The lesson of Labour's Rotherham selection disaster

The walkout by half of local members shows why party-imposed shortlists must be abandoned.

The Tories aren't the only party suffering byelection woes this morning.  At the Labour selection meeting in Rotherham last night, half of the members present walked out in protest at the party's failure to include a local figure on the shortlist. This left fewer than 50 to vote on the selection of Sarah Champion, who defeated the only other person on the list, former RAF Wing Commander Sophy Gardner.

The walkout was staged by supporters of Mahroof Hussain, a prominent local councillor who was the preferred choice of the membership. As is  standard for by-elections, the shortlist was drawn up by Labour's National Executive Committee, rather than a local selection committee, which chose not to include Hussain. Last night's debacle shows why this approach must be abandoned. The party cannot talk credibly about localism if it is not prepared to trust its own members to select the Labour candidate.

There is inevitably speculation that Hussain will stand as an independent, although earlier this week he tweeted, "Friends, I have not been shortlisted for Rotherham. We need to unite behind the next Labour Party candidate and keep Rotherham labour (sic)".

Others fear that a potential split in the Labour vote could allow Respect candidate Yvonne Ridley, a former journalist who famously converted to Islam after her capture by the Taliban, to repeat her party's triumph in Bradford West earlier this year. However, it is doubtful whether she will attract the support necessary to overturn a Labour majority of 10,462 (27.9 per cent).

Although the byelection (which will be held on 29 November) was triggered by Denis MacShane's resignation over false invoices, I would be surprised if Labour is punished as a result. The lesson of the 2010 general election was that, so long as expense abusers stand down, their parties rarely suffer.

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at an anti-austerity rally last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Owen Smith is naïve if he thinks misogynist abuse in Labour started with Jeremy Corbyn

“We didn’t have this sort of abuse before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Owen Smith, the MP challenging Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, has told BBC News that the party’s nastier side is a result of its leader.

He said:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.

“It’s now become something that is being talked about on television, on radio, and in newspapers. And Angela is right, it has been effectively licenced within the last nine months.

“We’re the Labour party. We’ve got to be about fairness, and tolerance, and equality. It’s in our DNA. So for us to be reduced to this infighting is awful. Now, I understand why people feel passionately about the future of our party – I feel passionately about that. I feel we’re in danger of splitting and being destroyed.

“But we can’t tolerate it. And it isn’t good enough for Jeremy simply to say he has threats too. Well, I’ve had death threats, I’ve had threats too, but I’m telling him, it’s got to be stamped out. We’ve got to have zero tolerance of this in the Labour party.”

While Smith’s conclusion is correct, his analysis is worryingly wrong.

Whether it is out of incompetence or an unwillingness to see the extent of the situation, Corbyn has done very little to stamp out abuse in his party, which has thus been allowed to escalate. It is fair enough of Smith to criticise him for his failure to stem the flow and punish the perpetrators.

It is also reasonable to condemn Corbyn's inability to stop allies like Chancellor John McDonnell and Unite leader Len McCluskey using violent language (“lynch mob”, “fucking useless”, etc) about their opponents, which feeds into the aggressive atmosphere. Though, as I’ve written before, Labour politicians on all sides have a duty to watch their words.

But it’s when we see how Smith came to the point of urging Corbyn to take more responsibility that we should worry. Smith confidently argues that there wasn’t “this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism” in the party before Corbyn was voted in. (I assume when he says “this sort”, he means online, death threats, letters, and abuse at protests. The sort that has been high-profile recently).

This is naïve. Anyone involved in Labour politics – or anything close to it – for longer than Corbyn’s leadership could tell Smith that misogyny and antisemitism have been around for a pretty long time. Perhaps because Smith isn’t the prime target, he hasn’t been paying close enough attention. Sexism wasn’t just invented nine months ago, and we shouldn’t let the belief set in that it did – then it simply becomes a useful tool for Corbyn’s detractors to bash him with, rather than a longstanding, structural problem to solve.

Smith's lament that “it’s now become something that is being talked about” is also jarring. Isnt it a good thing that such abuse is now being called out so publicly, and closely scrutinised by the media?

In my eyes, this is a bit like the argument that Corbyn has lost Labour’s heartlands. No, he hasn’t. They have been slowly slipping away for years – and we all noticed when Labour took a beating in the last general election (way before Corbyn had anything to do with the Labour leadership). As with the abuse, Corbyn hasn’t done much to address this, and his inaction has therefore exacerbated it. But if we tell ourselves that it started with him, then we’re grasping for a very, very simple solution (remove Corbyn = automatic win in the North, and immediate erasure of misogyny and antisemitism) to a problem we have catastrophically failed to analyse.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.