Why the fuss over mandatory reselection of Labour MPs? Democracy isn’t a job creation scheme

If Labour’s membership are to be fairly reflected in the Commons, the party requires serious reforms.

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This week, the election of three Momentum-backed candidates to Labour’s National Executive Committee generated renewed media interest in internal Labour politics. According to PoliticsHome editor Kevin Schofield, the ascension of Jon Lansman, Yasmine Dar and Rachel Garnham to the NEC meant Labour was now “owned by the far left”. The Evening Standard splashed “Corbyn Red Army’s Takeover Complete” across its front page. With the spectre of mandatory re-selection looming (deselection to its critics), Anne McElvoy, senior editor at The Economist, warned the result could lead to moderate MPs being “seen off by the loyal hounds of Momentum, bent on consolidating the power of their revolutionary masters”. And as is now customary, the Labour MP Chris Leslie was on call to brief that Labour was “another step away from a broad church towards command and control by Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum.”

The above quotes perhaps represent the more colourful end of reporting on this week’s NEC results, but the underlying assumptions contained in them were present across Britain’s print and broadcast media. Characteristic of the day’s coverage were comments by Labour MP Emma Reynold, who told the BBC’s Daily Politics Show she would oppose re-selections on the basis they would undermine Labour’s broad church, “create bitterness” in the party and distract from “taking the fight to the Tories”. 

However, the claim that re-selections would undermine Labour’s broad church collapses once we consider the actual make-up of the parliamentary Labour party. Far from being a dwindling minority, supporters of the Labour leader suspect Corbynsceptics still occupy the bulk of Labour’s benches. Members have every right to be concerned that, on the verge of government, their representatives have only limited commitment to the party’s current direction. Likewise, the claim by centrist MPs that any internal shake-up is a distraction from beating Tories rings hollow after two years of negative briefings and an attempted coup.

Of course, none of this is to say every rebel should be purged from the party. Just as Tony Blair’s Labour had Corbyn and Diane Abbott, Corbyn’s Labour can co-exist with Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips. But Blair’s ability to tolerate dissent was due to the fact he had already engineered a large majority on Labour’s benches which was aligned to his vision. Corbyn has every right to seek that same majority, and to do so by engaging the party’s vastly expanded membership.

The fact is, if Labour’s membership are to be fairly reflected in the PLP, and if Labour are to enter government on a stable footing, the party requires serious reforms. Under the current “trigger ballot” system, MPs can be automatically re-selected if they win the support of two-thirds of branches affiliated to their constituency Labour party. A problem here is that affiliates have equal weight, whether they are a ward with a thousand members or a union branch with three. An incumbent can, therefore, in theory secure re-selection against the wishes of members by keeping enough affiliated organisations on side

Furthermore, before alternate candidates can be considered, members have to defeat their current MP. This means that for an open selection to take place under the current process, it must be preceded by a period of purely negative campaigning. If members do attempt to win trigger ballots, it is entirely predictable that the incumbents will depict themselves as the victim of a sectarian coup.

This last point is crucial. Whilst many MPs are attempting to rebuild support among their local membership, others seem to have given up on their members altogether, instead relying on their capacity to cause havoc in the press were their positions to be threatened. Yet this is a risky game. For every favourable headline such anonymous briefings achieve, the MP's grassroots critics are likely to become more frustrated. 

There’s no better example of this than a report in Tuesday’s Times, sourced from an anonymous Labour MP, stating that if deselected, MPs would form their own independent group in the House of Commons. For many members who knock on doors week in week out, the idea an MP would rather leave the party than join their ranks stinks of entitlement. More importantly, the comment gives members every reason to transform the PLP sooner rather than later. A Labour MP abandoning the Whip during a general election campaign would cause the party a massive headache, and potentially damage in the polls. Their doing so after an election could bring down a Labour government.

It’s time for the left to start openly advocating for mandatory re-selection, though perhaps with a rebrand (open primaries, anyone?). The terms of debate may shift more quickly than we think. My guess is the public won’t be much impressed with MPs on £70,000 annual salaries affronted at the mere suggestion they’ll compete for their title every four years. Labour is the party of stable employment, but MPs occupy an extremely privileged position in society, and democracy isn’t a job creation scheme.

Michael Walker is an editor at Novara Media and a Labour party activist.