Labour’s future candidates programme is controversial – but if it works, we win

Peter Apps

If you want to be one of Keir Starmer’s new generation of parliamentary candidates, you now have until Wednesday, August 18th to get your papers in – and join the Labour Party, for those who have not done so.

Over the last two months, hundreds of hopeful or curious individuals – including myself – have attended online forums aimed at encouraging them to apply for Labour’s new future candidates programme. The ambition is both bold and critical to the party’s future: finding new faces who can reignite excitement in politics, win seats and persuade the country that it wants us back in power.

Existing MPs, councillors or prior candidates have shared their experiences, while the Labour Party training team have outlined the rough process. How many have applied has not been publicly released – but the fact the deadline has been extended last minute from Friday to Wednesday might suggest the party is still hopeful of more new applicants and voices.

If the recent reporting and social media commentary is anything to go by, many will be dissatisfied whoever is selected for the 360 places. Any scheme like this – reportedly based on David Cameron’s Conservative “A-list” candidate list – risks smacking of elitism, even as it also offers an engine for mobility and previously marginalised talent that might otherwise be missed.

For now, the party is clear that being on the candidate scheme will not itself guarantee a place in a selection battle, let alone a seat to fight, although it will at least give the party time to suitably assess and vet candidates who qualify, a perennial problem in recent elections. That’s a good thing – constituencies should still get to pick their own candidate.

Getting a scheme like this right is key to the future of the party – and it needs to be twinned with more equitable, transparent selection processes at the constituency level. That means making sure each constituency is given a broad and good range of candidates, both local and non-local, ensuring women, Black and minority ethnic, disabled and other candidates, and including a range of ages, professional backgrounds and other life experience.

It also means making sure the candidate programme doesn’t just become another way to impose the “stitch-ups” for which the party is renowned, which saw a shortlist of one candidate for the Hartlepool by-election earlier this year and an almost unrealistically tight timeframe for nominations for Batley and Spen.

As often, the messaging on what the party genuinely wants is mixed. An anonymous media briefing from a Labour source to The Times on Monday gave the impression the hope is that the party can grab and supercharge new talent in the vein of Kim Leadbeater, sister to murdered MP Jo Cox who only became a party member shortly before becoming a candidate in the Batley by-election.

There was also additional spin to The Times story – that the leadership programme would be used to get “pro-Keir” people, painting the candidate scheme as another forum in Labour’s “forever wars”.

Hopefully, of course, that is not how individuals will be picked. The party needs a range of voices, and a candidate programme like this should include a mix of those already campaign-ready and others who will benefit most from mentorship and training. Getting this right could win us more seats, better debate and the country better politics.

The Labour Party training team – which is running the programme – declined comment on this story. Their seminars, however, have felt much more aimed at encouraging those with a range of grassroots and lived experiences, including key workers, trade unionists, women, Black and minority ethnic, LGBT and disabled candidates.

New arrivals will inevitably face criticism from more established voices who feel grinding through months or years of campaigning and Labour Party politics should be a prerequisite for office. But party political campaigning is not the only way in which individuals can help society and their community, and we should not be shy of pushing forward those who have previously put their energy in other areas. (Candidates will still ordinarily need to have been members for at least a year before they run for office, but the next election is likely still far enough away that those who join now may get that chance).

Those attending the calls have ranged from lifelong members to those who joined within the last year or several months, with very different levels of experience, confidence and ambition. Some have asked about the time commitment, the realities of being a candidate alongside a busy job or concerns over reasonable adjustment for mental health, physical disability or caring responsibilities.

Some of the responses on those fronts have been a little vague – as have answers to questions on whether the programme will aim to have quotas or materially increase representation from previously disadvantaged groups.

With one in five Britons reporting a disability or long-term health condition, Disability Labour last month passed a motion calling on the party to ensure the candidate scheme was sufficiently representative of disability. Other groups within the Labour Party are likely to be watching equally closely as to who is selected for the scheme.

Not everyone will be happy. But criticising those who make it on the scheme is not going to help. Done right, this should be a step towards a Labour government, and we should all be hoping that it works.

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