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Bitter and divided –Shrewsbury Labour Party members at war just weeks before big vote

By Dominic Robertson | Shrewsbury | General Election 2019 | Published:

Last Saturday shoppers on Shrewsbury's Pride Hill were greeted by Labour campaigners handing out leaflets listing the virtues of Dr Laura Davies as the town's potential MP.

Laura Davies

Three days later and Dr Davies is no longer the face on the party's Shrewsbury leaflets, or its choice for a general election candidate, having been deselected by the national party, just 37 days from polling day.

The move has raised eyebrows across the country, with many questioning why Labour would jettison an established candidate at such short notice.

The simple answer that Dr Laura Davies, who was first selected to contest the Shrewsbury & Atcham seat in 2014, had lost the support of the majority of members of her local Constituency Labour Party (CLP).

The breakdown in the relationship between the candidate and her local members was revealed earlier this year but the timing of her removal is another matter altogether.

Dr Davies had lost a vote of no-confidence at a Shrewsbury & Atcham Constituency Labour Party meeting in June – with members then calling on the party's national executive committee (NEC) to remove her.

At the time the national Labour Party refused to take action, and insisted the matter was one for the candidate to resolve with the CLP.

But, due to internal Labour processes that changed when Boris Johnson was finally granted his wish for a general election.

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The party's procedures mean that prior to a general election any candidate with outstanding complaints against them is re-interviewed by an NEC panel.

It is understood that Dr Davies's interview took place on Monday, with the party then deciding to replace her as its candidate for Shrewsbury & Atcham.

The move has sparked a rush for a replacement, with the party advertising on its website for applicants for the position, with a closing date of midday tomorrow.

It will be no easy task with the new candidate having little time to get up to speed.

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Dr Davies had contested the last two general elections, making significant headway in the 2015 vote – although still losing out to Conservative Daniel Kawczynski by 29,073 votes to 22,446.

The decision has been greeted with shock and surprise from many, with some members described as "deeply distressed" at the move, which sources suggested had been led by "an extreme left wing influence" in the local party.

Deviation from the party line

That description is at odds with the Shrewsbury Labour Party's official reasoning for the decision, which described Dr Davies as someone who had failed to "work with and engage with members".

It also highlighted the outstanding issue of Dr Davies's deviation from the party line over the future of the county's hospitals.

Dr Davies, who had served for 10 years as a medical officer in the armed forces, and worked at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, had called for one new super hospital to be built between Shrewsbury and Telford to serve the needs of both towns.

That went against the party line that both Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Princess Royal Hospital in Telford should retain their 24-hour A&E departments.

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In the official statement explaining the decision a spokesman for Shrewsbury & Atcham Labour said: "A majority of the local party had lost confidence in Laura Davies’s candidacy and the NEC has responded to this with their decision yesterday.

"Issues with her included her failure to work with and engage with members and her refusal to support our community’s campaign to retain 24 hour A&E hospitals in Shrewsbury & Telford.

"We need real change for our country, and look forward to campaigning with a unifying new candidate who will represent the people of Shrewsbury & Atcham and win this constituency for Labour.”

Local party secretary Catriona Graham dismissed claims that Dr Davies's de-selection had been led by one faction of the party.

She said: "I appreciate there will be people who want to try to turn this into a left, right, centre issue, it is not. The members that had reached the position of not being able to work with Laura were from across the spectrum."

Unify

The focus would now be on a candidate to unify the local members, with campaigning already fully under way, she said, adding: "From our point of view the main thing for us now is to confirm our new candidate as quickly as possible.

"I have every confidence that person will unify us in a way Laura was not able to do and we will have a very good campaign, I am very confident of that."

Ms Graham admitted that the timing was "not ideal", but said that it was not specific decision and was taking place in the context of candidates being re-interviewed and selected across the country.

She said: "It is not ideal and we would have rather it happened a while ago but that is where we are."

There are dissenting voices within the local party though, with some hugely dissatisfied at the decision and the way it has been carried out, and its impact on the party's ability to win what has been a solid Conservative seat.

There is also a claim that the move has been led by "relatively recent newcomers to the Labour party" – something roundly rejected by one of the local party's most senior figures.

Sources said: "Party members are deeply distressed and report that this is a result of extreme left wing influence in the local and national party.

"It will massively hinder getting rid of the Tory in Shrewsbury, and especially as a Labour candidate Laura has been highly successful the last two times and with a final push this time round we would have won in Shrewsbury."

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