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The lesson of Labour's Rotherham selection disaster

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

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

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.