A week ago David Miliband resigned as MP for South Shields - one of the safest Labour seats in the country. It is the only seat never to have gone Tory since 1832, it has been Labour since 1935 and it currently has a comfortable five figure majority. I’m always careful to avoid hubris around by-elections and the like, and ultimately the electorate will decide whether or not the Labour candidate is returned at the by-election. But I think we can be fairly sure that the people of South Shields will continue to be overwhelmingly Labour.
This isn’t a seat we expect to lose. In fact, it’s not a seat the party is worried about losing at all.
A day after his brother stepped down as MP, I interviewed Ed Miliband and talked about Labour Party selections. The Labour leader told me:
“Diversity really matters. Not just gender diversity, but lets get people from a whole different range of backgrounds…You’ve got to try and look like the country you seek to represent.”
He also said:
“It’s for local parties to make the judgement about who they want.”
And yet yesterday, when the timetable for the South Shields selection was announced, we find that the party is still conducting ridiculously short turnaround selection processes, managed by the central party and presenting the CLP with only a shortlist and a handful of days to make their decision.
To be the candidate for South Shields, you will need to be someone who can drop everything at a few hours notice to get down to London for an NEC shortlisting meeting on a Saturday, before campaigning furiously for a selection meeting on Wednesday in South Shields and then – for the candidate lucky enough to be selected – dropping everything (home, work, family) to run for the seat.
Doubtless there will be a significant number of candidates putting themselves forward for this needlessly truncated selection process – but they’re unlikely to be a broad cross-section of society, they’re far more likely to be those in the know and with the wherewithall to take part in such a process. That’s not to say a good candidate won’t come out of the process – doubtless one will – but there are countless potential quality candidates who won’t even throw their hats into the ring because of the way the system is gamed against them. Whilst General Secretary Iain McNicol deserves credit for his email to members encouraging them to stand for the seat, surely he knows that only a golden few will ever be able to take up such an opportunity in such a timeframe under such conditions.
South Shields is an opportunity to do something different, to tackle our broken politics head on. To be transparent about the way we go about things. To do politics in a way that Ed Miliband – and his brother – have espoused in recent months. There is no hurry to fill the seat. No reason why proper time and consideration would not have been appropriate. No reason why a process that gives the local CLP more time and more involvement would not have been suitable. It is not – in short – a seat that Labour expects to lose, or one where getting a candidate in place immediately is imperative. Perhaps the plan is to run the by-election on the same day as some local elections across the country – but there are no local elections that day in South Shields. In fact, such a by-election might serve to move activists from North Tyneside (where the party are trying to depose a Tory Mayor) to South Tyneside, to fight in a by-election in a safe seat.
It just doesn’t make any sense.
All of this talk about a new party, a new politics and a new way of doing things is great. But if you can’t even stand up for these principles in South Shields, how are we supposed to believe it will be different elsewhere? This was a chance to prove that the party was genuinely changing the way it did things like selections. Instead, the party has reverted to type.
And that’s a crying shame.