In my last article for Labour Vision, I wrote about moves on the left of the party to provide what they call ‘a democratic selection process for the 21st century’ – mandatory reselection. Many members have been tabling motions on reselection at their CLPs ahead of Labour Party Conference in September, hoping to effect a rule change – to end the ‘automatic’ reselection of sitting Labour MPs and force an open selection contest in all 650 CLPs ahead of the next election.
Many on the party’s right have denounced the move, calling it a transparent attempt to remove sitting MPs who have had their differences with the current leadership and install candidates who are more ‘loyal’ to Jeremy Corbyn. This is undoubtedly the intent of many who have been agitating for the change – many of them for years or even decades – and I have every sympathy with those who believe that changing the party’s constitution simply on a narrow issue of obedience is a dishonest and dishonourable position that goes against the spirit of Labour’s broad church.
That being said, I also have every sympathy with Labour activists who have demanded a greater say in candidate selection – especially after a snap General Election where Labour’s NEC imposed candidates on hundreds of seats with little due process despite other parties finding the time to ensure an open contest – and with calls for a more transparent and democratic process.
The newly-elected MP for Brighton Kemptown, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, himself selected by an NEC panel, has promised to put himself forward to members in an open contest at the next election and the newly-reelected MP for Derby North, Chris Williamson, has supported mandatory reselection by saying that MPs shouldn’t expect to have “jobs for life.”
Both men are perhaps right on principle – and, being vocal supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, can probably expect to win reselection with relative ease. Labour MPs can’t expect a job for life and it must be right that their mandate to represent the party be periodically refreshed.
The problem is, the rule change being proposed isn’t the solution. For something being pushed as a ‘democratic’ process, mandatory reselection would in practice disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Labour voters and supporters at the expense of hardcore activists. Mr Russell-Moyle was elected by nearly 29,000 voters in Brighton Kemptown, Mr Williamson by over 23,000 in Derby North – and other Labour MPs have been returned to Parliament with huge personal mandates from their communities.
How can it be democratic for a handful of party members, dwarfed in numbers by the voters who returned MPs to Parliament, to unilaterally decide whether or not that MP is given a chance to be reelected by those same voters? At this point, proponents of mandatory reselection often argue that nobody is talking about stopping sitting MPs running for reelection, just whether or not they can do so as a Labour candidate – ‘they could always run as an independent,’ they claim.
This is unworthy of the Labour Party, which was founded precisely with the aim of ensuring working people won representation in Parliament, in the full knowledge that fighting an election campaign is an expensive business – and has only become more so in the last hundred years – that is beyond the reach of most people without the party’s backing. It’s a tawdry argument to suggest that removing the support of the party wouldn’t stop dozens and dozens of sitting MPs being able to stand, and not one worth taking seriously.
Labour Vision would like to propose an alternative. A reform to how the party chooses its candidates that recognises the membership’s desire for a transparent process but which is less susceptible to being hijacked by narrow factional agendas. A genuinely democratic alternative to mandatory reselection – open primaries.
Instead of making the choice of candidate in a seat the preserve of a handful of activists, or allowing once-elected Labour MPs to remain as candidates in perpetuity, let’s open the choice up to the entire Labour vote in a constituency. Using Labour Party data, ask all twenty-something thousand (or more) Labour supporters, who returned their MP to Parliament, if they should have the privilege of being the candidate again.
This would give our voters, the people and communities that MPs were elected to serve, the chance to reaffirm that support or to ask for a new candidate. A genuine, open, primary campaign would challenge our MPs to make their case again to their supporters before taking on their Tory, SNP or Liberal Democrat opponents and give them a powerful incentive to make sure they are working hard on behalf of the issues that are important to local people – which are not always the issues that are important to Labour members.
And, if another candidate is able to take their case to the whole Labour support in their community and beat the sitting MP in a primary, then the party has just gained a candidate who has proven they are more in touch with local people, out on the doorstep, than the one they had before – not just someone who can win the support of a handful of die-hard activists in a community centre or church hall.
If we want to ensure that the voices of Labour supporters are heard and that our supporters have a genuinely democratic chance to choose who represents them and has the privilege to be their local Labour candidate at a General Election, and we want to ensure that our MPs are genuinely speaking on behalf of and representing the issues that matter to local people, then open primaries are a far better answer than mandatory reselection.
Labour Vision hopes that members from all parts of the party will debate and support this genuinely democratic approach to selection for the 21st century.