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. 

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.