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26 April 2017

How Labour’s power-brokers will divide up the party’s safe seats

Labour's biggest trade unions will divide up Labour's vacant seats between them. Here's how it's going. 

By Stephen Bush

The snap election has both of the big two parties scrambling to fill their seats as quickly as possible. The Liberal Democrats have an edge in this department in that they selected in anticipation of an early election last June, and with a few exceptions, that slate of candidates will go forward into the election.

For the Conservatives, shortlisting is done by Conservative Campaign Headquarters, who present three names to the local association, who then pick the candidate.

For Labour, the short time frame means that anyone selected in 2015, whether successful or unsuccessful, will be selected again automatically. Where seats fall vacant, either because the candidate or MP is old, unable to run for personal reasons or simply doesn’t fancy it, that will be decided by the nine officers of the NEC.

Those nine officers are: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, his deputy Tom Watson, plus Jim Kennedy of Unite, Andy Kerr of the Communication Workers’ Union, Keith Birch of Unison, and Cath Speight of the GMB, with Ann Black, an ever-present on the party’s NEC since 1998, representing the membership. Unite’s assistant general secretary, Diana Holland, boosts the Unite contingent though she sits there not as a Unite representative but as the party’s treasurer. In the chair is Glenis Willmott, the leader of the party in Europe, but effectively an extra vote for the GMB.

As far as the Corbynite and Corbynsceptic factions of the parliamentary Labour party are concerned, the NEC officers are finely balanced, though Wilmott’s casting vote will generally go for the Corbynsceptics.

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But the relationships that matter are between people who won’t even be in the room: the political directors of Unite, the GMB, Unison and the CWU, the biggest of Labour’s unions.

That just 12 of the seats are considered “safe” means the focus will be on them, though the NEC will still have to vote on the large number of vacant seats where the defeated parliamentary candidate is not standing again.

In practice, that Dave Ward, the general secretary of the CWU is currently unwell and that his political team is considered to be “green” in the words of one senior trade union official means that the CWU will likely do the worst out of the major trade unions. The big winners will be the Unite and the GMB, who will parcel up the juiciest morsels between them, though Unison have vowed to be “more assertive” this time around. But for the most part, selections will operate on a you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours approach.

Although some seats are considered “done deals” – Stephanie Peacock, regional political officer at the GMB, is likely to be selected in Barnsley, Mark Ferguson, campaigns officer at Unison, is considered a shoe-in for Blaydon, while Ellie Reeves, sister of Rachel Reeves and wife of John Cryer, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, and the favoured choice of the GMB, will likely be selected in Lewisham West and Penge  – others are more fraught.

Unison feel they were short-changed by the selection processes last time – the polls meant that deals they struck rebounded badly as few of their people were selected for safe seats but were instead in marginal that were expected to fall easily to Labour – and are being more aggressive, according to officials from other trade unions.

There is currently confusion about what will happen in Liverpool Walton. Steve Rotheram has vowed to remain in place unless his successor is from the party’s left flank. That no guarantee has been forthcoming means that as things stand, he will combine the role of mayor for the combined authority with that of being MP for Walton, though the likelihood is that a deal will be struck allowing him to stand down. Dan Carden, an aide to Len McCluskey, who in a quirk of fate ran unsuccessfully against Peacock to be youth representative on Labour’s national executive committee, is considered the likely beneficiary.

The GMB had been assured that Jo Platt, both theirs and Andy Burnham’s favoured candidate in Leigh, would be given a free run by the other trade unions. But in practice, as one well-connected official puts it “We made that deal because no-one was going to beat Jo among members. Now it’s between NEC officers, it’s a very different game.” Others observe that Burnham, by not striking a hard bargain like Rotheram, had traded away his ability to influence who succeeds him “for nothing”. 

There is also a nervousness around two notional “safe” seats in the south of England: Oxford East and Slough. Though both have decent majorities, many believe that they are highly personalised, particularly Andrew Smith’s in Oxford East, so no side wants to trade away something for one of these seats.

What does that mean for the struggle for control after the election? Should Corbyn defy the polls and win a majority, the selections in marginal seats are more heavily Corbynite, as many – but not all – of the candidates electing not to run again are Corbynsceptics who don’t believe they will be successful. They will, in the main, be replaced by true believers. If the polls are borne out but there are any freak gains – possible depending on how the Liberal Democrats do in some marginal – they will increase the strength of the leadership in the parliamentary Labour party.

There’s a well-established meme that Corbynite MPs have larger majorities than the rest of the parliamentary Labour party. This is because MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 did have larger majorities than the average Labour MP – but only if you include MPs who nominated him to “broaden the debate”. When you factor out MPs like Margaret Beckett and Rushanara Ali,  Corbynsceptic MPs with super-majorities, the Corbynite average falls back in line with the rest of the parliamentary Labour party.

Simply put: there is no way for the left to get sufficient nominations to put a candidate of their own on the ballot without the support of MPs from the centre-left, no matter how bruising the defeat. Corbynite MPs are fairly accurate soil sample of the parliamentary Labour party in terms of majority size, demographic make-up of their electorates, and so on.  But as the parliamentary Labour party shrinks, the importance of one or two MPs becomes more pivotal.  

So although the Corbynite left may be a little stronger in the next parliament than the last, as things stand, any Corbynite wanting a place on the next ballot paper will be still be reliant on the kindness of strangers.