Manipulating parliamentary selections to secure constituencies for the party leadership is a trick so old that it may well have been in existence longer than the Labour Party itself. Although journalists often talk about favoured candidates being “parachuted” into place, with the local party membership cut out of the process, in practice both major parties prefer managed democracy to autocratic imposition.
As one old Labour fixer, long since rewarded for their efforts with a seat in the House of Lords, once put it to me: the most effective way to get your people in was to present local party members with a choice between “five donkeys and a horse”. No one can say that the winning candidate has not been subject to a democratic election – it’s just a contest that they had little prospect of losing.
It was easier in the 1970s, when one mechanism for securing the election of favoured sons was to put them up against well-qualified female candidates, safe in the knowledge that a culture of engrained sexism in local party branches would ensure the man was elected. Now, party leaders have to be more subtle in the way they remove obstacles for the chosen few: the “Goldenballs”, as one Corbynsceptic MP is fond of dubbing a much-praised group of Labour right-wingers first elected in 2010. But the approach that Jeremy Corbyn has taken in getting his people selected as candidates is one that Harold Wilson, Clement Attlee and perhaps even Keir Hardie, the party’s founder, would recognise, and one of which Boris Johnson has made use.
The Conservative leader, whether in or out of Downing Street, has a greater level of autonomy than even the most hegemonic of Labour leaders. Parliamentary selections are a rare exception. The usual approach, particularly when Labour is in office, is for the leader gently to suggest that a loyal veteran might prefer to change the green benches of the Commons for the plusher surroundings of the Lords.
An unexpected retirement can help. The surprise resignation of Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, freed up his constituency of West Bromwich East, which was given to Ibrahim Dogus, owner of Troia Southbank, a Mediterranean restaurant whose popular food is one of the few unifying forces in Labour politics.
But for the most part, even a Labour leader like Corbyn, who controls every lever of power within the party, tends to avoid imposing too many candidates without a vote, preferring the horse-and-donkeys method.
There are, however, problems with that approach. When it is done too obviously, local party activists revolt, opting for the donkey ahead of the thoroughbred. Party leaders – or their allies – can sometimes let their ideological differences with a candidate to blind them to their qualities, and allow a good contender slip away.
It was “ideological blindness” that Corbynites blamed for the recent triumphs of Florence Eshalomi and Sally Gimson, two prominent Corbynsceptics who were selected for the safe seats of Vauxhall and Bassetlaw respectively. Eshalomi and Gimson were, one trade unionist told me, “obviously too good”, and should therefore have been removed at the shortlisting stage. Instead, they were allowed through, after both wowed members with strong performances in the hustings.
So far, so predictable. Every party leader does it, and every party leader is, from time to time, rebuffed. What was different is what happened next: Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) voted to strip Gimson of the nomination and instead to hand it to Keir Morrison, an Ashfield councillor who had been rejected by Bassetlaw’s members. The pretext was Gimson’s conduct in local party meetings in London, though more than 20 members of her local party were prevented from making statements in support of her. The double standard is all the more evident given the largesse extended to candidates thought to be broadly “on side” with the leadership.
The behaviour is a departure in terms of scale and risk, given that Bassetlaw, while historically a safe seat, has a majority of less than 5,000, and upsetting local party members might end up costing Labour the constituency. But it is also par for the course, and any previous Labour leader would recognise it. What differentiates Corbyn from his predecessors is that he ran for the leadership pledging to put party members first, and now he is engaging in the same dark arts as his predecessors.
The Labour leader recognises his inconsistency. The parliamentary party’s Corbynite wing has hardly grown under Corbyn because of his reluctance to use the powers of his office to get his people in. In both of the safe seats to fall vacant in this parliament, local members were given a genuinely free choice – and as a result in the ensuing by-elections candidates from Labour’s centre, rather than its left, entered parliament. But in the marginal seats that the party must win to form a government, almost all of the candidates are loyal Corbynites.
So why has Corbyn abandoned his old opposition to internal fixes? The answer is in the opinion polls, which put Johnson on average 10 points ahead. Labour is financing an ambitious campaign as far as its target seats go, and some of Corbyn’s loyal allies sincerely believe that the one-on-one television debates will turn things around for their man. But in truth, the Labour leader has acceded to those who favour the autocratic approach because he knows this may be his last chance to leave an enduring mark on the Parliamentary Labour Party. For all that Corbyn hopes for victory, his embrace of the old Labour methods of fix and control show he is really preparing for defeat.
This article appears in the 13 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold