As we approach the general election, the Parliamentary Labour Party is preparing for a substantial shakeup. A wave of defections and resignations has meant dozens of winnable Labour seats were suddenly up for grabs. In most cases, CLPs were given the right to choose their next candidate – and they did.
In Nottingham East, Independent Group defector Chris Leslie – described by some constituents as an absentee MP with no connection to the area – was replaced by local activist Nadia Whittome, who made a name for herself through anti-austerity and migrants’ rights campaigns. In Poplar and Limehouse, fracking supporter and Johnson’s Brexit deal backer Jim Fitzpatrick gave way to Apsana Begum, the CLP’s former secretary who campaigned against nursery closures. In the overwhelmingly Remain-voting Vauxhall, notorious Brexiteer (as well as fox hunting and grammar school enthusiast) Kate Hoey got replaced after 30 years in office by committed Remainer Florence Eshalomi. Flo heavily defeated the leadership favourite, businessman Ibrahim Dogus (later imposed as the candidate for West Bromwich East), who was accused of paying his workers poverty wages and using his newspaper to influence the selection.
Inevitably, a long list of reselections means that the overall picture is at least somewhat mixed, but some clear trends can be identified. The new cohort of candidates is younger, more diverse and often more local. Although more figures associated with the left of the party have been selected than before, it has been far from a factional clean sweep. Turnouts at selection meetings have been impressive: around 500 in Nottingham East, nearly 600 in Streatham, and over 700 in Vauxhall, to pick some of the most striking examples. For many of these CLPs, this was their first opportunity in decades to pick their candidate. After many general elections of canvassing with gritted teeth, thousands of members will finally have the chance to campaign for someone whose values match their own.
The arguments for open selections are familiar and well rehearsed. That the current PLP is pale, stale and does not reflect the leftwards shift that has taken place in the party. That there are few meaningful ways in which an MP can be held to account by the membership. Corbynites arguing for mandatory reselections are often accused of being vindictive, sometimes not incorrectly. However, it doesn’t take visceral factional hatred to agree that there is no excuse for someone as devoid of socialist values as, say, Ian Austin – a man probably best known for aggressive migrant-bashing – to serve as a Labour MP for 14 years before stepping down to endorse Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
However frustrating the disconnect between members and parliament is when in opposition, internal democracy will become far more important when Labour gets to power. This year’s party conference passed a number of groundbreaking policies, from a Green New Deal to a four-day week. As soon as we try to implement them, Labour will inevitably come under pressure to back down, not least from powerful financial interests. We will need MPs who believe in the project enough to stand their ground, and who remember (or are reminded) that they are representatives of a movement that’s bigger than them. Passing motions can amount to little without direct personal accountability, and opening selections provides members with a lever to pull in the event their MP begins to shirk that responsibility.But there is also a positive argument for opening up selections. Picking a different candidate doesn’t have to and shouldn’t always be seen as punishing the incumbent – it could just be a way of giving someone new a chance. How many CLPs have plenty of talented and principled activists, full of potential and ideas that could push the party forward? How many radical women, BAME and working class candidates are we missing out on because of a system that defends the old establishment?
There is a case to be made that being an MP should not be a job for life. I don’t want to have parliamentarians who decide they want the job when they are teenagers, spend their university years carefully building up their profiles and then get parachuted straight into safe seats where, unless a massive scandal happens, they know they can sit in comfort for the next four decades. I want MPs who have had a variety of jobs, applied for benefits, gone on strike in protest against terrible boss – and who know that one day they might have to return to the job market. I want Labour MPs who have shared interests and close personal friendships with the working class people they are meant to represent – rather than moving in a social circle that consists entirely of their colleagues on the opposite side of the chamber. This won’t be achieved by changing the selection process alone – a deeper structural and cultural shift will be required – but it could be a good place to start.
Let’s face it: open selections won’t always protect us from wrong decisions and bad MPs. Democracy is, by necessity, messy. Candidates selected from and by the membership will be as imperfect as our movement. Antisemitism and other forms of bigotry urgently need to be eradicated through a serious programme of political education, reaching every CLP. However, ceding power to the NEC (a body itself made up of imperfect human beings, often unaccountable and prone to nepotism) doesn’t prevent bias in selections. It only abdicates responsibility.
Labour proudly describes its 2019 campaign as “people powered” – with a manifesto influenced by members, a million pounds collected through small individual donations, and thousands of activists ready to volunteer their time for the party. Now it’s time for that movement to enter Parliament. It’s time for the people to take control of selections.