Selective memory

Vote Labour

New rules will not bring more working-class candidates

By Richard Angell

—Last year’s conference saw Labour adopt a rule change which pledged it to ‘select more candidates who reflect the full diversity of our society … and to increase working-class representation’. In its first meeting of the new year, Labour’s organisation subcommittee of the National Executive Committee set about implementing this new rule.

The need to increase working-class representation has been recently reiterated by Ed Miliband, and endorsed by figures from across the party. From Unite general secretary Len McCluskey to former home secretary Alan Johnson, everyone agrees that we need a more diverse mix of people elected to parliament.

It is therefore hugely surprising that the way in which ‘org sub’ has set about implementing changes – massively increasing the cost and more than doubling the time potential candidates need to spend in the constituency they hope to contest – are likely to make it easier for full-time politicos – whether they be ‘Westminster village’ thinktankers and aides to frontbenchers or trade union officials – and harder still for others to stand for Labour.

After the 2010 election, a series of changes were made to the selection rules. The best reform was that the period of time when candidates had access to membership lists and could go door-to-door talking to party members fitted nicely into the statutory holiday time that every worker enjoys. This change meant that the candidates Labour has selected so far look a bit more like working Britain: in Carlisle the party selected Lee Sherriff, a care worker; in Burton, Jon Wheale, a former army officer; Reading West chose Victoria Groulef, who runs a small business, while Peterborough picked Lisa Forbes, a full-time mum. Into the mix, the party has also added long-serving local councillors and former MPs aiming to win back their seats. The much-criticised former special advisers are the exception rather than the rule, although, as they have always been, those selected are no less impressive nor gung-ho in their attacks on the Tories.

But the party has now decided to allow selection campaigns to run for nine to 11 weeks (compared to the current four) and has increased from two to three the number of leaflets candidates are allowed to send. Crucially, those going for selection will get the membership list – and the expense of an all-member mailing – before the party draws up a longlist, let alone a shortlist. This makes the cost of entry very high for some, with no guarentee of getting to make your case directly to the membership. The additional complication of supporting nominations makes the process more likely to favour insiders and ‘chosen sons’.

How are shift-workers or those people paid an hourly rate possibly expected to throw their hat into the ring if you have to make yourself available to party members for longer than most employers will allow in leave? And it will not be a level playing field, as those who work for an MP, a thinktank, or trade union, are given all the time off they need to campaign.

Before 2010 there were no limits on the number of leaflets those going for selection could send. There were reports of ‘spending wars’ and accusations of people ‘buying seats’, although the reality is that high-spenders rarely benefitted. The candidate who sent every party member a DVD, for instance, got just two votes at their final hustings.

But the realpolitik of campaigns is that whatever you set as the maximum soon becomes the minimum. If the campaign allows three leaflets and nine weeks of going door-to-door, that is what people will feel required to do for fear of appearing less organised, hard working or capable. The new process means it is almost impossible to run a selection in a seat with 300 members on less than £1,000 – hardly the way to implement resolutions to get more working-class people into parliament.

It is time for the NEC to look again. We need short, affordable and accessible selection campaigns, ones that are no longer than statutory holiday time, where there is no need to spend until after shortlisting, and supporting nominations are used to give momentum, resources and access to shortlisted candidates.

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UPDATE: On 14 May 2013 the NEC  org sub changed the maximum from 13 to eight weeks in a move that will make selections more accessible to all, especially to working people.

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Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress. For more on selections, see here.

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Photo: Felix O

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  • Anonymous

    I could not agree more.

    Does anyone know who sits on the shadowy “org sub”?

    • Omar Salem

      Pretty much all of the NEC.

    • According to Ann Black, everybody except for Paddy Lillis, Martin Mayer, Andy Worth, Steve Rotheram and Christine Shawcroft.

  • Mike

    The sheer number of people appearing from London to contest selections in places they have minimal connection to is ridiculous. The party will soon be represented by only bland indentikat clones. Watching some of these people speak is hilarious, even the hand movements are the same.

    The problem is nothing tangible will be done as these same people all have champions in positions of power- very sad. Perhaps Progress should make a stand and start outing these chancers. I mean, it’s not like they are all progress members.

  • I think, Richard, you underestimate the common sense of Party members who can sense when they are being sold a would-be PPC. Leaflets may help gain attention to someone wanting to be shortlisted but the final hurdle is not achieved thus. A bigger problem is that articulacy ( a close cousin of smoothness) can win over raw but not always speech-perfect passion. Would John Prescott get selected in the current era (ignore, for the moment, whether he would deserve to be)?

  • Jess

    Richard has a important point about the time dedicated to campaigning expected by the NEC, if people with jobs, childcare and other caring demands outside of conventional politics are unable to stand as a candidate due to the expectations. It limits the chances to Labour to really represent those as it will become about identikit politics graduates. Some of them I have no doubts will be good MP’s but whether all of them can relate to people can be questionnable.

  • David Brede

    Quite right Richard. Northampton South CLP asked for a rule change to limit the amount a candidate could spend in an selection campaign to level up that part of the playing field. This seems to be going in the opposite direction.

  • JamesB

    The BAME place on the shortlist also seems to have disappeared despite it bring credited with improving BAME representation

    • Agreed, more BAME representation is needed. A BAME A-List is needed.

  • bbc

    The whole selection process needs an overhaul. Too much crony-ism from unions and central party.

  • bbc

    The whole selection process needs an overhaul. Too much crony-ism from unions and central party.

  • Dan McCurry

    I 100% totally agree with this.

  • Ways to reform party selections:
    1) Open primaries for certain winnable seats and Mayoral selections,
    2) A BAME A-List who will immediately be put on the shortlist for winnable seats,
    3) AWS selections chosen through a lottery system,
    4) A targeted scheme to get more people from a wide range of backgrounds into Parliament.

  • Dan McCurry

    The problem with 11 weeks to campaign is that the candidates will have their lives put on hold for that period. That is a massive length of time. The reason working class people were being squeezed previously is because if you are white and male, you have only one slot in each ward to get nominated. The insider sees you coming and works like mad to secure the ward the outsider has focused on and squeezes him out. It was never to do with time.

  • Mike

    Open primaries? This will clearly benefit more wealthy candidates.

    How would a BAME A List benefit local working class candidates? Lets face it if working class people do stand it will be in their local seat. They are unlikely to go seat hunting.

    Many of these seat hunters have quite senior champions who on occassions will bend the rules. These people should be ashamed of themselves.

    We have to be clear if we don’t address this, we are in trouble. People are sick of these indentikat politicians and will vote for other candidates.

  • Harry

    Candidates should be drawn from the Constituency concerned and its contiguous area. There is then a chance that members will have some idea who they are dealing with. Furthermore, in Labour’s this is likely to tip the balance in favour of working class representation.

  • Harry

    Below should read “in Labour areas….”

  • Absolutely Agree, this is terrible and hugely expensive for people who want to make a real difference.

  • n telling

    As someone who is currently going through this new selection I would like to say how it has just been made even more unfair, Depending on what date you put your application in you pay £30 to get the members list, you then harrass members to vote for you in branch’s because if you get nominations from 50% of the membership you automatically get short listed. This is about who the branch leaders are and who they want to vote for because the members have not got a clue what is expected of them ( this is not monitored by te NEC) members in some cases had not even seen who they were voting for.
    affiliates are the same they are given a tight time scale to make nominations on a one page profile which is just silly.
    the selection panel is made up of who shouts the loudest and does not even have to be from the constituency.
    so after all that do you think any candidate based in the community or hard working is going to put up with it, I think not!
    the good old Labour party seems to be about selecting candidates based on who the strongest mouthest people are in the constituency we have forgot about the members completely

  • Andy Farrell

    Perhaps we should have awcs not aws