A spectre is haunting Labour MPs: the spectre of deselection. Buoyed by Jeremy Corbyn’s advance at the general election, allies of the leader have called for it to be made easier to remove critics as candidates. Party chair Ian Lavery (who was awarded the title formerly held by Tom Watson) warned that Labour “might be too broad a church” and suggested that “different ways and means” of deselecting MPs should be explored. New shadow fire minister Chris Williamson, Corbyn’s most ardent parliamentary ally, explicitly backed mandatory reselection to “concentrate minds”.
When questioned on the subject at a post-PMQs briefing, a senior Corbyn aide remarked that “there’s no doubt there will be changes in the way the Labour Party operates” (a spokesman subsequently clarified that this referred to the party’s overall structure, rather than parliamentary selections). But Labour MPs are not reassured. Ever since Corbyn became leader, they have wanted him to explicitly condemn deselection attempts. But from a position of strength, Corbyn has less need than ever to do so.
A fact often missed is that MPs can already be deselected by party members. 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 blamed a “New Labour mafia”). Though Corbyn has said that he does not support mandatory reselection, he pledged last year 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.”
Today’s Times splashes on a “deselection hitlist” published by a Momentum South Tyneside group, which called for 49 Labour figures, including Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie and Jess Phillips, to “join the Liberals”. The list (which has since been taken down) was dismissed by a Momentum spokesman: “[It] was published by a local Momentum Facebook page with 136 likes, and in no way represents Momentum’s national policy.” But it reflects the tensions between MPs and activists (Luciana Berger was this week ordered to “get on board quite quickly” by a new member of Liverpool Wavertree’s executive).
Though they can be removed under existing rules, 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. Senior Labour figures have privately warned that a wave of deselections could be the trigger for the creation of a new party (a recurring threat since Corbyn’s 2015 election).
While Labour’s Bennite left has long regarded mandatory reselection as an essential part of internal democracy, MPs argue that it privileges the views of party activists over those of voters. The latter also contend that, just as the left was tolerated under New Labour, so dissent should be permitted now. But Corbynites, who recall the era of “parachuted” candidates and Millbank “command and control”, are determined to remake the parliamentary Labour Party. Labour membership has risen from 187,000 in May 2015 to more than 550,000 and many new activists feel unrepresented by Corbyn-sceptic MPs.
A senior Corbyn ally told me that it would be “unacceptable” for members to have no say on candidate selection in the event of another early general election (incumbent MPs were automatically readopted before June 2017). Unite, Labour’s largest affiliate, has voted in favour of mandatory reselection but the issue will not arise at this year’s party conference. Having been kept off the agenda in 2015 (the non-Corbynite Gloria De Piero and Michael Cashman run the arrangements committee), party rules mean that the earliest possible date for its reintroduction is 2018. For the Labour leadership, the threat of mandatory reselection is a useful means of disciplining rebellious MPs.
The so-called “McDonnell amendment”, which would reduce the leadership nomination threshold from 15 per cent of MPs/MEPs to 5 per cent, will be tabled and likely defeated. But Corbyn allies believe that they now have sufficient support to ensure a designated successor makes the ballot in a future contest. As the Labour left seek to entrench their advantage, and others continue to resist them, the party’s internal struggle will only intensify.