Five thoughts on Momentum’s embrace of mandatory reselection

The decision guarantees a level of running instability but it’s hard to see what else one would do in their shoes. 

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Momentum is throwing its weight behind making parliamentary selections more “open” – that is, in favour of a full reselection process as a matter of course. Although the exact nature of the new process remains up for grabs, it means that the Labour activist group will recommend that delegates – and Momentum-sympathetic delegates are once again likely to make up the overwhelming majority of delegates – will vote for the proposals brought forward by local parties. Some thoughts:

Defending the status quo is a losing position for Corbynsceptics

As someone who a) has no particular dog in this fight but b) has written more explainers about the Labour party’s process for re-adopting its sitting MPs than I care to count, one thing that is clear to me is that anyone opposing changes to the existing system is going to run into difficulties because the current one is hard to defend.

For one thing, it offers the incumbent considerably tougher protections than those afforded to any other sitting MP in England, Scotland and Wales. Conservative MPs face a vote of their local party executive to be re-adopted as a parliamentary candidate, while Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs face a vote of their local parties.

The Labour process places considerably higher hurdles. Like their Conservative or Liberal counterparts, they face a vote on whether they should be re-adopted as parliamentary candidates, but local party branches – rather than local party members – hold the key. If half a local party’s branches opt not to adopt you as a candidate, you go through a full selection. So far, simple enough. But here’s where it gets complicated.

Let’s take Hackney North and Stoke Newington, for the simple reason that I live there and am feeling unimaginative. The constituency has 12 council wards, which means that party members have 12 party branches. That means 12 votes which all count equally. One problem is that party membership is  “geographically lumpy”: that is to say, some wards have far more members than other wards. Given that party membership is and always has been a middle class pastime, you’d expect a higher Labour party membership in Stoke Newington ward than Hackney Downs, but the two wards votes count equally.

And the problems don’t end there, because it isn’t just local party wards that can affiliate branches. Trade unions and other affiliates, such as the Co-operative, the Fabian Society or LGBT Labour can as well. And each of these affiliate branches counts for the same vote as a membership branch – but in some cases, these branches have no real members at all. There is no upper limit on how many branches an affiliate organisation can affiliate: so you could have a situation in which the sitting MP loses the support of all 12 of their local branches but is bailed out by the support of trade union branches.

Equally, a candidate with the support of a majority of members could be turfed out by well-organised local opposition. (In practice, however, this is less likely to happen as the candidate in question would likely just win the full selection, making the whole exercise a waste of everybody’s time.) And adding to the problem, affiliate branches don’t have to ballot their members: local trade union officials or the local head of whatever affiliate society can make these choices unilaterally.

The blunt truth is that the present system is designed to make it prohibitively difficult to remove sitting Labour MPs unless that MP has alienated a) their local party b) the party’s power brokers in the trade union movement. It’s hard to defend this in any high-minded way and “don’t change these rules, I might lose my job” is not a winning argument for anyone to make.

Were I a strategist on the centre-left/social democratic/right of the Labour party (delete as preferred) I would have come up with an alternative proposal a longtime ago that I could a) live with but b) defend.

The Labour left have been quite clever

The Labour Party’s Democracy Review does not include any proposals to change how MPs are selected. This is a smart move, because the current system benefits two groups: incumbent MPs and the trades unions, who hold a great deal of power over the outcome of trigger ballots.

A good rule of thumb to understand how rule changes work in the Labour party is that you have to get two of the three of the party’s power brokers (MPs, party activists, and trade union leaders) to agree on a reform. In practice, what this means is that two of those groups gang up on the third. At the moment, it is sitting MPs who are in the losers’ corner. But frankly if you are a trade union official, the current system works very well for you and the only way is down.

But by backing a grassroots proposal, rather than one that has come up through the machine of the Labour Party’s internal negotiations, Momentum may end up with a system that weakens trade union power a lot more than if they had tried to get one through the Democracy Review.

I wouldn’t be too surprised if the Parliamentary Labour Party remains largely unchanged regardless of the system used

One of the things that a lot of people in and around the Labour leadership’s inner circle, and indeed more optimistic members of Labour's “stay and fight” tendency, have long argued is that actually changing the rules on parliamentary selections is not going to remake the Parliamentary Labour Party as drastically as some people think.

Past performance is no guarantee of future return, but it is worth remembering that in the 1980s – when you had some MPs who were considerably lazier and in other cases significantly further to the right than any of the PLP’s current members – actually very few Labour MPs were deselected. Even if you assume that all of the 15 or so of the 24 defectors to the SDP, who faced some local hostility, would eventually have been deselected, that pattern doesn’t really change.

It could be different this time, but equally, it could be that the same pattern holds.

However, the consequence will be very public rows

Regardless, the outcome of changing the rules will be that most MPs will be involved in some degree of struggle, making this a running political sub-plot of the next few years. In addition, while some Labour MPs will leave the party regardless for principled reasons, it will increase the number of people who discover that some aspect of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics they had previously ignored becomes unpalatable in order to finesse their exit from Labour politics.

But it’s difficult to see what other route the Labour left has

One problem with having as small a base of support in the Parliamentary Labour Party as Corbyn has is that you either have to compromise on political clarity (as the Labour leader did until the 2016 coup against him) or frontbench quality (as he has in several posts, most strikingly in welfare and justice, since 2016).

Labour’s internal constitution is very badly constructed because it is at present a lot easier to change the leader than it is the balance of the parliamentary party, which bakes in a high level of day-to-day instability. And the bad news is that the rule changes that have already passed – permanently lowering the amount of parliamentary support needed to make the contest proper – can only entrench that level of instability in the future.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.