How to avoid failing a trigger ballot

Luke Akehurst

In my previous article on trigger ballots, I wrote about how it has become much easier to “trigger” Labour MPs and force a full selection process. Which begs the questions: what is the motivation behind making it easier to deselect MPs, and how successful will the people pushing this be?

The party leadership and those on the national executive committee (NEC) controlling the process are generally not from the same political faction as most of our MPs. Changing the composition of the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is a key priority for them for two reasons. First, it is to remove the risk of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn being constrained on key issues by non-Corbynite MPs. And second, it is a defensive tactic to ensure that if the hard left lose control of the party, they will not be as marginalised as they were in the 1990s and 2000s. They hope to secure a large enough block of MPs to be heard in internal debates and ensure younger rising stars come through the ranks so there is not a generation gap of hard left MPs like there is between Jeremy Corbyn, Laura Pidcock and Richard Burgon, and to be able to nominate leadership candidates without begging for moderate nominations as in 2010 and 2015.

For the new members who joined in 2015 and 2016, traditional hard left narratives about betrayal by leaders, MPs and councillors have been supplemented by anger about the 2016 leadership challenge. A culture of us versus them, members versus office holders, has been created along with the belief that a consensual and comradely culture in the party pre-2015 didn’t really exist. Members often didn’t like other people’s MPs in the abstract, but got on fine with their local MP because they had known them for a long time, even if they disagreed on some issues.

There’s also an element of using fear of deselection as a rather brutal party management tool to ensure MPs stay quiet and fall in behind the leadership. For this deterrent to work, it might be necessary for Momentum to deselect one or two MPs pour encourager les autres. This party management approach has been rather undermined by Momentum issuing a statement saying that they wanted their supporters to vote for a full selection process in every single constituency Labour Party (CLP), triggering all the incumbents. Their logic is that it enables more democratic choice and participation for members, and is the only way to increase the diversity of the PLP in terms of gender, race, age, and class. So it doesn’t matter how much an MP has acquiesced politically to Momentum’s agenda, the instruction is still to trigger them. The diversity line sounds like hot air as no protection is offered to existing young, women or BAME MPs. It’s actually the political composition of the PLP that is the real agenda.

As explained in my previous article, the trade union cavalry aren’t coming over the hill to save MPs in the way they used to. Their veto has been surrendered and they can no longer outvote party branches. And Unite doesn’t view every MP as a friend, even if the other major unions are still more interested in party unity than deselections.

All of this sounds infinitely depressing for MPs. A tricky process where a bunch of people who hate them are trying to sack them. If you fail the trigger, you face a protracted and very expensive (for the candidates and the CLP running the process) 12-week full selection process, which will require total focus and stop you focusing on getting ready to beat the Tories in the actual general election. Clearly it isn’t fun. The current political reality isn’t a bowl of cherries for Labour MPs. But it’s the current political reality, so they need to deal with it.

Part of the hard left’s plan is to put enough pressure on MPs, to make their lives miserable enough that they will walk away, either retiring from politics or leaving the Labour Party. The demise of Change UK makes this look risk free for the hard left – if they drive people out of the party they are not going to present a potent political threat to Labour, they are walking out into the snow to die politically. From a hard left perspective using the trigger process to bully MPs out of the party is a win-win, they expect to pick up the lion’s share of the vacancies.

The timing works for the hard left on multiple levels. Selections in vacant seats where MPs are retiring or have defected have been delayed – the selections are only just starting in some CLPs where the MPs defected in February – whilst the trigger ballots are taking place at high speed. This superficially looks self-defeating as it means MPs are all facing inwards rather than campaigning just as a snap general election is on the horizon, and there is no candidate at all in vacant seats. But for the hard left the big prize is to shift the composition of the PLP. Unlike in 2017, rushing the triggers makes it possible to oust some moderate MPs before a snap election. Delaying the vacant seat selections has meant, despite all the rhetoric about member democracy, that there is a chance the NEC will be able to impose their allies as candidates in some of those seats if a snap election doesn’t allow time for a democratic process.

None of this is actually about member democracy – it’s all about hard left factional control. The same people will as happily use a totally undemocratic method as a democratic one as long as it delivers the result they want. Moderate MPs need to hold their nerve and stand and fight to win the trigger, and if they lose that, win the full selection. The worst thing they can do for the future of their cause is to quit pre-emptively, either before the process or because of interpreting a trigger loss as a herald of deselection. Worse still would be to interpret a friend’s trigger or deselection as a signal to quit, thereby starting a domino process. That’s exactly what the most hardened operators on the hard left want – for initial incremental wins to start a stampede for the door that empties the PLP of moderates. It’s a test of will: do our moderate MPs care about the future of the Labour Party more than the hard left do?

Many MPs, maybe dozens, will get triggered either because of quirks in the system or because of the sectarianism of small numbers of members who will pack branch trigger meetings. But there is no reason why deselection of a single one of those triggered MPs should be inevitable. Winning the selection – which the sitting MP automatically gets on the shortlist for – is more expensive and time consuming than winning the trigger, but it is actually politically easier.

The winning post drops from two thirds to half the vote after transfers. Far more members will be involved, widening the franchise beyond more sectarian hyper-activists to more rational less-engaged members. By fighting on their record of achievement locally and nationally, reaching out to members who like Corbyn but don’t hate MPs – or have been dislodged from support for the leadership by its Brexit prevarications – and by intensive contact with members, every MP can win.

For anyone who has to communicate with tens of thousands of voters in a general election, communicating with a thousand or so members in a selection is eminently doable. Support and practical solidarity are being offered to MPs by a wide spectrum of mainstream members and members from CLPs without an MP should volunteer to help defend nearby MPs.

Of course, this entire process is a sickening and criminal distraction from the real tasks Labour should be engaged in of stopping a no deal Brexit and ousting Boris Johnson’s rightwing Tory government. The timing is perverse, but nobody ever thought the hard left cared about beating the Tories more than internal control of Labour, so this should hardly be a surprise. The hard left chose to make reselection of MPs the key battle this year within the party. They asked for this fight. We need to make sure they lose it, CLP by CLP, MP by MP.

James Kelly is editing LabourList while Sienna Rodgers is away.

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