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