The case for mandatory reselection

With the question of mandatory reselection for MPs set to be one of the most hotly debated issues at this year’s Labour Conference, Owen Winter, OULC Co-Chair Elect, presents the case in favour of the rule change.

As the 2018 Labour Conference approaches, the debate around mandatory reselection is intensifying. For some MPs and their supporters, mandatory reselection is simply a tool for the left to purge the ‘moderates’ from the Party. This may be one motivation, but we should consider the proposed changes on their merit; it is time we stopped viewing internal disputes through the factional prism. In fact, mandatory reselection is an opportunity for all wings of the Party to renew and diversify, with the potential to strengthen our movement.

The question being considered is whether Labour’s rules should be changed so that sitting MPs automatically face ‘open selection’ contests before every election, wherein they can be challenged for the local candidacy, or whether Labour should retain the ‘trigger ballot’ system, where local members can only choose between retaining the current candidate or opening a full contest for the candidacy.

Many believe this debate to be underpinned by a simple question: Should Labour MPs represent voters or local members? Opponents of open selection tout MPs’ personal mandates, which they have received from their electorate as a whole, while those in favour of open selections argue that many sitting Labour MPs fail to represent local members. If this choice reflected the reality, I would choose the voters; Labour MPs should not be delegates of their CLPs and should act in the interests of all their constituents. But this is a false choice which both sides of the Party have fallen into.

“…it is time we stopped viewing internal disputes through the factional prism.”

While we have many fantastic MPs, evidence suggests that most people vote on the basis of national party rather than local candidate. This undermines the argument that MPs have a personal mandate. YouGov polling found that at the 2017 General Election, 6% of Labour voters chose Labour because of the local candidate. This number is not insignificant, but it is far lower than the sway of the Party’s manifesto/policies (28%), anti-Tory tactical voting (15%), or the personal appeal of Jeremy Corbyn (13%). While as many as 65 Labour MPs (out of 262) may not have been elected if it were not for their personal appeal, personal appeal is only useful if it is attached to a party banner.

Moreover, the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system effectively results in a ‘closed-list-of-one’ for voters. They have no say over who will be their local Labour candidate and no opportunity to register both a local and a national preference. For Labour supporters, whether their local candidate is Chris Williamson or Chris Leslie, the only alternative to supporting the candidate is voting against Labour. It is impossible in this system to separate personal endorsements from partisan backing, so no Labour MP can claim that voters have given them a personal mandate irrespective of their party.

“Politics is fast moving and the current system leaves constituencies lumbered with a snapshot of Labour politics for decades to come.”

Labour’s current selection process means there is no practical recourse for ineffective or unpopular MPs. Without the risk of handing a seat to the Tories, by voting against the Labour candidate, Labour voters have no way of removing an MP who does not represent them. The constituency of Vauxhall provides a stark example of this. Whilst local MP Kate Hoey publicly campaigned to leave the EU, 78% of her constituents voted to remain. Her vocal support for Leave – as well as controversial positions on fox hunting, handguns and smoking bans – almost certainly place her at odds with her constituents, yet she won almost 60% of the vote at the 2017 General Election.

In Labour safe seats like Vauxhall, Labour MPs can expect to keep their job for as long as they want it. With no way of separating support for local candidates and for the Party, MPs can go from election to election without any serious competition for their seats. Nobody should be able to hold a seat for decades on the basis of a single selection meeting or the decision of an NEC panel. In the case of Kate Hoey, her selection, in 1989, was shrouded in controversy. Black community activist Martha Osamor won the most nominations locally but the NEC refused to shortlist her. When the CLP rebelled against the decision, the NEC imposed Hoey as the candidate. She has now been an MP for 29 years on the basis of a backroom decision made with no input from local members or voters.

Hoey’s selection was unusual but it speaks to one of the issues frequently raised by opponents of opening up the selection process. They argue that because the politics of Labour’s membership changes rapidly, potentially moving from one extreme to the other, it should not define Labour’s MPs, which can instead act as a steady hand for the Party. But equally, why should an area’s MP be chosen for decades to come on the whim of a CLP? Politics is fast moving and the current system leaves constituencies stuck with a snapshot of Labour politics for decades to come. Whilst an avowed Blairite candidate might have been popular in 1997, they cannot claim to represent an area forever. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured candidate now might not be the best representative for their local area in 25 years time.

Labour should always be diversifying and renewing, reflecting as best as possible the country we seek to represent. This should include the background of our MPs as well as their politics. The low rate of turnover of MPs in Labour’s safest seats has undoubtedly held us back in terms of representation of women and minorities. As the Electoral Reform Society found earlier this year, safe seats are overwhelmingly held by men. When the Labour candidates were selected for these seats decades ago, far fewer women had the opportunity to stand. While Labour has been better at selecting female candidates in recent years, a disproportionate number of these have been in marginal constituencies or unwinnable seats. For many minority groups, opportunities for political participation have improved, but parliamentary seats remain blocked by MPs selected decades ago.

Some argue that open selections would reduce diversity, producing a parliamentary party of Corbyn-clones. But recent evidence does not support this case. In Lewisham East, for example, pro-EU Janet Daby won with 60% of the vote, defeating candidates endorsed by Momentum and trade unions. In January, the Guardian reported that of 29 selection contests, Momentum-backed candidates had won only 7. It is clear that strong local candidates can easily defeat those with external backing. Even in recent cases, where sitting MPs have lost votes of no-confidence, their fates have proved far from sealed. Joan Ryan lost a vote of no-confidence by only two votes. It is entirely possible that she would nevertheless win an open selection when members would have the responsibility of choosing among alternative candidates.

In fact, the current trigger ballot system exacerbates the disputes occurring in many CLPs. The number of hoops one is required to jump through to initiate a reselection process necessitates a protracted and bitter campaign against the sitting MP. Rather than presenting a positive case for their favoured candidate, members who want a reselection must start with negative attacks. This leads to the worst type of internal party politics, played out at length in front of the media. Open selection would avoid this drawn out process of censure motions and no-confidence votes.

There is a big divide between Labour members and MPs; we need to acknowledge this and be open-minded in our search for solutions. Open selections for every constituency would help build a bridge between the PLP and members, giving MPs a genuine mandate from their local members. The trigger ballot system makes it incredibly difficult to remove ineffective MPs and instead leads to protracted and harmful internal disputes. Mandatory reselection would be an opportunity to renew the Party, hold our MPs to account, and ensure that the Labour Party has hardworking and responsive representatives.

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