Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Voting with their feet

Fewer members take part in longer selection contests

—Barely one in two Labour party members have voted in selection contests for the party’s candidates in its top 106 target seats, according to new research carried out by Progress.

The findings suggest that we can at last put to bed the much-touted myth that members join the party simply to vote in internal selections – and bring to the fore new arguments to create a more inclusive politics.

The results also indicate that shorter selection processes increase the number of party members participating in them.

All but two of Labour’s target seats have selected their parliamentary candidates so far; we looked at data from 68 of these. Turnout in these contests averages 50.6 per cent – or just 157 members.

Turnout is above average, at 53.7 per cent, between target seats 27 and 66 – the group of seats that, if won, will make Labour the largest party. This contrasts with 49.6 per cent in targets 1 to 26, and 49.3 per cent in the ‘Frontline 40’ – target seats 67 to 106 on which an outright Labour majority will depend.

Progress’ study shows that turnout is slightly higher, at 52.6 per cent, in all-women shortlist contests, but unaffected by whether a former member of parliament is standing again for selection.

While just over half of members in target seats take part in selecting their candidate, it is worth remembering that turnout, across all constituency Labour parties was 71.7 per cent for the 2010 leadership election. Such a comparatively high turnout, of above 70 per cent, is mirrored in only a fraction – four – of the parliamentary selections we studied. Of these, a 76 per cent turnout was achieved in one seat where, as for the leadership election, members voted in an all-postal ballot.

In 2009 Progress published research by Will Straw and Feni Ajumogobia that explored participation in 294 of the selections for Labour’s candidates for the 2005-10 parliament. They found median turnout to be only 40 members – a difference we can attribute to a much broader sample pool that included many unwinnable seats, where membership tends to be much smaller, and levels of activism, and therefore the requirement on hopeful candidates, much lower.

Ray Collins’ recent report into Labour’s relationship with the unions highlighted the fact that, ‘A universal complaint [about selection timetables] is that [they are] too long – whatever selection is being discussed.’ This sentiment correlates with our research findings, which demonstrate that the longer the selection process, the lower the turnout. In the party’s ‘island’ seats – those that selected early in the parliament, and where prospective candidates were allowed just four weeks to canvass from the CLP membership list – turnout is well above the average, at 55 per cent. The eight-week selection process, which has been in place since May 2013, sees turnout down at an average of 53.5 per cent.  The 13-week-long contests, which operated between January and May 2013, saw turnout 10 per cent lower than the four-week contests, at a mere 46.6 per cent.

Progress has long advocated processes for choosing parliamentary candidates that are short, affordable and accessible on the basis that these are likely to increase the diversity of candidates going for selection. Our research into turnout for these contests suggests that shorter ones do not discourage members from participating – in fact, precisely the opposite. While the Collins review acknowledges that ‘the timetables for all selections should be as short as possible,’ the party’s former general secretary included no recommendation in his report for an alternative timeframe.

A promising first step towards transforming Labour once again into a mass-membership party – Collins’ objective – would be to make the selection process more accessible, not just for aspiring candidates but also for members. Labour’s National Executive Committee should, following the Collins review, look to introduce new measures reducing the length of our parliamentary selection processes that would make them more equitable and engaging for all.


Felicity Slater is outreach officer at Progress


Photo: Dean Terry


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Felicity Slater

is outreach officer at Progress

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