaries and Communities Secretaries.
By 2019, Brexit dominated British politics, with battle lines drawn between those supportive of the democratic will of the people and those manoeuvring for another referendum. Chief among the latter category was Sir Keir Starmer QC who, with the patronage of Shadow Chancellor McDonnell, became Shadow Brexit Secretary.
Starmer, having committed political sabotage by reversing the leadership’s Brexit policy live on-stage at party conference, was reliant on McDonnell to survive on the front bench. McDonnell maintained that Starmer’s establishment profile was an asset, offsetting the activist image of other prominent Labour figures. McDonnell’s misjudgement, at a time when most Labour MPs were obsessed with stopping Brexit, stopping Corbyn, or both, forced Labour into an absurd position. For the 2019 election, Corbyn had to present a plan of negotiating a deal with the European Union, which would then be one of the options in another referendum, with prime minister Corbyn staying “neutral” on the EU exit agreement that he himself had made. In contrast, Boris Johnson could repeatedly declare that all 635 Tory candidates supported his “Get Brexit Done” strategy after he ejected 21 of his MPs from the party for backing Starmer’s opposition to the Conservatives’ exit deal.
Starmer’s Brexit sabotage created an unsustainable paradigm for Labour MPs in marginal seats. At a time when Labour could have been laser-focused on Corbyn’s campaign to transform the economy through popular policies, MPs were instead burdened with confused Brexit messaging.
The result was a landslide for the Conservatives, followed by Starmer’s emphatic win in the Labour leadership contest. Unlike the Tories, however, Starmer immediately abandoned his key election pledges.
In Kensington, reflecting the position of her constituents, MP Dent Coad campaigned as a Remainer. As well as the historically strong Tory vote, the incumbent had to contend with the Liberal Democrats’ repeatedly declaring that only they could stop the Conservatives and Brexit in Kensington and, despite polling clearly demonstrating they were a non-contender, the national media consistently parrotted these declarations. Thus, the Lib Dems cultivated a local following amongst anti-Brexit hardliners as The Guardian amplified their loose talk, advising Kensington residents to vote Liberal to stop Brexit. This combination, above all else, handed the Kensington seat to Tory Felicity Buchan.
Dent Coad has remained a local councillor and was elected leader of the Labour group at RBKC; Buchan voted against implementing the recommendations of the Grenfell Inquiry in the Fire Safety Bill.
Labour’s right, having fatally undermined the party from within in 2017 and ‘19, continued to attack its own. The Labour party has purged many grassroots members, detailed by al Jazeera reporting of a 500 GB leak of internal party documents. This data and its story were not reported by mainstream British media.
Al Jazeera’s documentaries reconfirmed that the “antisemitism crisis” in the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn was a fictional construct. Used to undermine lifelong anti-racist campaigner Corbyn, false claims of antisemitism were used to target MPs, councillors, officials, members, campaigners, and journalists. Using calculated and insincere tactics mimicking those of the McCarthyite era, Labour bureaucrats under McNicol deliberately slowed the investigation process of those accused. Showing a disregard for Jewish suffering, they enabled the notion that British Jews were under threat from Corbyn to become received wisdom. The accusation of antisemitism is so historically important that it should never be leveraged carelessly. When Jennie Formby, a Corbyn ally, replaced McNicol, the investigations process gained efficiencies and a seriousness in its fact-finding mission that led to the data-supported conclusion that less than 0.3% of Labour’s members had faced investigation, let alone been found guilty.
The media chose not to publish this underwhelming conclusion to the story. Having gorged themselves on exposés trashing the party’s grassroots, mainstream journalists remained silent on the results, facts, and findings. With media complicity, Keir Starmer was emboldened to attack the Labour left more directly and began a purge of socialists and activists from the party’s ranks.
Jeremy Corbyn’s and Emma Dent Coad’s commitment to those affected by Grenfell is an example of how to value everyone in society regardless of wealth, race, and creed. True leadership guides, supports and lifts success. An empathetic leader is dedicated to community and defends the contributions of those who may otherwise be swept aside or belittled by the wealth motivations of maintaining and increasing personal gain. Starmer’s defenders argue that his actions will get Labour into government. But leveraging an accusation as serious as antisemitism callously and insincerely to target and abuse grassroots members for personal gain is a shameful and abusive act, not an electoral strategy. The purposeful fear this has stoked is successfully silencing dissent and driving Labour further to the right, hence Corbyn losing the party whip in 2020 for mild pushback against his accusers.
This treatment of grassroots Labour members is wholly relatable to many people. Similar to the very real anxiety of the growing cost of living, food poverty, the heating crisis, the dismantling of public services and growing job insecurity, party activists not following the party line are silenced and isolated for fear that they may suffer the same public shaming and professional losses of Corbyn and Dent Coad, punished for championing the many over the few. The messaging is clear: anti-war anti-racists will be falsely accused, blamed, and shamed in the virtual town square. A powerful tool to silence discussion and dissent.
Urban Dandy strongly condemns antisemitism in all its forms. One manifestation of antisemitism scarcely mentioned is that of Labour politicians and officials manipulating and weaponizing it to stoke fear in Jewish communities and remove those that literally care for the poorer, marginalised elements of our society and want better healthcare, education, transit, and welfare for their fellow citizens.
This is the establishment utilising an evil that nobody could ever defend for personal gain, to protect the wealth of a few and ensure services are not given to the many. It is both calculated and gross. No one defends or associates themselves with an antisemite! To wield this accusation so broadly, even vaguely is absolutely unconscionable. Yet there is no recognition that it must only be used precisely, so important is it to defend those who could suffer under such oppression.
As you will read below, the antisemitism fiction was utilised by senior party bureaucrats to eliminate Emma Dent Coad from Labour’s candidate list here in Kensington, joining accusations as infantile as having ‘smiled or laughed’ at a comment made about Starmer to manufacture a context for their purge.
We sat down with Emma Dent Coad on the day that her successor as MP for Kensington, Felicity Buchan was announced as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Dent Coad describes this appointment as “the ultimate kick in the face for Grenfell bereaved and survivors. She’s voted with everything the Tories have done. She’s never even spoken on housing.”
Urban Dandy: How are things at Kensington CLP (Constituency Labour Party) after what happened to you?
Emma Dent Coad: “People are supporting different candidates, in good faith according to their personal priorities. But what we need is somebody to truly represent Kensington. Grenfell was a symptom of what’s been going on here for 50 years, but in Kensington and Chelsea deprivation and inequality is unforgivable because the Council has the funds to tackle it. In my book ‘One Kensington’ I show that during the austerity years when many councils lost a lot of funding, we lost very little government funding because Business Rates Retention, which was designed to soften the impact of cuts, brought in so much money.
“In terms of the local party, we should be a healthy, broad church. We should work together campaigning to get the elected candidate elected. We did even when Blair was leader and the Iraq War was affecting so many residents. It was tough campaigning, but we did it. Our then MP Karen Buck voted against the war; she wasn’t blocked from re-standing.
“I’d like to know more about the remaining candidates. What they’ve done to support communities. I’d like to see their full CVs. Some of the candidates don’t have much of a footprint from their previous work.”
UD: What happened when you were barred from being a candidate? What’s the process?
EDC: “I was asked to attend a “due diligence interview” and emailed a list of alleged ‘crimes’ a few days before the interview. At the interview, there are three members of the panel and one observer. The chair of the panel makes the decision.”
UD: So, it’s a real interview? Or have they already made the decision by the time you get there?
EDC: “It felt like they’d already made the decision.”
UD: Officially, why were barred from standing? We saw a list of the reasons online, and they were ridiculous. But were there any where you thought ‘fair enough, I can just about see their point there’?
EDC: “No, there weren’t any that felt fair, and some were simply inaccurate or wrong, like things I couldn’t have done because they were during lockdown, and I was at home for months recovering from cancer. One of the things on their list was that I went on a Counterfire march during lockdown. The thing is, Counterfire don’t organise marches. It was a Stop the War Coalition march in 2019 and there was a photo of me. In the background was somebody holding a Socialist Appeal placard. My crime was standing near someone who was holding a placard from an organisation that was proscribed – two years after the march.”
UD: Is it all just things from social media? Do they just go through people’s social media accounts till they find something they decide they can use against them?
EDC: “It feels like that.”
UD: What else was on their list?
EDC: “A lot of it was Thought Crime, a lot of it was straw-clutching, things you wouldn’t give a second thought to. They created a long list of these things then concluded I have “poor judgment” so shouldn’t be a Labour candidate.”
UD: So, the length of the list is used to justify the decision even though it’s all fluff?
EDC: “Yes. Prince Harry came up, and when they read it the chair actually laughed at the joke I made about whether or not he was able to fly a helicopter. This was at a Republic meeting. So I’m allowed to be a republican and I’m allowed to be a pacifist but can’t crack silly jokes. One of the ‘crimes’ was that when I was an MP I spoke at a CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) rally in Parliament Square. Bruce Kent was speaking, so I listened to him, then I gave my speech, and then went back to work. During the rally, somebody played guitar and sang a song that the chair said was ‘offensive.’ I didn’t even hear it, but that was on the list.
“It’s guilt by association – joint enterprise if you like – and nothing I said in the interview would have made a difference.”
UD: So, it’s called a ‘due diligence interview’ but it isn’t really due diligence?
UD: Did antisemitism come up?
EDC: “Yes. I had ‘liked’ a comment years ago on Facebook that one elderly Jewish CLP member had made to another elderly Jewish CLP member, criticising Israel. It was a short factual comment, but this was deemed antisemitic; this was well before the IHRA definition was adopted by the way. When I was elected to parliament, I voluntarily arranged to meet the Board of Deputies; as far as I know, I’m the only MP to have done this. It was a positive and helpful meeting. I also did antisemitism training twice with the Jewish Labour Movement. Words matter and we need to be careful with how we describe others. So I generally kept quiet about the Middle East, which is hard when you have so many constituents with family there, and you can’t speak out for them without being accused of something so repellent.”
UD: Do they at least show appreciation for the work you’ve done over the years before they tell you you’re not allowed to stand? Is there a sense that they value your contribution?
EDC: “No, there was nothing.”
UD: Did they mention Grenfell?
EDC: “Grenfell wasn’t mentioned once. I think they want to make it go away.”
UD: So, they don’t have to justify their accusations?
EDC: “No. One of the things was that I criticised Labour’s lack of policies last year. But they weren’t coming out with any policies, I was just stating a fact.”
UD: The thing that stayed with me most from the al Jazeera documentaries was that the people who were being targeted by the party were really innocent people who had probably never thought about any kind of factional rivalries. They were just trying to do their best for their communities and they were subjected to harassment and abuse for no good reason.
EDC: “It’s really difficult. They say all these things about you and then you’re vulnerable. As I was coming here, I heard somebody behind me call my name and for a second I thought ‘oh no’ because it could be somebody abusive. But it was my neighbour saying ‘Don’t worry, Emma, we don’t believe this stuff,’ and he gave me a hug.”
UD: Who was on the panel?
EDC: “Three NEC members and one observer. One of the panel had already publicly declared their support for one of the other potential candidates in Kensington. We reported this conflict of interest but there was no response at all. The panel were clearly all on the right wing of the party; I didn’t stand a chance.”
UD: What is your take on the national Labour party now?
EDC: “It’s a shame they’re narrowing the sphere. The world is changing all the time and we need people with a variety of experience. There is little or no expertise in the built environment in parliament, and that is something I can offer. After 40 years in the party, I’ve always been in the Labour family, and it has been inclusive. Not now.
“More than anything it’s difficult to have been blocked rather than having the chance to present myself to local membership as a candidate.
“But we are where we are. I’m a team player, and I will continue to represent residents as I have done for the past 16 years.”
By Jennifer Cavanagh @Jannanni & Tom Charles @tomhcharles