Labour's culture of fixing goes far beyond the unions

Privileges and patronage are wired into the party's institutions. Falkirk is merely the latest example.

Labour’s troubles in Falkirk are just one symptom of a bureaucratic culture that doesn’t merely tolerate the practice of fixing by insiders and groups but institutionalises it. In Falkirk, Unite stands accused of signing up its members to Labour without them even knowing about it, in order to get its favoured candidate, Karie Murphy, selected as the prospective MP. There have also been claims that the union plotted to get the seat declared as an all-women's shortlist in order to exclude a male rival. As I have found since I joined Labour in 2010, these sorts of practices are not exceptional. They are standard, and not exclusive to the unions by any means. 

Of the New Labour years, former party general secretary Peter Watt has said: "There was an understanding that controlling process meant controlling the party.  Conferences, policy making and of course selections were all ruthlessly managed." However, he added, "the world moved on and the time for command and control was over."

Fixing is generally practised by classic command and control. You secure senior positions in the party apparatus and on crucial committees and use these roles to control processes and the distribution of power in your favour while blocking opponents.

This is what has happened in the European Parliament candidate selections. In London, Carole Tongue (a former deputy leader of Labour MEPs) and Anne Fairweather (who attracted the most votes from London Labour members last time) were incredibly refused even an interview with the selection panel.

As Labour Uncut has revealed, "Out of seven members of the London European candidate selection panel, five are either serving officials in the unions or have been backed by Labour Briefing – a hard left publication committed to establishing the most left-wing policy platform for the party since 1983." Of the shortlisted London candidates, only one does not profess a union background (and his agenda is much the same as the others).

But there is much more to be concerned about. As Jon Worth has written, "You had to be an insider to even know this European Parliament selection process was even happening". Labour’s East Midlands Region’s selection panel ended up selecting one of its own members, Nicki Brooks, as a candidate, apparently due to the lack of female applicants.

As might be seen with Unite’s apparent manipulations in Falkirk, Labour’s female preferences – and especially the power to declare an all-women’s shortlist (AWS) – are crucial aspects of its bureaucratic architecture that provide plentiful opportunity for party fixers and insiders.

In one selection process I was involved in, the AWS was imposed after the deadline for candidate applications closed, so local non-insider women who would not normally think of standing (and who should surely be encouraged by the process) had no idea they might have a decent chance of representing their local area. In the end, of the women shortlisted, only two came to hustings and only one of these (who was also the candidate last time) was credible. So it was effectively a shortlist of one.This is Labour Party democracy, GDR-style: more Erich Honecker than Abraham Lincoln.

There is another uncomfortable truth for the party in that this sort of fixing is not just accepted culturally when it suits our personal and group interests, but is institutionalised into our structures. Privileges and patronage are wired into Labour Party internal processes through a miasma of rules that actively subvert democracy – female preferences, union preferences and ethnic minority preferences to name but a few.

The culture of fixing within the party flows from these practices and the institutions that support them. They foster a sense of entitlement and moral superiority in which fixing elections is seen as necessary to secure the right result. In this manner, Labour relentlessly turns into itself, rather than upwards and outwards. Instead of embracing democracy and seeking to promote a robust and healthy political culture, we reduce and pre-empt it, with the AWS standing as a template of success to be replicated, rather than an example of failure (as it should).

Labour’s travails are an example of institutional decay, something common to all the major political parties in Britain and also the major unions. All need to reinvent and rediscover what they are and what they are for, and seek legitimacy for that.

As Matthew Taylor, now head of the RSA and a former policy director to Tony Blair, has said, "institutions need a different mind-set. Put simply they need to see themselves as operating in a glass box in which most of what they do and most of why they do it is visible to everyone." This means starting to embrace openness and also starting to take responsibility for how they do their business.

For Labour, it means cutting out the airy waffle about ‘Labour values’ and starting to practice genuine ethical standards with practical meaning to everyday behaviour: standards that will make Falkirk and the Euro selections debacle things of the past while allowing the party to claim the mantle of ‘fairness’ for what it does, rather than what it promises.

Ben Cobley blogs at A Free Left Blog and is secretary of Abbey Ward Branch Labour Party

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Stall holders chat after Ed Miliband's speech at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ben Cobley blogs at A Free Left Blog and is secretary of Abbey Ward Branch Labour Party

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Sadiq Khan is probably London's new mayor - what will happen in a Tooting by-election?

There will be a by-election in the new mayor's south London seat.

At the time of writing, Sadiq Khan appears to have a fairly comfortable lead over Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral election. Which means (at least) two (quite) interesting things are likely to happen: 1) Sadiq Khan is going to be mayor, and 2) there is going to be a by-election in Tooting.

Unlike the two parliamentary by-elections in Ogmore and Sheffield that Labour won at a canter last night, the south London seat of Tooting is a genuine marginal. The Conservatives have had designs on the seat since at least 2010, when the infamous ‘Tatler Tory’, Mark Clarke, was the party’s candidate. Last May, Khan narrowly increased his majority over the Tories, winning by almost 3,000 votes with a majority of 5.3 per cent. With high house prices pushing London professionals further out towards the suburbs, the seat is gentrifying, making Conservatives more positive about the prospect of taking the seat off Labour. No government has won a by-election from an opposition party since the Conservative Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden from a Labour-SDP defector in June 1982. In a nice parallel, that seat borders Tooting.

Of course, the notion of a Tooting by-election will not come as a shock to local Conservatives, however much hope they invested in a Goldsmith mayoral victory. Unusually, the party’s candidate from the general election, Dan Watkins, an entrepreneur who has lived in the area for 15 years, has continued to campaign in the seat since his defeat, styling himself as the party’s “parliamentary spokesman for Tooting”. It would be a big surprise if Watkins is not re-anointed as the candidate for the by-election.

What of the Labour side? For some months, those on the party’s centre-left have worried with varying degrees of sincerity that Ken Livingstone may see the by-election as a route back into Parliament. Having spent the past two weeks muttering conspiratorially about the relationship between early 20th-Century German Jews and Adolf Hitler before having his Labour membership suspended, that possibility no longer exists.

Other names talked about include: Rex Osborn, leader of the Labour group on Wandsworth Council; Simon Hogg, who is Osborn’s deputy; Rosena Allin-Khan, an emergency medicine doctor who also deputises for Osborn; Will Martindale, who was Labour’s defeated candidate in Battersea last year; and Jayne Lim, who was shortlisted earlier in the year for the Sheffield Brightside selection and used to practise as a doctor at St George’s hospital in Tooting.

One thing that any new Labour MP would have to contend with is the boundary review reporting in 2018, which will reduce the number of London constituencies by 5. This means that a new Tooting MP could quickly find themselves pitched in a selection fight for a new constituency with their neighbours Siobhan McDonagh, who currently holds Mitcham and Morden, and/or Chuka Umunna, who is the MP for Streatham. 

According to the Sunday Times, Labour is planning to hold the by-election as quickly as possible, perhaps even before the EU referendum on June 23rd.

It's also worth noting that, as my colleague Anoosh Chakelian reported in March, George Galloway plans to stand as well.

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.