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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.