Exclusive: Labour MPs to debate return of shadow cabinet elections

Backbencher Clive Betts has tabled a motion for Monday's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting.

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Until 2011, Labour MPs held annual shadow cabinet elections when the party was in opposition. The practice was ended by Ed Miliband, who replaced the system with one of direct appointments (a move endorsed by 196 of Labour's 257 MPs). When Jeremy Corbyn became leader last year he did not revive it, despite appeals from both supporters and opponents.  

As they search for a means of managing their party's divisions, Labour figures have increasingly discussed reinstating the elections. Deputy leader Tom Watson is among those to have backed the idea. 

When parliament returns on Monday, the first formal attempt to restore the elections will be made. Left-leaning MP Clive Betts has tabled a motion on the subject for that evening's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. The motion, which was emailed to colleagues this afternoon, reads:

"Whatever the result of the leadership election on the 24th September, it is clear that the PLP must take steps to come together. As part of this process, the PLP would like to ask the NEC to bring forward a rule change to this year’s annual conference, re-introducing the system of Shadow Cabinet elections immediately following this current leadership contest.

"This would ensure that the Shadow Cabinet has the support of backbench Labour MPs and that the entire PLP can become an effective opposition and hold the Government to account from a position of unity. If such a rule change is agreed by the NEC and this year's Annual Conference the precise number of members to be elected and the method of electing them should be recommended to the PLP by the Parliamentary Committee, and the PLP’s standing orders be brought into line accordingly."

As the motion states, were the move approved by MPs (most likely in a ballot on Tuesday) it would then need the support of the party's National Executive Committee and its annual conference. 

A Labour source told me: "This is an attempt to heal the wounds, no matter who wins the leadership election, and to allow people who want to serve to go back with dignity." Under the previous system, MPs elected 19 of their number to the shadow cabinet with the leader then allocating portfolios. Yvette Cooper topped the last poll in 2010 with 232 votes. The hope of Labour MPs is that senior figures such as Cooper, Hilary Benn and Chuka Umunna, who resigned from the shadow cabinet last year or this summer, would stand for election. "That would be one way for Corbyn of peacemaking," a former frontbencher recently told me. "If that were the case I’d be prepared to put myself forward." 

Allies of Jeremy Corbyn such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott would likely struggle to make the cut. But under the previous system, the Labour leader was permitted to make discretionary appointments, potentially allowing Corbyn to retain some supporters. 

MPs argue that the proposal is consistent with the Labour leader's support for greater internal democracy. But a Corbyn source dismissed the idea when I recently raised it: "It’s not going to happen, they don’t have the numbers to get it through conference." He added, however, that the election of a "PLP representative" was a possibility. "Jeremy is one of the most concessionary politicians around. He’d be very open to the idea of bringing people back, sitting down, listening to where things went wrong and where the input would be from the other side. Seeing where there can be mutual ground."

With MPs having called Corbyn's bluff, they will soon discover how concessionary he is prepared to be. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.