The curious case of Paul Williams' tweets

How have Labour MPs responded privately to the botched selection of their candidate at the Hartlepool by-election?

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The selection of Paul Williams as Labour’s candidate for the Hartlepool by-election in May has been a difficult one for Labour’s feminist credentials ever since it was confirmed on Thursday.

It is a fact as old as time that political parties “manage” the selection of candidates. It is not unique to the Labour party, nor to this Labour leadership. But the selection of Williams, a GP and the Labour MP for Stockton South between 2017 and 2019, didn’t just hit a factional sore spot among party figures on the left, who might have preferred that a candidate like Laura Pidcock – the former MP for North West Durham and another casualty of Labour’s 2019 election loss – was given a chance to stand. It also went down badly in the wake of Sarah Everard’s death and the public conversation about sexism and violence against women that ensued; doubly so because the by-election had been forced by the resignation of the Labour MP Mike Hill under a cloud of sexual assault allegations, which are under investigation. 

Laura Parker, one of the founders of the Corbynite grassroots campaigning group Momentum and a pro-Starmer convert, summarised these objections in a pointed tweet after Williams’ selection: “A man had to resign because of [alleged] inappropriate behaviour and is replaced by a man in [a] blatant stitch-up. From an accessibility point of view it’s an absolute joke that people who may have wanted to apply had to do so within 24 hours and clearly had no chance of even being interviewed. We deserve to lose.” But her voice, coming from the party’s left, was also echoed by an anonymous Labour frontbencher, who briefed LabourList that “loads of women MPs” were “pissed off” by the way in which Williams had been selected. “Everyone is a feminist when it’s convenient,” they added.

Then some of Williams’ old tweets resurfaced, including one from 2011 asking: “Do you have a favourite Tory MILF?”

Shami Chakrabarti, the prominent Labour peer, described it as “unacceptable misogynistic abuse” and called for a change of candidate for the by-election. Williams apologised for it, although it has not yet been deleted, and Keir Starmer accepted the apology, saying the use of the misogynistic phrase had been unacceptable. 

Even then, the unspoken compact of the “managed” selection had been broken. The reason a party leadership effectively imposes a candidate on a seat is, in theory, to guarantee that they are good and that they won’t cause the party any problems; the logic of selecting a former MP in particular is that they are a “known quantity” and won’t have any skeletons in their closet. It might have just been some old tweets, but it was frustrating for more than just the Corbynite wing of Labour that the one-person shortlist produced a candidate whose social media backlog immediately detracted from the conversation the party wanted to have about the NHS. If you watched The Andrew Marr Show at the weekend you may have noticed a distinct note of annoyance from Lisa Nandy when she was asked about it: she emphasised that the comments were “completely and utterly unacceptable”, said that if he hadn’t apologised “frankly, we would be having a very different conversation [about his removal as a candidate] on this show this morning”, and then added: “I think it’s really important that when we said as a labour movement that this has to be a watershed moment – after the murder of Sarah Everard and the outpouring from women across this country about what everyday sexism has done to our lives – that we prove it. Paul has apologised. He now has to go out and show that when we said this was a watershed moment we’re going to use it. He has a huge platform through the by-election to demonstrate that. And I am absolutely determined that we are going to do that.” Her frustration, and the unvarnished reminder to Williams that he has a “huge platform” in this by-election, were clear.

But it didn’t end there. On Friday, Williams shared a selfie about his candidacy and recent NHS work with what appeared, incredibly, to be the phrase “MILF” spelled out behind him in pins on a corkboard. Yes, really.

Labour has denied it, stating: “It’s literally just a bunch of pins on a board.” Readers can use their own eyes to decide, but it’s certainly not, privately, what any Labour MP thinks: explanations range from speculation that the image was photoshopped (which cannot be the case, given that he posted the original picture himself, and that is the one being scrutinised) or that a colleague or friend arranged the pins like that as a prank (making it a truly remarkable coincidence that their prank was caught on camera at the perfect angle). But Labour MPs I have spoken to are in complete and bewildered agreement that “it does” look like “MILF” behind him, and that, bafflingly and inexplicably, the offensive word that landed Williams in controversy is spelled out in pins behind him in a selfie he had posted.  

So why aren’t Labour MPs saying anything? The curious case of Paul Williams’ tweets is not a topic anyone in the Labour party wants to be discussing. Even the women MPs who are furious about the fallout from Williams’ selection have restricted their fury to internal discussions. “It did all kick off a bit” in the Women’s PLP WhatsApp group chat when concerns were raised about the “misogyny” of Williams’ comments by a member of the Socialist Campaign Group (the grouping of MPs on the left of the party, including Jeremy Corbyn), one MP tells me, but colleagues in the group didn’t want to discuss it in that way. That it was taken up by a Socialist Campaign Group MP means it is being viewed as a “factional” pre-occupation, with others in that discussion arguing it would be better to raise those concerns with Williams himself, which he is reportedly happy for them to do.  

There isn’t, however, a single female Labour MP who doesn’t stress how deeply they dislike comments such as Williams’ original tweet, and there is no one in the party who isn’t deeply frustrated that the conversation about Labour’s Hartlepool candidate was marred by old, sexist tweets. It’s even more the case now that they are having to answer questions about what is or is not spelled out on a pinboard. No sitting MP is sufficiently annoyed to say something publicly and derail the campaign for another day. Everyone in the party wants Labour to win Hartlepool, and to do that, they need to shift the conversation away from Williams’ corkboard and towards his work as a doctor during the pandemic. 

But the fact that they aren’t saying anything doesn’t mean that they aren’t annoyed: by what is or isn’t spelled out on a pinboard and at a campaign that so far has been botched. If the conversation around a by-election isn’t the conversation that the party intended to have, the selection has been a failure. This certainly isn’t the conversation the Labour party thought it would be having about its candidate in Hartlepool.  

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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