A spectre is haunting the Labour Party at the moment – the spectre of deselection. You may more accurately know it as mandatory reselection – the act of forcing sitting MPs to persuade their local parties to let them keep their seats.
It’s a controversial instrument which arguably caused more than a few of the party’s problems with fratricide in the early 1980s, and which was curbed in 1990 by Neil Kinnock as he sought to reunite Labour. Now the left’s star is ascendant, however, the whole thing is again being muttered of by the right of the party like it’s on a par with the Stalinist purges.
Despite their beloved leader’s insistence that no Labour Party under him would return to mandatory reselection, foot soldiers on the left of the party, emboldened by their crushing mandate and concrete success in Oldham, are eager to press home their advantage over a shellshocked PLP which they feel no longer shares their ambition. And amidst constant displays of public disloyalty towards the leadership from the right of the party, now is seen as a particularly good time to pounce by leftist grass roots.
This is why you’re suddenly hearing hasty briefings against groups like Momentum, a fairly benign coalescion of leftier interests designed as a bulwark against the background hiss of Blairite sotto voce.
Reselection is undoubtedly a blunt instrument, but it was never used that much, and when it was, it was generally either to oust MPs who had sat for decades and let corruption set in, or to give unhappy constituents more say in a parliamentary democracy that generally only courts the wishes of its voters every five years. Neither of these are unreasonable goals, and the PLP’s fears are founded on evidence that they might not have the full support of their constituencies.
The notion that party members expressing displeasure via Twitter or protest with the people they’ve elected to represent them is trolling rather than political participation is a useful lie. Real bullies are rare, but they’re used as a way to deflect a deluge of considered criticism as the faith of the rank and file fails.
Almost no-one wants a purge and one isn’t on the cards; most Labour MPs on all sides are conscientious, loyal and popular with their local parties, but when certain individuals can’t help themselves from enfilading their own party, or maintaining profitable columns in unfriendly newspapers, reselection must be considered as a deterrent.
Jeremy Corbyn is too powerful to depose, so his party enemies’ only hope is to hamstring him until his lack of success drags him down. But if they’re able to fight dirty, he should be able to respond. And if an MP finds themselves far off their own memberships’ wavelength, it is not unfair to provide a CLP with effective tools for removal.
Many on the Labour right were parachuted into post during the Blair and Brown years, and no one could pretend that these two didn’t practice a very top-down approach to remoulding the party with personnel. Reselection is a weapon in the face of guerrilla warfare which might otherwise tear the party apart.
It’s true that the Labour left did use mandatory reselection to reaffirm a certain ideological purity, but purity of purpose helps a functioning political party and, well, it doesn’t take a psephological genius to work out that the current leadership wouldn’t mind a team who pulled in fewer directions. A handful of tactical reselections would do wonders for reconstituting party loyalty and removing the rightist MPs in open revolt who would rather see the party implode than Jeremy Corbyn beat the Conservatives.
Then there are the boundary changes, which could well mean the Corbyn cabal won’t have to lift a finger to get the CLPs to do their nefarious bidding. The Conservatives are very keen on these, because they’ll get to redraw a number of tricky constituencies in their favour, as the number of seats in Westminster are reduced to 600. With this will come a lot of automatic reselection conflicts as two sitting MPs find themselves fighting over a single seat. If the constituencies are as left-leaning as the evidence suggests, the right-wingers may find themselves standing up when the music stops.
If these types really believed they had the support of their own CLPs, they’d willingly submit to reselection – it’d be definitive proof that their way is the right way. That they’re not tells you everything you need to know.