What Afzal Khan’s victory in Manchester Gorton tells us

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Last night Afzal Khan MEP, as I predicted, was named as the Labour candidate in Manchester Gorton. It’s difficult to see anyone other than him becoming the next MP when the by-election takes place. Mr Khan will be utterly elated having had the ambition to be an MP for many years. 

There are a few interesting takeaways from his victory.

1.    Having union support does matter

Afzal Khan secured the support in the end of all the major unions. This really does make a difference, not just on the results but also on the support available to the candidates. Mr Khan for example was widely credited with giving the best speech last night. This wasn’t an accident.

He has received intense coaching by the GMB union. I understand one of their Political Officers, Tom Warnett, was at the hustings last night. Mr Warnett is very much a behind the scenes operator but played a critical role in mobilising Unite the Union's membership in Ed Miliband’s 2010 Leadership victory. Mr Warnett is very effective and really well regarded for his work.  

I understand Mr Warnett had been assisting Khan with his hustings preparation. Khan isn’t noted for his speaking ability and this was something that many of his supporters were worried about.

Union support also matters when it comes to the politics. Despite attempts by Jeremy Corbyn’s office to keep Khan off the shortlist, it proved impossible due to his union support. Glenis Willmott for example is involved with the GMB and I understand they lobbied her hard for Mr Khan’s inclusion.

Sam Wheeler, who initially received Unite support, was only on the longlist due to the personal intervention of Unite’s political director Anneliese Midgley.

2. Having a team makes a big difference 

Partly through being an MEP, Afzal Khan had a team in place already to assist him with his campaign. Chris Webb, who managed much of the campaign for Khan, is very well connected with the unions and managed to swing them behind Khan despite intense lobbying from others. I noted at the start of the selection that Mr Webb’s union links could be decisive. Mr Webb deserves the credit for a well-run campaign. Mr Khan has other highly rated advisors like Rich Durber. Mr Khan’s longstanding confidante Naeem Ul-Hassan, was responsible for working the Asian vote. 

Some of the other candidates lacked this quality of support and in some cases their team was actually the problem, where in one case supporters of Rabnawaz Akbar started smearing other candidates on the Internet. 

Mr Khan recognised the importance of surrounding himself with people who were able to add value and steer him in the right direction. Accepting GMBs support was critical.

3. Manchester Momentum know how to organise

Manchester Momentum went all out to get Sam Wheeler onto the shortlist. Wheeler, well known in Momentum circles, was virtually unknown to everyone else and many were shocked when his name was put forward for Gorton. He came close but ultimately created a huge target on himself and didn’t have enough political weight or support (except from Unite) to force his way onto the list.

I was widely mocked for saying that Wheeler had some of the best experts in ground organising working on his campaign, but I was proven to be right.

Momentum managed to mobilise dozens of volunteers to call their significant membership list in Gorton and managed to generate a substantial number of promises for Sam.

When Sam didn’t get on the shortlist they instantly switched to Yasmine Dar. In the space of 2 days they managed to turnout over 80 people to the hustings to support Dar. I was heavily briefed that Sam Wheeler stood a very good chance. Given Dar’s performance and the fact most of these people were supporters of Momentum, there is a lot of credibility to that argument. I can see why Labour HQ was worried about both Wheeler and Dar.

Some senior Labour figures disagreed with my above analysis and mocked Momentum's turnout. A senior Labour source said, "Their impact looked better than otherwise because of the Luthfur/Afzal split which is unusual. They worked it really hard, sending texts, emails and had loads calling, and they turned out 80 (or 90 tops) out of 550 total. This seat should be good territory for them".

4. Transfers matter

The Labour Party uses the system of Alternative Vote, where you rank the candidates in order of preference. The candidate with the fewest votes drops out and their votes are reallocated until someone gets 50%.

If last night’s vote had been first past the post Luthfur Rahman would have won. But Mr Khan’s support from other candidates proved decisive. In the end ironically Mr Rahman’s transfers mattered the most.

So many Labour elections are decided by transfers, so it’s really important to have a strategy for this.

5. Labour’s moderates are better at NEC politics than the left

Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s support Sam Wheeler didn’t make the shortlist. Quite simply moderate Labour MPs are better at getting their way on the NEC. 

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