When the rules on selecting leaders were changed at Labour’s annual conference in 2017, they were changed in ways that many believed favoured the left-wing factions supporting leader Jeremy Corbyn. This year, the talk is of reforming the rules for selecting parliamentary candidates. Although the party is undertaking its own official “democracy review” to rethink its structures, a grassroots campaign is underway to make it easier for activists to replace Labour MPs. Many Corbynistas are enthusiastic but centrist MPs are alarmed. So, what is it all about?
The procedures governing the selection of parliamentary candidates are among the most important sections in a party’s rule book. That’s because the process is the interface between the party in public office and the party on the ground. It is about power inside parties. Can local members “control” their constituency MPs or do the latter enjoy autonomy?
The process of candidate selection gives before-the-fact powers to activists. They can screen potential candidates through shortlisting and selection conferences, where candidate positions can be scrutinised. Though important, these powers are not perfect as a selected candidate may, if they become an MP, behave contrary to the wishes of activists. That is less problematic if there exist after-the-fact rules to sanction MPs, such as deselection. But if these rules are hard to operate, the MP’s autonomy increases.
Most people would probably agree that the position of an MP should not be a sinecure. On the other hand, the job of MPs, first and foremost, is to be representatives of voters. That may not be consistent with acting as delegates of their local parties, given that ordinary voters are more likely to hold middle-of-the-road opinions than activists.
When MPs and local members are ideologically aligned, and provided that an MP’s personal conduct does not raise any concerns, the relationship is usually calm. But when there is an ideological schism between MPs and grassroots members, tensions emerge. If these tensions are not restricted to a few local parties but are widespread, as they are in today’s Labour Party, bigger disputes can arise over selection rules as members seek to “democratise” procedures and make the MPs “accountable”.
The Labour rules
Labour’s current rules state that MPs who wish to be reselected as parliamentary candidates for the following election must face a “trigger ballot”. Local ward and union branches affiliated to the constituency party consult their members on the MP’s reselection. There is then a yes/no vote, with each branch casting one vote. A simple majority of branches is required to reselect the MP. If the MP wins, they become the candidate for the next election, pending (largely routine) endorsement from Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).
Only if the MP loses this preliminary ballot is a full selection contest triggered. A shortlist of candidates, including the MP, is drawn up and put to a local one-member-one-vote secret ballot. The winner becomes Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate.
The current trigger ballot system enhances MPs’ security of tenure. Local opponents of the MP must mobilise against him or her just to start a full selection contest. Doing so is seen as an extremely hostile act towards the MP. That itself will likely deter some potential supporters of other would-be candidates if the priority is party unity. And even if local members are critical of the MP, there might be only ten ward branches, each casting one vote in the trigger ballot. But unions can affiliate dozens of branches and dominate the vote. If MPs have close links to local unions, they may feel safe.
Several resolutions submitted to Labour’s annual conference propose the introduction of mandatory reselection for MPs. The precise details would have to be worked out but it could involve scrapping the trigger ballot and requiring all sitting Labour MPs to automatically face full selection contests against other candidates.
Under mandatory reselection, an MP’s opponents would no longer face the difficult task of lobbying branches to trigger a contest. Once the full contest was underway, a candidate who was more in tune with local party opinion would stand a good chance of defeating the MP in a secret ballot of members. An MP who wanted to maximise their chances of reselection would need to make sure they stayed in tune with local members in the first place.
Labour has been here before. Mandatory reselection was introduced in 1980 after a successful campaign waged by the Bennite left to make Labour MPs answerable to activists for the policies of James Callaghan’s government. Despite predictions of a mass wave of deselections, only a few materialised. After Labour’s defeat in the 1983 general election, the mood turned against the left. The new leader, Neil Kinnock, was determined to weaken the left in the constituency parties with various reforms. One of them would be a prototype of the trigger ballot rule and was intended to water down the effect of mandatory reselection. With Labour’s shift to the centre under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the issue had largely disappeared for a generation.
The situation is very different today. The left controls the leadership, the shadow cabinet, the NEC, the party conference, the biggest affiliated unions and of course the 500,000-strong party membership, cheered on by an entire eco-system of pro-Corbyn blogs and social media. But it does not yet control the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
Momentum, the left-wing grassroots organisation, has thrown its support behind mandatory reselection. Some of its leading figures, including founder, Jon Lansman, were part of the Bennite campaign for rule changes in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some centrist MPs have already faced (non-binding) no-confidence votes by their local parties. Deselecting MPs who have failed to sign on to the Corbynite agenda would evoke little internal Labour opposition outside the PLP. Even without this latest campaign, change could still be coming if parliamentary boundaries are redrawn, as planned, creating the chance of selection ballots in numerous constituencies.
After the next general election, the Labour left may finally get a parliamentary party in its own ideological image. Whether it’s also in the image of ordinary Labour voters might be more open to question.