Q&A: What is deselection, and what does it mean for Labour MPs?

Jeremy Corbyn has called for a “full and open selection process” to choose the Labour candidate in every seat for the next general election.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What does deselection mean?

Deselection is when a local party decides to reject the incumbent MP when he/she runs as a candidate in an upcoming election.

Why are we talking about it?

Jeremy Corbyn has called for a “full and open selection process” to choose the Labour candidate in every seat before the next general election. Many MPs are interpreting this as a call for “mandatory reselection”, a sensitive issue for Labour, as it was a process brought in by the party’s left – in a movement led by Tony Benn – after Labour’s defeat under James Callaghan in 1979. This system wasn’t scrapped until 1990, when Neil Kinnock brought it to an end.

How does that process work?

When Labour had mandatory reselection, it meant that once in every Parliament, each MP would have to seek the endorsement of the “General Management Committee” of their constituency party – a group of delegates elected by local party members and trade union branches. So it wasn’t a straightforward vote by ordinary members, but they did have a say in who was on the voting committee. Essentially, sitting MPs had to persuade their local party activists to let them keep their seats before every election.

Well, what’s wrong with that?

Labour MPs fear that mandatory reselection will be used as a way to “purge” them from the party if they are not Jeremy Corbyn supporters.

Is that true? Or just fear-mongering?

There has been a huge increase in the number of Labour members, most of whom are Corbyn enthusiasts. It makes sense that they would prefer to be represented by an MP who supports Corbyn, or has similar values to Corbyn, than one who opposes him. This could hinder more centrist MPs, and outright anti-Corbynites, trying to be reselected if the selection system is opened up. Some of Corbyn’s detractors (and hardcore supporters) see Momentum as a group conspiring to rid Labour of its less lefty MPs. As with most theories about internal Labour plotting, this is probably exaggerated – there are plenty in Momentum who joined because they were inspired by Corbyn and simply want to get involved in politics. However, in many constituencies (particularly those represented by Labour “moderates”), new members and Momentum activists have indeed been hostile towards their MP.

Could it actually be brought in?

It would be in Corbyn and his supporters’ interest to introduce such a rule. And senior sources from the leadership team have hinted that they will pursue such measures, and more, following the attempted coup against Corbyn by the majority of his MPs. One insider told the HuffPo: “We will offer the most radical leadership reform package ever. Reselection, recall, a lock on leadership elections that only members can remove. We will bring it.” Also, the Corbyn-backing union Unite passed a motion at its most recent conference calling for mandatory selection, which was supported by its leader Len McCluskey. But, as my colleague Stephen points out, it’s unlikely there would be a majority big enough on the party’s ruling committee (the NEC) to overhaul the selection rules in this way.

What’s the current system then?

At the moment, for every general election, local parties vote for their candidate in what is called a “trigger ballot” – a watered down version of mandatory reselection. This is a system by which each separate branch of a local party, and affiliated organisations, get a simple “yes/no” vote to nominate the candidate. Branches represent the membership of the constituency party (local parties are divided into branches, usually based on the ward boundaries for councillors). Affiliated organisations are groups like trade unions, the Fabians, BAME Labour, Co-op party, etc.

All the local constituency party’s branches and affiliates are entitled to return a vote. The votes of the latter are usually decided by a local official representing that affiliate group, rather than by a ballot of all the local affiliated group’s members. The MP must receive two-thirds of the nominations of all these groups to stay sitting. If the MP is unable to gain two-thirds of the nominations, then they have lost their trigger ballot, and a “full” selection process begins, in which other potential candidates can be nominated.

So the members already get a say in that system. What’s the difference between that and mandatory reselection?

Although there is opportunity for full selection if an MP loses their trigger ballot, the current process acts pretty much as a formality. Usually if the MP is not standing down/going to prison/trying to run having had the party whip suspended then they will be voted in as the candidate again. Also, if they can keep representatives of the affiliated groups on their side, they can be reselected even if the members vote against it (and vice versa).

How will boundary changes affect this?

When boundary changes are brought in, which will probably bring the number of constituencies down from 650 to 600, Labour MPs will feel particularly vulnerable. Under Labour rules, an MP affected by boundary changes can remain the sitting MP (after a trigger ballot), provided the new constituency they are running for consists of at least 40 per cent of their former constituents (and no other sitting MP is seeking selection there). But in some cases, seats will be divided up so that no constituency contains at least 40 per cent of its predecessor seat’s constituents. That’s when we will get Labour MPs competing against one another, and a “one member, one vote” selection will decide the outcome, rather than a trigger ballot. This would benefit MPs who receive the most support from members. And given the rise in membership appears mainly due to Corbyn’s appeal, it is bad news for more centrist MPs.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.