In selections, perception is everything

November 14, 2012 2:58 pm

Jon Cruddas is Guest Editing LabourList this week, but I’m back briefly to talk about last night’s events in Rotherham, which can’t be allowed to pass without comment.

Sarah Champion was selected as Labour’s candidate  for the upcoming by-election, which will take place in 15 days. Her bio certainly reads well, and those who I’ve spoken to who have met her seem confident that she will be an excellent MP.

Yet it’s impossible to overlook the elephant in the room. Last night there was a substantial and public walk out at the selection. A significant number of Labour members (the reported number varies – 50/100/140) left the selection meeting in protest over the selection process. In particular there’s a great deal of anger in the constituency that local candidates weren’t shortlisted.

That’s a refrain that anyone who takes an interest in Labour selections will hear time and time again.

Now let’s be sensible for a moment. Sarah Champion runs a children’s hospice in Rotherham. She may not live in the constituency, but she clearly spends a great deal of time there and will know the local area well. She certainly has a local link. But that doesn’t seem to have placated the CLP, when a prominent local candidate was not, for whatever reason, shortlisted.

As I wrote last week, the party has made some positive steps on selections in recent months – but there’s still a huge distance to go before Labour members trust the way selections – and in particular by-election sections are run. I hope (and want to believe) that this selection wasn’t stitched up – and I’m assured that it wasn’t. But the problem is that if it looks like a stitch up, and smells like a stitch up then it gets treated like a stitch up.

It’s not good enough to simply avoid the blatant rigging of selections that were once rife in the party – there must be complete confidence in the selection process. And that will require greater transparency, as I argued last week:

Imagine being a member in a safe Labour constituency, with a retiring MP. Your best opportunity to influence Parliament comes a round only every 20/30 years by selecting the next Labour MP in an open ballot.

Now imagine having that choice taken from you, either by having the party impose a candidate against your wishes, or by giving you a shortlist that doesn’t really give you a choice at all.

I see why people would be angry.

I’d be angry.

Clearly a significant number of people in Rotherham felt that their choice – a choice which doesn’t come around often – has been restricted or removed. By introducing transparency into by-election selections members can at least hold accountable those who have made the shortlisting decisions that so often anger so many. Again, as I wrote last week:

The best way to ensure that choice is for transparency in selections to be absolute. The party should produce a selection transparency report after every parliamentary selection, stating who was long listed, who was shortlisted and what the final vote in the selection was. Additionally, the names of those who conducted the longlisting and shortlisting should also be made public, so we know who is responsible when things go awry.

But truth be told I’m no longer sure that increased transparency is enough to satisfy the deep and long lasting mistrust that has built up amongst Labour Party members towards the cetral party machine. It’s time to consider whether or not the NEC should really be conducting the shortlisting meetings, or whether a mixed NEC/CLP panel might be more appropriate. And of course each selection that ends in acrimony is more grist to the mill for those who believe in primaries (I don’t for reasons I’ll go into at another time).

The issues around selections risk undermining what is left of the trust between the party in constituencies and those at the centre. In a few weeks, with by-elections out of the way but before the rapid increase in the pace of selections next year, LabourList will be returning to this issue, and asking you what the right way forward us.

But regardless, what we saw last night can’t be repeated.

In the Labour Party it doesn’t matter whether selections are stitch ups or not anymore – perception is everything.

And last night’s selection looked awful.

  • http://twitter.com/crispeater Chris Wills

    Excellent piece. Another thing that’s really damaging about the Rotherham fiasco is that it appears to make a nonsense of Labour’s supposed aim of reconnecting with its grassroots members.

    What we need is a balanced approach, as suggested above, in which the CLP has a responsibility for selecting their potential next MP, but where the NEC or some other disinterested body is also involved to ensure that a transparent, rigorous and objective
    selection process is adhered to, and that candidates are considered on merit rather than on who the candidate may or may not have connections to, locally or centrally. Neither the CLP nor NEC should try and interfere or manipulate in order to get a desired candidate selected. If candidates aren’t shortlisted, then there needs to be honest and clear feedback given as to why they weren’t shortlisted. I appreciate that this is going to be very hard to achieve in reality, which leads to my last point.

    The big problem with a number of CLPs, and a big barrier to reform of the selection process is this: the immemorial stranglehold of a small group of individuals, leading to the desire centrally to break up this cabal by attempting to impose an external “clean break” candidate. Neither trusts the other not to engage in funny business in order to get what they want, and both engage in undemocratic practices, to the detriment of local members, the wider party – and, of course, the candidates themselves. A key here has got to be, as we keep hearing, proper grassroots engagement (listening is always a good start), working with CLPs to help them become more inclusive and representative, giving more opportunities for involvement and engagement to women, BME, LGBT and young members. How the party goes about that has got to be part of the wider forthcoming discussions on here about reforming selections.

    Chris

  • http://twitter.com/CllrBarrieG Cllr BarrieGrunewald

    I couldn’t agree more, it may very well be the case that Sarah Champion will
    make a first class Member of Parliament but are we really saying out of a
    membership of circa 200,00 and undoubtedly many people who would have put their
    name forward for this seat that only two people were good enough to be considered
    by the local Party, really?

    Yet when the Middlesbrough shortlist was announced the local party had 6
    people to choose from including one of the excluded candidates who applied for the
    Rotherham seat. What I am many people won’t be able to understand is why was a
    candidate good enough for Middlesbrough but not his home CLP, its
    incomprehensible.

    It is time to restore credibility in selections and the only way to do that
    is to ensure that the local party have a real say over how many people they want
    to be considered on the shortlist and possibly even allow the GC to put two
    names forward which would automatically go forward to selection meeting as well
    as the NEC choices.

    Ed Miliband & indeed Ian McNicol promised a fresh start and a break from
    the practices of old but this kind of shenanigans does both no favours and only
    undermines the whole process.

    What is done is done and we must now ensure Labour gets re-elected but we must ensure this never happens again and not allow local parties to be trampled over It is time for a rule change to be submitted to conference and whilst this couldn’t be enacted for two years, we simply cannot allow this to continue happening in the
    future.

    Cllr Barrie Grunewald
    Deputy leader St Helens MBC
    @CllrBarrieG

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    The NEC were only placed in charge in the first place because of a particular by-election, and frankly they misjudged the fact that any Labour candidate would have faced the same problems given the politics of the time.
    There is no need for a special selection procedure at all. Leave it to the CLP’s. The evidence of NEC intervention in recent years has been that very good candidates have often been replaced by atrocious ones, and the results have been equally atrocious – look at Calder Valley last time.

  • http://twitter.com/PeterKenyon Peter Kenyon

    Dear Mark

    Well done for raising these issues despite polling day being only 15 days away.

    I think you are right in concluding CLPs have to be involved. I’m inclined to that view. However, there is a vivid history of CLP officers being too close to a particular candidate to ensure a level playing field.

    In the case of Rotherham, I was shocked by one paragraph of the report in today’s Guardian. It read:

    “One Labour insider said Hussain had been the “red hot favourite” locally but as a Muslim man was deemed too much of a risk to the party in the wake of the child sex grooming scandal involving Pakistani males in the constituency which has prompted far right protests in the constituency. A string of local agencies have been criticised for “turning a blind eye” to years of abuse.”

    If I was Mahroof Hussain I would be tempted to pass that by m’learned friend as on first sight it appears defamatory.

    His prompt statement today calling for unity is very much in character and to his credit.

    But the underlying issues as you rightly surmise can not be allow to fester any longer.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

      Peter – I’d say the evidence is that its actually MP’s, regional office staff, and networks such as Progress ensuring a lack of level playing field. But this approach isn’t making it any better

      • http://twitter.com/PeterKenyon Peter Kenyon

        Dear Mike

        Indeed. But if the Labour Party is to succeed in building an effective party on the ground, the governance arrangements for branches and CLPs need to very robust. If they were, then the sitting MP (if you are lucky enough to have one), regional office staff, Progress, et al would all know their place – serving members and the electorate. What we have at the moment is those parties strutting around at the expense of members and their rights.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

          Actually we do have a sitting MP who was expected to retire before the last election, and I have a feeling that rumours of a parachuted replacement helped him to make his mind up! (he didn’t). Part of the problem is that so many people cant be bothered to join parties these days – because of incidents like this.

  • Brumanuensis

    I think the NEC’s prerogative should be restricted to two general situations:

    -When the CLP cannot come to a decision.

    -When the candidate selected is so clearly unsuitable for public office, that there is a compelling interest in blocking them from standing under Labour’s banner.

    Other than that, they can nominate people, but not insist on them.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

      It is my understanding that candidates must be approved by the NEC anyway, so a by-election should be no different really. I see no reason why a hasty local selection meeting can’t happen under the guidance of the NEC.

  • MarkHoulbrook

    Hello Mark, A very good account. I would like to use this forum to ask Peter Kenyon, Ann Black, other members of the NEC, particularly the organisational committee to consider changing the MPs selection process every four years to allow local members/activists to challenge their sitting MP in a fair, open and transparent manner. The presnt trigger ballot system must be modernised. Failure will create more Rotherhams on a larger scale

  • TomFairfax

    Hi Mark,
    Good point to raise.

    Take PCC elections. I looked at the bios for both the shortlisted candidates and decided I’d rather not have either. I’m abstaining tomorrow. I’ve only seen one leaflet from any of the candidates (Tory as it happens). So I have no information on which I’d be happy to base a vote on.

    This month we start selecting the PPC for the constituency. All women shortlist is not a problem, the clear disparity between the budgets for campaigning between the clearly ‘establishment’ candidate and the other who actually works for a living is. As a party we’re pretty well nearly bust, so it is striking to see glossy photo laden material that clearly cost a great deal being done as a mail shot to members, whilst a basic monochrome A4 leaflet for the other accompanies the comstituency letter withn details of the process.

    Not only is the short listing an issue, but clearly some rules are needed on campaigning budgets, as per general elections. I intend to back the candidate not trying to buy the result.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

      This is exactly the sort of point I have been making for a long time. Some candidates are clearly receiving external funds and we all know where they are from. There should be a single election communication allowed of a prescribed style, and no canvassing. Organisations not affiliated to the party like Progress should not be allowed any input at all. Its quite clear that unless they are banished from the party for good, the unions must act decisively. They are acting as a cancer inside the party, rotting it both from within and by their entryism

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36910622 Edward Carlsson Browne

        Why ban canvassing? If you have people who are willing to knock on doors on your behalf, you should be allowed to make use of them – especially since it’s free. Yes, candidates without full time jobs have an advantage, but any PPC is going to have to devote huge amounts of their spare time to the campaign and I don’t see why it shouldn’t start before the selection.

        Especially since outside London this is an area where the likes of Progress wouldn’t be able to play, because they simply don’t have the local activists.

      • Chilbaldi

        External funds – such as dorothy’s list you mean?

      • TomFairfax

        Hi Mike,

        Not sure about canvassing. I’d at least like the chance of speaking to the person wanting my support. However, single communication of prescribed style sounds fair enough. At election time they’d have to choose use from a range of standard formats in any case, so best to start practising and demonstrate they communicate clearly within those constraints.

  • Daniel Speight

    I hope (and want to believe) that this selection wasn’t stitched up – and I’m assured that it wasn’t.

    And yet Mark you are in a way helping the powers-that-be, whether it’s the NEC or a sub-set of them, get off of the charge. This is one of those time when Occam’s razor really should be applied. In other words it was a stitch-up unless proved otherwise. That’s proved, not assured.

    Why were only two names on the shortlist? Even with AWS couldn’t they find more? If not, doesn’t that point to a failure in the AWS? Why the nasty little leak about Pakistani male candidates in Rotherham? Who’s behind that one? We can’t blame it on Campbell anymore unless you get him that job in charge of social media Mark.

    So I will say it again. Shame on the NEC. Shame on Sarah Champion and all the other parachuted candidates against the local branch wishes. Do you hear that Tristram Hunt?

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      So I will say it again….. Do you hear that Tristram Hunt?”

      That sounds like the shouting against the granite cliff face from one metre away, in the middle of a storm. It still keeps raining, you are getting wet from the rain, and the cliff does not and can not hear. It will be the same next year, and the year after, until rocks learn to listen.

      This is why it is futile to belong to a political party, unless you control it.

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  • http://twitter.com/chriswcheeetham Chris Cheetham

    Given my experience with the PCC selections and the selection of my current MP I automatically sympathise with the people who walked out.

    I’ve been around the party for long enough to know the “old” days were not perfect but the tendency of the NEC to parachute in candidates and/or keep “difficult” candidates off the list is frankly counterproductive. The Party relies on volunteer effort and its fine in a by-election when all and sundry come in to help but at the subsequent general election the external support disappears. Then it’s down to the local members and if they don’t come out then we may not loose the seat but local electors do notice.

    Seems to me that all those years opposing democratic centralism as espoused by Militant was a waste of time when the NEC starts to behave in exactly the same manner.

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