In September 2015, buoyed by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, Luton South, along with constituencies the length and breadth of the country, saw its membership swelled with passionate new members enthused by the promise of a break from neoliberalism, and passionate about a party returning to its roots.
Those new members who accepted the invitation of local Labour and Co-operative MP Gavin Shuker to a reception in the House of Commons were earnestly informed by him that “I think I can best serve Jeremy from the back benches”.
However, it became immediately apparent that Shuker’s idea of co-operation encompassed briefing the local press to undermine the incoming [Labour] administration from day one by setting a negative news agenda.
This was clear when he informed the Luton News that he had “resigned” from a minor shadow cabinet position held under Ed Miliband because of “political differences” with Corbyn.
In reality, an incoming opposition administration appoints its own shadow cabinet, and therefore Shuker had no position to resign from.
This pattern of behaviour continued during the “chicken coup” of 2016 when Shuker and a further 171 of his PLP cohorts tried to disenfranchise the vast majority of Labour Party members by attempting to force Corbyn from office and undemocratically keep him off the ballot for the resulting leadership election.
Before the Eagle was stranded by Owen “Pfizer” Smith, Shuker invited Angela Eagle to Luton behind the backs of local party members for a select audience at a local hotel, where he hoped to launch her leadership bid.
Shuker’s inner circle having more leaks than a Theresa May Brexit briefing ensured that the details of this intimate gathering were not to remain out of the public domain for long, and the owner of the hotel subsequently cancelled the booking, unwilling to have their venue used for what they described as a “political rally”.
Not wanting something as trivial as the facts of the matter to get in the way of the chance to paint new members as violent thugs, someone decided to run with the theme of 2015, and brief the national press that the venue had been moved to Luton Central Library due to “threats” — a line Sky News gleefully seized upon, yet which could have been cleared up by simply contacting the hotel owner, who confirmed there had been no threats.
Still, the upside of this was that it inspired the formation of Momentum Luton, to complement the already existing Momentum Bedford & County.
At war with the membership
Fast-forward to 2017 and local party members were campaigning for Shuker despite their reservations about him personally, while having to talk round countless residents who said they were lifelong Labour voters, but reluctant to vote for him because of his failure to reply to calls and emails or because he had blocked them on Twitter when they asked polite questions of him.
Yet behind these activists’ backs Shuker put out a letter – identical apart from the names of the candidates and constituencies to letters sent out by Joan Ryan and Mary Creagh – posing as an independent and asking for the support of constituents despite his belief that “realistically, no-one thinks Theresa May will not be prime minister, or that she will not have the majority she needs to negotiate Brexit,” because he was an “independent-minded” candidate — a phrase carefully chosen to both avoid censure by the party, but signal his independence from it, all while calling on the support of its activists and finances.
The arrogance descended, in 2018, into downright nastiness. Contributing to the debate in March about whether the BBC’s Newsnight programme had framed images of Corbyn in a manner that implied he was a Russian stooge, Shuker had this to say, via his Twitter account: “Corbyn hat people, you’re all loons,” swiftly followed up by “Literally, howling at the moon”.
Literally. Howling at the moon.— Gavin Shuker (@gavinshuker) March 18, 2018
When it was pointed out to Shuker that these could be interpreted as slurs on those with mental health issues, he doubled down on the insult by re-tweeting the initial comment.
At the general committee meeting of Luton South Constituency Labour Party in May, motions relating to both the letter issued during the 2017 general election, and Shuker’s “loons” tweet were passed; a motion of no confidence was also tabled, but deferred to allow him time to answer several more specific motions passed at the same meeting that required his attention.
He chose to neither acknowledge nor respond to these motions, or others — including one requesting support for the Windrush generation.
The final straw
By the time of the next general committee meeting in September, Shuker’s support for an incredibly unpopular incinerator on a small sliver of central Bedfordshire land between Hertfordshire and Luton had also come to light. His lobbying for this was thankfully met with cross-party objections from Luton Borough Council.
At the general committee meeting a motion that “respectfully asks our local MP to not engage in any discussions or take up any stances or positions which could further the chances of any scheme as unsuitable as this, on so many grounds, coming to fruition” was passed before the motion of no confidence from May’s meeting was re-tabled and passed with almost unanimous support.
It is in light of this litany of indiscretions by Shuker that Labour Party members in Luton South finally lost patience.
When Shuker broke ground on Twitter the following morning, one of his outbursts was to claim, self-righteously: “I haven’t changed,” and that’s just the problem — we want change.
This article is written in a personal capacity and originally appeared in the Morning Star.