Luke Akehurst: Talk of deselecting MPs is unhelpful in the extreme

Luke Akehurst


“Deselection” was a word that was very much in vogue in the Labour Party in the early 1980s and has now come back into fashion.

My comrade in my old constituency Labour Party (CLP), Hackney North & Stoke Newington, Dave Osland, has just published a pamphlet called How to Select or Reselect Your MP – an update of a famous 1981 booklet by Chris Mullin. This is a bit ironic as I think he is probably very happy with his own MP, Diane Abbott.

It’s worth starting by defining the terms. Selection is the act of picking a new candidate to run to be an MP (or councillor, or other office holder). Reselection is deciding an incumbent can run for another term. Deselection is removal of the incumbent and replacing them with a new candidate.

For the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, Labour had a system that was a longstanding demand of the Hard Left, “Mandatory Reselection”. This meant that every Labour MP had to go through a full reselection process against anyone else who hoped to replace them. It is important to note that in those days a full selection process did not involve a One Member One Vote process like it does now – the final decision was only taken by elected delegates to the CLP General Committee, which in industrial and mining areas often had an absolute majority of trade union delegates. Mandatory reselection caused a great deal of conflict between MPs and local parties, and many unhelpful national headlines. It may have contributed to the SDP breakaway – the defecting MPs included a disproportionate number who had been deselected or faced a serious deselection threat. But in practice it was a damp squib – there were only a few dozen MPs deselected across the two General Elections, with the 1983 review of parliamentary boundaries causing some of these where two Labour-held seats effectively merged.

The system now is designed to avoid a full reselection process except where there is a clear local consensus that an MP should go. Instead of every incumbent MP going through a selection against other candidates, they face a “trigger ballot”. Every branch party in the CLP meets – all members can attend – and votes whether they want the MP to be automatically reselected or to face a full contest against other candidates. Each branch casts one vote. Each affiliate to the CLP – any affiliated union branches, socialist society branches (e.g. Fabians, Labour Students), and the local Co-op Party also gets a vote each. A full reselection only happens if 50 per cent plus one of the branches and affiliates have voted to trigger one. Otherwise the MP stays as candidate for the next General Election. If a full reselection process is triggered it looks like a normal parliamentary selection, a lengthy process involving branch and affiliate nominations, shortlisting by a committee picked by the CLP Executive, and a final hustings and ballot open to all members. The only difference is that the incumbent MP is automatically allowed on to the final shortlist.

As we are facing a national review of constituency boundaries, the National Executive Committee has already agreed how this trigger process will apply where there are boundary changes. There is a complex protocol but it basically boils down to any MP with a 40 per cent claim on a new constituency (based on how much of their previous seat’s electorate transfers across) being treated as the incumbent and subject to the trigger rules rather than a full reselection.

The trigger rules have meant that in the whole period since 1992 only a handful of MPs have been deselected and replaced as candidates. In each case there was a breakdown in relationships between MP and CLP that had more to do with poor working relationships, or poor performance in the job, than ideological differences. This is probably for the best, as the bad publicity involved in the deselection battles contributed to Labour losing any of the seats that were marginal.

It’s important to note that the principle of a CLP having the democratic right to replace its MP with a new candidate is a vital one. It’s just that it is such a negative and destructive process that it should only be used as a last resort.

Here’s why I don’t think the current noise around deselection is helpful:

1. Most of it is hot air. The vast majority of calls to “deselect X” on social media come from people who live nowhere near the constituency in question and hence rightly have no say in that MP’s future, which is a matter between them and their local party members. Similarly unless those calling for a deselection feel they might muster a majority of local branches and affiliates to trigger a contest (or a majority at party conference to change the rules between now and this round of selections), it’s all bluster. Most local CLPs don’t want to sack their MPs – even if they disagree with their stance on Corbyn there is a big difference between theoretically wanting to sack a high-profile MP in another area based on ideology, and in practice looking your local MP who you know in the eye and sacking them.

2. It usually doesn’t work. Any MP with a good long-term relationship with their members will be able to mobilise people who have campaigned with them and attended Christmas dinners and summer barbecues with them, or who they have done casework for, to out-vote newer more ideological members. Any MP with a good working relationship with the unions at a local and regional level will get their trigger ballot votes. It is important to note that the standing policy of many of the large unions is to always vote for incumbent MPs in a trigger ballot in order to minimise intra-party conflict. And with calls for deselection tending to come from the Corbynite left, it is worth noting that this segment of the membership is disproportionately concentrated in seats which don’t have a Labour MP anyway, or in seats with MPs they are already happy with, and tends to be thinnest on the ground in the Northern and Midlands working class constituencies that most of Corbyn’s Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) critics represent. The trigger system gives equal weight to working class branches with fewer members as to large and often leftwing middle class branches.

3. It implies a total breakdown of trust between MP and CLP that usually masks some wider dysfunctionality. It isn’t normal in working relationships, even in politics, to sack someone because you disagree with them. It isn’t normal that the differences within a political party would be so profound you would focus on sacking your own party’s MP rather than on working to oust the nearest Tory.

4. It’s a very time-consuming distraction from the primary business of the Labour Party which is fighting the Tories. A successful trigger and subsequent full reselection contest focuses an MP and their CLP for a large slice of a year on a very divisive internal process rather than campaigning. It takes the MP away from their work exposing the Tories in Parliament and representing their constituents and forces them to focus only on the small audience of local members.

5. In any seat that is marginal, it increases substantially the risk of the seat being lost. You lose the incumbency effect of the sitting MP – the extra votes they get due to name recognition, local media coverage, casework, and delivery of results such as investment or discretionary government spending for the area. You replace them with a new candidate without those advantages whose selection will have been controversial in the media and who the Tories will probably portray as an extremist even if they are not, just for having conducted a deselection. Meanwhile you are stuck with a very grumpy deselected MP who owes nothing to their successor for the remainder of the run-in to the General Election. Members who backed the deselected MP are unlikely to be motivated to campaign hard for the new candidate who got rid of them.

6. As well as incumbency being electorally helpful, the PLP needs experienced MPs. You can’t take on the Tories effectively if you don’t retain a cadre of MPs with detailed knowledge of both policy and parliamentary process, acquired through several terms’ service.
An MP is a representative of the whole electorate of their constituency, and accountable to their CLP, not a delegate who the CLP instructs and then sacks if they disagree. That’s quite an important principle of parliamentary democracy. We can’t have MPs who are afraid to exercise their own best judgement when legislating.

7. If the threat of deselection is intended as a lever for encouraging MPs to be more supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, that only works if it is deployed selectively in one or two high profile cases pour encourager les autres. As soon as every MP who disagrees with Corbyn is threatened with deselection it loses all deterrent effect as they each know they will face a challenge already. In fact it incentivises them to try to overthrow the leadership in order to get a new leader who will help secure their position. Now that it is obvious from the polls that Labour is facing losing seats under Corbyn, the deterrent effect of deselection is also nullified because MPs fear losing their seats to the Tories if they are allowed to defend them more than they fear being deselected for not supporting Corbyn enough.

Obsessive and blanket threats of deselection are bad politics. They have contributed to the divisions in the party rather than being an outcome of them. They up the stakes and put MPs in a situation where they have nothing to lose.

They have increased factionalism in the party by making reselection dependent not on the campaigning and representational performance of the MP – how well they do their job – but on where they are perceived to sit ideologically and factionally, which unless they are a robot or a careerist with no beliefs, is not something they can change.

They present Labour to the wider electorate as a party obsessed with internal divisions and labels, punishment of dissent, purges to achieve ideological purity, and not interested in how we appear to the outside world. Voters will see this as supremely arrogant – “Labour thinks they can sack our MP without waiting to ask us what we think about them in the General Election”.

They are also an essentially pessimistic strategy. They presume control of the PLP will be determined by changing the composition of the MPs we already have in opposition. An optimistic strategy would focus on winning the open selections with no incumbents where MPs are standing down and in the target seats we need to win a decent parliamentary majority – surely if Jeremy Corbyn is popular we will gain many seats and the new MPs elected there will determine the political balance of the next PLP?

I hope members will listen Dave Osland’s protestations that his booklet is “not a plea for a ‘deselect early, deselect often’ attitude” but I fear they will interpret is as the green light for an outbreak of extremely unhelpful local infighting.

Luke Akeshurst is Secretary of Labour First

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