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8 September 2019

Diana Johnson’s trigger ballot will unnerve Labour MPs

The parliamentary Labour party is always jittery around trigger ballot time, and this time their potential for panic is even greater. 

By Stephen Bush

Diana Johnson has become the first Labour MP to fail to pass the new tougher trigger ballot process, triggering a full-blown parliamentary selection process in her Hull North constituency.

The news has further shaken Labour MPs. The trigger ballot process has always been a cause of anxiety in the parliamentary party, even before the rules were liberalised in 2017 to make it slightly easier to move to a “full” parliamentary selection.

Under the terms of the old rules, Labour MPs needed to get the support of half of all affiliated branches – in the case of Hull North, that means the ten constituency wards plus the numerous trade union and affiliated society branches. In addition there was – and remains – no upper limit on how many branches that the trades unions and affiliated societies could add, with no requirement that any of these branches have any actual members.

In practice, that meant that Labour MPs were incredibly unlikely to face a full selection unless they had managed to alienate their members, the local and national leaderships of the trades unions, and were poorly organised.

Now under the new rules, Labour MPs need a two-thirds double majority – two-thirds of ward branches and two-thirds of affiliated branches. The practical effect of that is twofold: firstly it removes the effective veto over a selection process held by the trades unions, and secondly it makes it significantly easier to trigger a full-blown selection process.

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At the time, most people who looked at that change concluded it was a big victory for the Labour leadership and its hopes of completing its transformation of the party by remaking the parliamentary Labour party and shifting power to the lay membership and away from trade union leaders.

That’s still true, but the downside of the new rules is that, because the barrier to a full trigger is so low, and because each local party branch’s vote counts for the same, no matter how many members or how few, the mechanism will mean that some MPs who have the support of a majority of their members will have to go through full selection battles; while in others, MPs who do not command a majority among their members will pass their trigger ballots because of the make up of their members.

In this case, Johnson looks well-placed to win the overall selection: she has won a clear majority of the vote thus far but has failed to secure the required two-thirds majority. One Hull North member, who opposes Johnson politically, described the full selection as “a waste of time”, as they expect that she will be readopted.

For the Labour leadership, selections on those lines are all pain no gain – they don’t get a new MP out of the process, but they do get a series of unfavourable headlines about purges.

It also risks making the parliamentary party more, not less, restive. While Johnson has been more vocal than most Labour MPs on antisemitism in the party’s ranks, she has otherwise been quietly loyal and it will unnerve Labour MPs, who are jittery enough already.

And if Labour MPs conclude that they are doomed anyway, even if they have kept quiet, or worse, if Labour MPs see that vocal critics of Corbyn are being reselected while the loyal are being deselected, then Labour MPs may become just as vocal and critical of their leader as the likes of John Mann or Iain Austin – just as the Labour leadership needs an outbreak of loyalty if it is to equal or exceed the turnaround it achieved in 2017.