Jeremy Corbyn, it is regularly reported, intends to “bring back” the deselection of Labour MPs. Some left-wingers hope to replace those hostile to the leader with loyalist candidates. Assuming that the latter win at a general election, a more Corbynite parliamentary party would result. But the headlines are simultaneously too positive and too negative for the leader’s opponents.
Too positive because they imply that MPs cannot currently be deselected – they can. All of those who wish to stand for re-election face a “trigger ballot” under which their local party branches and those of affiliated organisations (trade unions and socialist societies) approve or reject them. Should an MP lose the vote, they are forced to face rival candidates in a full ballot of constituency members. It is at this juncture that deselections can occur.
Deselections are rare but not unprecedented in recent Labour history. In 2007, for instance, left-wing MP Bob Wareing was replaced by former minister Stephen Twigg (Wareing blaming a “New Labour mafia”). Though Corbyn has said that he does not support mandatory reselection (of which more later), he recently pledged not to “interfere” in attempts to deselect backbench critic Peter Kyle. “What goes on in CLPs is part of a democratic process,” he said. “I am not a leader that wants to interfere in the running of every constituency party or all aspects the party.” In other words, any anti-Corbyn MP targeted for deselection (as Angela Eagle has been) shouldn’t count on his support.
But it is mandatory reselection that the leader’s opponents fear most. This mechanism, which was abolished by Neil Kinnock in 1990, would force all MPs to automatically win the backing of their constituency parties (many of them pro-Corbyn) to stand again. A wave of threatened or actual deselections, a former shadow cabinet minister told me, could lead Labour to split (as when the SDP was formed in 1981). Earlier this year, Frank Field MP told the New Statesman that any MPs “picked off” should run against the party as “independent Labour” candidates.
Unite, the party’s largest affiliate, recently voted in favour of mandatory reselection. Rhea Wolfson, one of six pro-Corbyn NEC members elected this week, has called for “a much more healthy conversation”. But with mandatory reselection kept off the Labour conference agenda in 2015 (the anti-Corbyn Gloria De Piero and Michael Cashman run the arrangements committee), party rules mean that the earliest possible date for its reintroduction is 2018 (with no guarantee it will be passed).
The planned boundary changes are seen by some as a means of achieving de facto reselection. At present, MPs automatically inherit new seats that include at least 40 per cent of their former constituency (subject to a trigger ballot). In cases where the threshold is not met, they may face neighbouring parliamentarians. The planned reduction of the Commons from 650 to 600 seats makes such such contests inevitable. But this could merely leave members with a choice between two anti-Corbyn MPs. In order to overcome this, some left-wingers hope to change the rules to allow new candidates to stand. It was this stance that Corbyn appeared to endorse when he recently said “there will be a full and open selection process for every constituency”.
But a spokesman subsequently stated that he was referring to existing party rules. “Sitting MPs whose constituencies are not affected would be re-selected through trigger ballots. Jeremy does not support mandatory re-selection of MPs.” Labour chief whip Rosie Winterton, who is managing the boundary review (to the anger of Corbyn allies), noted: “The national executive committee has already agreed the existing rules and procedure for the selection of MPs in the event of boundary changes”. This week’s NEC results represented a net gain of just one for Corbyn. The left already held four of the six constituency seats and the pro-Corbyn Dennis Skinner will soon be replaced by the anti-Corbyn George Howarth. Labour sources believe that the leader does not have a majority for changes to the boundaries process.
Deselections, then, are likely to be far harder than some hope (and others fear). But as I explained above, existing party rules allow to take them place and they have done so. It would be more surprising than not if Labour reached the general election without some of Corbyn’s opponents falling foul of them.