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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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