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14 March 2017

Who’ll be Labour’s candidate in Manchester Gorton?

The answer will have bigger consequences than just the next MP. 

By Stephen Bush

With Labour considered a cast-iron certainty to hold the ultra-safe seat of Manchester Gorton, the political attention is on the battle to be selected as the candidate.

The vacancy is a prime opportunity for the leader’s office to end its barren run in parliamentary selections. Although left candidates were on the ballot in Tooting and Copeland, centre-left candidates have won out in every parliamentary selection in thus far.  The failure to secure a Corbynite candidate in Copeland, where the leader’s office controlled the shortlist, was a particular blow.

That means that, were the Corbyn project to end tomorrow, the Labour left would actually have gone backwards in parliament under Corbyn, as Michael Meacher, who nominated and supported Corbyn in 2015, was replaced by Jim McMahon, who supported Liz Kendall, in a by-election in 2015.

But the leadership has high hopes of ending its winless streak in Gorton. The Labour left is institutionally strong in the North-West and it was Corbyn’s best region in his re-election bid according to YouGov’s final poll of the contest. (And, for what it’s worth, staff on both the Corbyn and Smith campaigns say that poll fitted with their data as well.)

They have a preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, who is in the loyalist wing of Momentum and has already been endorsed in Unite. But his chances may be scuppered against a cross-party rebellion from the party’s ethnic minority power brokers.

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Across the breadth of the party, there is growing concern among Labour’s ethnic minority MPs that minorities are not getting selected as MPs. Focussing minds is the widespread expectation that the Conservatives will overtake Labour as far as BME representation is concerned, despite Labour’s large lead among ethnic minority voters.

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Particularly galling for Labour MPs is that the Conservatives have reached what one Labour MP dubs “the holy grail”: they are selecting ethnic minority MPs in seats where white British people make up the majority of voters. Just four of the 27 ethnic minority Labour MPs represent majority-majority seats, while all of the 17 ethnic minority Conservative MPs do.

Labour’s difficulties selecting minority candidates are multi-causal, and many have been a long time in coming. On the leadership’s part, they have asked Kate Osamor, from the party’s left, and Shabana Mahmood, from the party’s right, to look into the problem. But the unease makes the Gorton selection, where 47 per cent of people were from a visible minority in the last census, more fraught, particularly as many believed that Afzhal Khan, an MEP and a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, should have had the blessing of the leader’s office.

He could yet end up with it by default. The leadership had hoped to produce a shortlist drawn entirely from the party’s left. But now allies of Keith Vaz, who sits as Labour’s BAME representative on the NEC and who is one of the members of the shortlisting panel, hope that acting in concert with the party’s Corbynsceptics, who are keen to exclude Wheeler for obvious reasons, they can put together a shortlist made up entirely of ethnic minorities. That would boost the chances of Amina Lone, a Corbynsceptic.

And if they fail? A striking number of minority ethnic politicians are talking up the need to revive the 1980s Black Sections, which worked across the party to get ethnic minorities selected. As Linda Bellos put it when I interviewed her for my profile of Diane Abbott: “I campaigned to get Keith Vaz selected; his politics then were as right-wing as they are now, in Labour terms, but there were were right-wing white Labour MPs, so why shouldn’t we have our own?”

It’s an interesting straw in the wind that many Labour politicians are once again echoing those words.