The Trigger Ballot in Bermondsey

Campaigning to trigger a full selection in Bermondsey & Old Southwark has shown me how ill-conceived this procedure is. We need open selection.

How big a deal is it for a local Labour party to not automatically reselect the sitting MP as the Parliamentary candidate? Is it an aggressive sanction that should be reserved only for MPs that have completely lost the confidence of their local party, or is it just the expression of a straightforward democratic principle that incumbents should regularly seek to renew their mandate from their members? This has been a key point of argument in my constituency, Bermondsey & Old Southwark, where we recently came a handful of votes short in local party branches of triggering a selection process for Neil Coyle MP ahead of a likely snap general election. It gets to the heart of the question of the role of Labour’s membership in the party, but also demonstrates the shortcomings of the trigger ballot process itself.

The current procedure emerged from last year’s party conference as a compromise after Labour’s ruling body, the NEC, resisted grassroots pressure to call for a full “open selection” in which every MP would face a selection process every election cycle automatically. Instead, the threshold for triggering such a selection was lowered to one-third (from one-half) of party branches voting in favour, or one-third of affiliate union branches and socialist societies doing so.

The fact that a minority of local members can trigger a selection suggests that it should not be seen as a nuclear option. However, as we discovered in BOS, basically everything else about the process is designed to make the trigger extremely difficult to achieve. If the local party is active, the MP needs to be truly loathed locally for the selection to occur, or the pro-selection side needs to have such an established grip on the local party that they can reach a large proportion of the membership without needing to use any of the party’s resources. If the local party is inactive, however, the lower threshold means that selection can happen seemingly almost by accident, as was the case for Diana Johnson MP, whose selection was triggered partly by a branch meeting attended by just two members

The most significant obstacle we faced was a lack of access to data with which to campaign. In a full selection, candidates are granted equal access to the lists of party members so that the campaign is conducted on an even footing. In the trigger ballot, only the MP is able to use Labour Party data. Coyle made full use of this by texting and calling members across the constituency throughout August and into September. The pro-selection campaigners were given no support at all from Labour and branch secretaries were forbidden from canvassing their local members to support selection. The only way members can organise is through informal networks. Momentum provided some support in our efforts to promote an open selection but nowhere near enough to compensate for the sitting MP’s unfettered access to party data. There is clearly a democratic deficit here - the rules should provide for both sides to have resources, not grant them to only one.

We also found that the case for keeping the incumbent is easier to make than the case for open selection. In many ways, Coyle should be a prime target for a selection – he is not a significant national figure, he hasn’t been an MP for very long, and he’s widely known for his abrasiveness and vituperative enmity towards the Labour leadership, having once threatened to personally sue Jeremy Corbyn among other hostile interventions. He regularly logs on to Twitter at odd hours to attack those he deems “bellends”; or “morons”, including his own colleagues and constituents. He’s petty and vindictive in a way that creates enemies.

Nevertheless, the trigger ballot structurally favours the incumbent. Coyle was able to make a positive case for his own record while characterising the trigger ballot as a divisive distraction. With a general election looming, this latter argument in particular resonated. The open selection side has no candidate to proffer as an alternative (campaigning for other candidates is not permitted), and instead we had to make a more abstract argument for the value and potential of party democracy, which while critically important does not grab people in the way that “let’s just unite to fight the Tories” does. Status quo bias means that anyone unsure of how to vote is likely to ultimately go against open selection. Additionally, using the MP’s own record as an argument for a selection entails going negative. While we felt it was necessary to highlight his conduct and argue for the legitimacy of members wanting an MP with more socialist values, this approach always risks putting off those who might perceive criticism of the MP as an ugly personal attack (an irony given the MP in question, but still).

The poor timing of the trigger was an issue that came up repeatedly. A number of members expressed their reservations about whether there was time to conduct a full selection process before an election was called. Though not unreasonable, these objections did not take account of the fact that a short selection process would make it more likely for Coyle to win because it wouldn’t give any time for a challenger to build up a campaign or name recognition, while the incumbent has his already up and running. This is also an argument for open selection, of course – if we weren’t spending all this time on the trigger we could just be running the selection already.

Beyond these problems with the process itself, we were also put on the back foot by Coyle’s own abuse of the procedural guidelines. Given that only 10 extra votes for selection in two branches would have led to the trigger taking place, these breaches could well have had an impact on the result. Although already advantaged by being granted privileged access to Labour Party data, we believe Coyle used his Parliamentary staff to campaign on his behalf, which is against the rules. He was also leaked the details of the meetings before they were sent out to members and provided them to his own supporters, giving them extra notice (members were only informed after we submitted a complaint about this). In a very short campaign, these timings can make a real difference – and if he didn’t think he had anything to gain by it, why do it?

Additionally, he sent a number of intimidating texts and emails to members during the campaign, including baseless threats of legal action, which is a flagrantly illegitimate attempt to chill dissent. Pro-selection campaigners in BOS have published an open letter laying out our complaints and demanding that the NEC act, which you can read here.

My key piece of advice for open selection advocates in other constituencies is to be building your presence in the CLP as far in advance as possible. The asymmetric nature of the campaign means that winning requires existing sentiment among the membership to be already heavily weighted towards selection, either because of the MP’s overwhelming unpopularity orthanks to the patient work of members building a base that can win without any usage of Labour Party data.

Ultimately, this reality is a huge flaw in the system. Realising the promise of Labour’s massively expanded membership under Corbyn means giving members real power in the Labour Party. It shouldn’t require heroic local organising for members to have their voices heard. This speaks to the confusion over what this revamped process is actually for: if selection is supposed to be a rare event, only occurring when MPs are especially out of line, why lower the threshold at all? You can sense this ambiguity in the reporting of Diana Johnson’s trigger, in which journalists tend to note with surprise that she is “not known as an outspoken critic of the party leader”, as though selection is only a way to smite Corbyn’s foes.

The reduced-threshold trigger ballot is a half-measure that satisfies no-one - it eats up time and resources without really democratising the party or revitalising its culture by giving opportunities to inspiring grassroots candidates. Labour needs to embrace real democratic power for its membership as a key goal, and implement open selection now.