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19 March 2021updated 23 Mar 2021 9:50am

Labour’s selection in Hartlepool is a familiar story – with a new risky context

Managing selections is not new behaviour, but doing so in a way that maximises political danger is. 

By Stephen Bush

The selection of Paul Williams, an NHS doctor and former Labour MP, to fight the Hartlepool by-election is both unexceptional and highly unusual.

What’s unexceptional is that local party members weren’t presented with a meaningful choice, as Williams was elected from a longlist of one.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have a long history of what you might charitably refer to as “managed” selections, though in general the preferred approach has been to flood the shortlist with flawed candidates to ease the path for the party establishment’s preferred choice(s). Members have a choice, but only in the same way that someone asking you to pick between a cyanide capsule and a blue M&M is giving you a choice. The Conservative Party establishment has tended to use this method, though its rulebook does give the party the power to impose a shortlist of one during a by-election should it so desire.

[Hear more from Stephen on the New Statesman podcast]

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Of course, this approach isn’t always flawless. There are plenty of MPs on both sides of the House who owe their positions to the fact that party members, faced between the leadership’s preferred candidate and a flawed one, have opted for a flawed candidate. And many of those MPs go on to both defy the predictions of party bosses in their selections and to have distinguished careers as MPs.

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As a result, there have been plenty of times, including by Labour as recently as the 2019 election, when party leaders have opted not to present members with a choice between a cyanide capsule and a blue M&M, but simply to impose the M&M from on high.

So in many ways Paul Williams’ selection is not all that newsworthy. The most surprising thing is that he is the choice of both the national party establishment and the local party’s establishment: his selection has been welcomed by the constituency party’s executive and the leader of the Labour group on the council.

[see also: Why being boring might be an advantage for Keir Starmer]

What is highly unusual about this selection is that it carries a high degree of risk for the party leadership. This is not usually the case: while you may think it would have been more desirable for every single Labour candidate in the 2019 intake to go through a free and fair selection process, no one seriously believes it made a difference to the outcome of the election. Nor would Jeremy Corbyn have been able to continue as Labour leader following the 2019 defeat had every parliamentary selection in 2019 been free and fair – the managed selection process made no difference to his personal prospects.

But you can see how Keir Starmer may come to regret a situation where he cannot easily disavow the candidate in Hartlepool should the election not go his way. While it is exceptionally rare for opposition parties to lose seats in by-elections, and rarer still for governing parties to win them, this is the first test of what happens in Labour constituencies with a very high Brexit Party vote now that Brexit has happened, and we also don’t know whether the increase in the government’s popularity following the vaccine roll-out has further to run. Added to that, Hartlepool’s local politics have long been a bit weird: they have a higher propensity to elect independents at a local level.

You can see the argument for Williams: he is a doctor who has been working in Hartlepool at a time when support for the NHS, always very high, is at record levels, and having been an MP he is a known quantity. But you can also see the argument against Williams: he is a known quantity, most significantly due to his opposition to Brexit and his support for a second referendum. It’s certainly possible that “a doctor who works in Hartlepool” is a more important part of Williams’ backstory to voters than “a Remainer who is not from Hartlepool”. But it is a gamble, and one the Labour Party leadership did not need to make.

The “normal” way we’d expect Labour to plan this selection is through a highly managed process, with one or two candidates, both of whom are essentially unknown to journalists but known to the party: safe pairs of hands with no prospect of either adding or deducting votes from the Labour pile. You can make a perfectly sound argument either way that Williams adds votes for Labour or that he takes them away, but this is not a risk-free choice – and it is now a choice with the Labour leadership’s fingerprints all over it.

While a lot would have to go wrong for Labour to lose Hartlepool, there is a lot that could go wrong, and the cautious thing for a party leadership to do would be to insulate itself from risk and blame as much as possible. Instead, they have inserted their preferred candidate – a politically risky move for Starmer and his team, and one it is not clear was necessary.

[see also: The real story of Labour’s week is two things that didn’t happen – and why]