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30 September 2015

Labour is now the biggest party in Britain. That matters more than you think

By Stephen Bush

To help you understand the size of the Labour party, here’s are some figures: Liz Kendall got just 280 fewer votes in fourth place than Tim Farron got in first in the Liberal Democrat leadership race. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper both got more votes in the first round of voting than David Miliband – the winner of the contest among members last time – got in the fourth round in 2010. Kendall got more votes in 2015 than Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, and Diane Abbott did in 2010.

All this is a convoluted way of saying: it’s a very different Labour party to the one  that was defeated in May.

What does that mean for Labour’s future?

Firstly, the circle of people becoming Labour MPs will likely shrink further, despite having the largest pool of sympathisers to draw from out of any of the parties. But getting selected as a Labour parliamentary candidate will now require talking to close to 1,000 people in most seats. In London, party memberships of over 2,000 are now the new normal. The cost – both in terms of money and time – will write off more and more people from seeking selection.

If boundary changes go through in their current form, selections will become even more expensive, as constituencies will be bigger, both geographically, and in terms of their membership size. 

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That cost has another important political factor: it’s not only really, really expensive to get selected as a parliamentary candidate. It’s really, really expensive to deselect a Labour MP.

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When Labour last had mandatory reselection of MPs – mothballed at this year’s Labour party conference, but its possible restoration is likely to be a recurring feature of the years to come – then, as now, there was an ideological divide between the party’s parliamentary party and its membership. But Labour’s infiltration by parties to its left happened partly because it’s own membership was so small that a handful of activists could swing elections; and, in any case, were decided by committees, not ballots of all members. Selection battles were bruising for Labour MPs, but they weren’t expensive.

So if mandatory reselection is approved in the future, one big question will be if anyone has the deep pockets or the inclination to adequately fund a costly campaign against a sitting Labour MP – and if so, what do they ask for in return?