Mandatory Reselection: A Necessity, Not an Indulgence

A PLP that's in step with the Labour Party as a whole is imperative, and mandatory reselection the only method to realising that goal in the time we are likely to have available to us.

An often-overlooked irony in Labour Party history is that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership would not have been possible were it not for the party’s right wing. The change in Labour’s leadership election rules under Ed Miliband from an electoral college system to one member, one vote (OMOV) happened out of a manufactured scandal1 concerning the influence of trade unions in the selection of parliamentary candidates. The change was a right-wing move that sought to take out the previous voting power of unions in one fell swoop, and as a possible prelude to breaking the union link altogether.

As you might suspect given this context, then, backbencher Corbyn actually opposed the change with Tony Blair praising it from afar, going as far as to say he regretted not making the change during his own tenure. Obviously, the new system could not have had a more opposite effect to that which was intended. Instead of exorcising the then ghosts of the Labour left and permanently enfranchising the right, it has sharply reduced the right’s power internally in the party and flooded the membership with left-wingers. The rest is history.

Ever prudent, and perhaps taking notes from their comrade George W Bush, the Labour right have vowed not to endure the shame of being fooled twice. Consistent with their initial praise of OMOV - originally championed for Labour leadership elections by the so-called Gang of Four before they founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981 - the Blairite right, particularly Blair’s fanbase Progress, have also historically been in favour of open selections for potential Members of Parliament. Progress’ preferred system, despite not delivering the outcome which was intended, expanded Labour membership enormously. Though the Labour right have positioned themselves as advocates for party democracy in the past, needless to say, they don’t any more.

The ominous-sounding ‘mandatory reselection’, is in fact nothing more than a method of ensuring that Labour Parliamentary candidates earn renewed endorsements from their Constituency Labour Party’s (CLP) members. Initial selections of prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs), when the previous candidate is not standing again, are indeed subject to democratic participation of members. But as with so much in class societies; once you’re in, you’re in. Replacing a sitting MP requires jumping through a number of strenuous and absurd bureaucratic hoops, otherwise known as the ‘trigger ballot’. This is even less democratic than councillor selections, which though a deeply flawed process, at least allow for sitting councillors to have to justify their mandate somewhat regularly through a straightforward trigger by members on selection night.

Triggering a reselection process where there is a sitting Labour MP is only possible when several dominoes have fallen in sequence. The National Executive Committee (NEC) has to allow CLPs to select candidates for a general election (it didn’t in 2017, ostensibly because of time constraints). Wards and affiliated trade union or socialist society branches then have to vote on reselection. If the sitting MP has the support of a majority of party and affiliate branches, they win the trigger ballot and avoid a full reselection process. Finally, even where a majority of branches vote to trigger reselection, this vote has to be approved by the executive committee of the constituency party in question. Even if all of that miraculously comes off without a hitch, the MP can appeal the decision to the NEC.

It will be depressingly obvious to active Labour members how unlikely achieving all the above would be. Assuming the NEC allows the process, ward and CLP officers - the ones who would have the first say on whether or not to accept the process - have in many places not yet succumbed to the Corbyn surge.

I’d argue that this is the result of two things. Firstly, officers overwhelmingly are volunteers who have been in their roles for years if not decades. They tend to be less sympathetic to the left irrespective of the wings of the party with which they theoretically align. They are typically deeply hostile to change, especially to new members rocking the boat, and therefore the thought of ‘betraying’ an MP who they likely have known and supported personally for some time is anathema to them. This is less the dynamics of complex political struggle, more the sadly familiar constraints of small groups of people who are very much used to being in control. Secondly, new members are often not coming to meetings. Who could blame them? Where ward and CLP meetings are not dull (the phrase “more of a comment than a question” comes to mind), they are uncomfortable, a spectacle of administrative misery and old rivalries sparking off one another, regularly resulting in people storming out and the agenda being postponed. Current left Labour activists will recognise the deep worry felt when inviting new members to meetings, catalysed by fear of putting them off for life.

The level of organisation needed to deselect MPs through the current system is therefore intimidating where new members don’t already have a solid, experienced local left to link up with. Where effective organisation is possible, the system also necessitates exactly the kind of sectarian, cloak and dagger factional organising that the Labour right are supposedly above and claim to want rid of. For any hope of a Parliamentary Labour Party that reflects the politics of its leadership and party members, a rule would have to be introduced making full selections mandatory, once in every parliament.

Why does it matter? Because the dysfunction of CLP bureaucracy is a symptom of a much more general and overlapping sickness in the party and British society, where the thought of ‘excessive’ democracy is seen as simply improper, principally because of the risk involved. Faith in bureaucracy of this sort chimes with a deep and pervasive tic in British ideology, what Stuart Hall called “well-founded British masochism… every summer of affluence… must be paid for by twenty winters of discontent.”2 Overthrowing existing bureaucratic Labour structures is necessary for overthrowing this deep-seated assumption about the legitimacy of existing orders, and therefore of capital itself. Furthermore, by this stage in the Corbyn project, there cannot be any doubt that the real risk for the left and all supporters of a Labour government would be to keep the MPs we currently have.

Consider only the recent local election results and their aftermath. Notwithstanding some grand expectations, the results were at the very least not bad, and demonstrated the party building and consolidating its base in advance of the next general election, albeit with important exceptions. However, so hysterically anti-socialist are some of our own MPs, they cannot even bring themselves to celebrate good results. Unremarkably, ‘senior source’ after ‘senior source’ lined up to condemn the poor showing which problematically saw Labour gain more seats than the Tories. Usual suspects Chuka Umunna and Jess Phillips at least had the honesty to go public with their disdain for getting what in London were the best local election results since 1971. Of course, had the results been spectacular, the most spectacular results would have been held up, whatever their own dynamics, as representative of everything the right believes. If Westminster had been won, it would have been proof that Labour must back a second EU referendum. A Nuneaton swing would have excited the ‘legitimate concerns’ brigade and their call to be tougher on migrants.

As is now customary, the condemnation of the result and the state of the party happened even before the local election campaign had officially launched, undoubtedly to derail the campaign itself. Nowhere was this more delirious and juvenile as in Owen Smith’s now annual throwing of toys out of his pram, this time by loudly and publicly rubbishing party policy on Brexit: an act done in the knowledge that he would be dismissed from the shadow cabinet as a result but at least granting him and his gang of glorified SPADs some time on the telly. This disrupted campaigning against the Tories, which was always the goal, one that apparently holds unrivalled importance in the eyes of the right.

The temptation may well be to simply let things lie until we’re in government. However, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that should we get into government with the cry-bullies on the backbenches, the past three (by then, five or six) years will look amicable by comparison. We must assume that, once Corbyn’s Labour is in government, the threat felt by the 1% will produce a media and economic backlash not dissimilar to Syriza’s experience in Greece. This comparison may seem like hyperbole but given recent indications that the EU has no intention of letting an isolated left-wing government succeed, it is more accurate to consider the reaction against a left wing UK government as a potential farce following the Greek tragedy. The colossal political hurdle of preventing capital flight post-Brexit, combined with a party that has 30-40 MPs who consistently look for excuses not to vote with their own frontbench, could comprehensively destroy Labour’s chances of pursuing anything resembling a meaningfully reformist political programme, even one as mild as what is currently in the manifesto.

The radical notion of a parliamentary party that supports the party as a whole is therefore imperative, and mandatory reselection the only method to realising that goal in the time we are likely to have available to us. All of this is not to mention the opportunities mandatory reselection would open for those without well-oiled political networks or previous careers in politics or think tanks. Trade unionists and activists from all walks of life, most urgently people of colour and women of working class backgrounds, would have a much more direct pathway into representing their own communities in parliament. Though of course this alone wouldn’t guarantee a more sophisticated level of party democracy, it would at least galvanise incentives to produce one. I’d argue most importantly that reselections would eventually bring an end to the parachuting of candidates into inactive CLPs, a practice which ought to be regarded as entirely unacceptable, even when committed by left-wing MPs.

The replacing process should be simple and accessible. Candidates in CLPs could have to gain nominations from branches meeting a certain threshold, put themselves forward as challenger to the sitting MP, have a few hustings and an end with an OMOV vote. This process would, aside from actually being understandable and offering members a genuine choice, make current MPs consider and justify why they deserve their career. It would furthermore humble officers and re-enfranchise the rank and file to think carefully about how to use their vote. If indeed the right of the party truly believe in their own personal popularity as much as their behaviour suggests, one has to wonder what exactly they have to fear from this procedure?

But getting mandatory reselection will require the approval of Labour conference. It’s of vital importance that wards and CLPs therefore vote for a rule change to go to conference this year, and select delegates who can be relied upon to support it,3 rather than the taking comparatively indulgent ‘contemporary motion’ route.

As others have observed, the right of the PLP is now largely comprised of the dregs of the New Labour years. The most striking aspect of the Labour right today, and their allies in the bewildering world of #FBPE Dads, is that they are a perfect illustration of everything they claim to hate about the ‘hard-left’. Directionless, unconcerned with political reality, more interested in their own opinions than those of the country. Perhaps it was projection all along? Because of all of the above and more, the right is very unlikely to jump before being pushed. For the sake of everyone dependent on a Labour government, we have an urgent duty to take that choice away from them.

  1. For a fuller account of the 2013 Falkirk Labour selection row, see Alex Nunns, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, OR Books 2018, p25-31. The controversy, and its significance to the subsequent Grangemouth refinery dispute, is also discussed in Mark Lyon, The Battle of Grangemouth: A Worker’s Story, Lawrence & Wishart 2017. 

  2. Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, Verso 1988, p81. 

  3. Constituency Labour parties have until June 22nd to submit proposed rule changes and select delegates for this year’s conference, as well as nominating candidates for the National Executive Committee.