No more parachutes: how Labour is opening up selections

The election of Emma Lewell-Buck as MP South Shields was the latest example of how the party is widening its candidate pool.

When David Miliband announced his resignation as MP for South Shields, there was some suspicion that another so-called 'London special advisor' would be parachuted into this supposed rock solid northern Labour bastion.

In fact, the Labour Party chose a 34-year-old local social worker and, three weeks later, Emma Lewell-Buck is the latest to join the Parliamentary Labour Party and the fifth Labour woman elected in a by-election this parliament. When compared to the zero Labour women elected in by-elections in 13 years of a Labour government, that’s welcome progress.

Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour has genuinely made an effort to widen the pool of figures joining the PLP. In by-elections over the last three years, while I concede there have been some former political advisors (myself included), we’ve also seen an army major who served in Afghanistan, a woman who ran a children’s hospice, a business consultant, a couple of former council leaders, a solicitor amongs the various Labour winners.

And we are making strides in our ongoing parliamentary selections around the country too. So in key battleground seats such as Burton we’ve selected a former soldier, in Peterborough a full-time mum who lives on a council estate, in Carlisle a shop worker, in Gloucester a former RAF Wing Commander. The list goes on.

But to win the trust of the nation we need to make further progress in selecting potential parliamentarians from all walks of life.

That’s why Jon Trickett is driving forward an agenda to ensure more working class candidates are selected; Gloria de Piero has been doing brilliant work listening to everyday attitudes on the remoteness of some of our politicians with her ‘why do people hate me?’ project; Harriet Harman is rightly continuing to champion all women shortlists; and Keith Vaz and Sadiq Khan are leading on improving the numbers of ethnic minority candidates we select.

Meanwhile, Labour blogs have been fizzing with ideas around the mechanics of our selection processes and although this may seem like an esoteric debate to some, the selection procedures we use are crucial to building the One Nation team of Labour candidates we want to see.

In this context, Labour’s NEC has made a number of reforms to our selections procedures for parliamentary candidates.

To my mind, the reforms are broadly welcome, though personally I would favour a shorter selection timetable of something like eight weeks, rather than the current nine to 13 weeks. Some have argued it should be even shorter at four weeks. I think that is too a narrow a time frame for party members to make one of their most important decisions. Indeed, for some constituencies this could be a decision they won’t be making again for another twenty-odd years – they need the time to consider the widest range of candidates. What’s more, a four-week campaign favours those who are able at a moment’s notice to drop everything and throw themselves into a selection campaign - usually people with very sympathetic employers or typically those who already work in politics.

A longer process of about eight weeks allows for those with full-time jobs or caring responsibilities to campaign around their existing commitments, say, in the evenings or at weekends.

The party has made some further key reforms that will open up the selection processes to more people from all sorts of backgrounds.

For example, by now allowing every potential candidate a membership list upon application, as opposed to when shortlisted, any advantage a candidate may have gained from obtaining a membership list outside the official process has been removed. Frankly, those involved in selections know there are always rumours and suggestions that one favoured candidate has had access to a list well before others. If we are to genuinely open up our selections to the widest possible pool of potential future MPs, then membership lists need to be available early on and to everyone.

Secondly, a limit has now been put on the number of leaflets a candidate can send out, finally putting an end to the expensive arms race that went on in the last parliament as wannabe MPs posted out DVDs, fancy booklets and glossy Christmas cards with their photos on, though encouragingly all these candidates, as far as I’m aware, lost those selection battles.

Finally, the branch nomination process has been restored. Branch nominations often lead to the selection process coming alive as those 'sleeping' members who haven’t been to meetings for yonks turn up to support a particular candidate and in many cases the candidate who is the 'outsider'.  Some of the most impressive MPs in the 2010 intake won their selections by getting a branch to nominate them, thus securing a place on the shortlist in places where it was assumed (wrongly) that some other candidate had it all 'stitched up.' Likewise, union nominations will mean party members are faced with the choice of more candidates from ordinary working backgrounds when they ultimately choose.

And that’s the key thing – local party members decide. Not Ed Miliband or a trade union general secretary or some mysterious anonymous fixer, but ordinary party members in a Constituency Labour Party turning up to the selection hustings. Party members aren’t daft and when faced with the widest choice from all walks of life, I’m confident they will choose potential MPs genuinely capable of winning the trust of local people at the next general election.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South

Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck celebrates after winning the South Shields by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South. 

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.