Most Labour MPs are looking to this autumn’s trigger ballots with a degree of trepidation, but they have already won a small victory. On Tuesday, the party’s ruling National Executive Committee met to thrash out the timetable for the reselection process that is already looming large in the minds of the PLP — and crucially, the question that will be put to the grassroots members who will decide whether to subject them to a full selection contest.
Jeremy Corbyn’s office preferred a simple yes or no question, and advised the NEC to give it their imprimatur. Drafted by Thomas Gardiner, Labour’s head of governance and legal, it merely asked members whether they wanted a full selection process.
That wording would have framed the question in terms that many MPs fear. They say that factional opponents who wish to see them deselected seldom argue explicitly for their replacement as the Labour candidate, but instead argue for a full selection in the interests of democracy. Momentum have made a similar case for open selections nationally.
As far as some MPs are concerned, it is a difficult, if not impossible, proposition to argue against. Added to their existing anxieties about the new lower threshold required to trigger an open selection — a third of local party branches or affiliates rather than half of both — the worry was that a question along those lines would inexorably lead to dozens of full contests.
Unsurprisingly, the PLP’s representatives on the NEC, as well as Tom Watson, objected to Team Corbyn’s preferred ballot paper. “As was, the wording meant the question was weighted against us,” one complained. Another source familiar with their discussions complained was “both leading and confusing”.
That second word cropped up repeatedly. Aside from their political self-interest, MPs are also unconvinced about how ballots that asked for a yes or no to a full selection would work in practice. “They’ve just been using that wording in the Metro Mayor trigger ballots,” says one NEC member, “and there has been terrible confusion among some members. If you want to keep Andy Burnham as mayor, then members who support him have to vote No.” Multiplying that confusion by 250, they argued, could well have made for an administrative nightmare.
So rather than accept the proposed question, the PLP’s NEC members — led by Shabana Mahmood, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood — sought to amend it. Their real preference was for the wording used the last time MPs faced trigger ballots in 2013. That yes or no question asked members whether they wanted to re-select their sitting MP. As one NEC source admits, that was also arguably a question drafted to lead members to an answer in the affirmative (“but in that era,” they reflect, “the energy-sapping threat of mass reselection battles was considered a bad thing”). And in any case, there was no chance of it being used again.
Instead, Mahmood and her fellow MPs argued for a choice between two options: do you want a full selection to choose your member of Parliament, or do you wish to re-select your sitting MP without moving to a full selection? With the support of the trade unions, that proposition eventually won a majority at the NEC and will be put before members in September. “The wording we ultimately decided is fair, and gives us a level playing field,” one member said. Those MPs who fear the trigger process hope that the new question will give them an additional degree of protection — and that their early victory reflects a lesser appetite for a wave of full selections than many had anticipated.