Delegates voted to transform selections. Why is the rule change being ignored?

Mish Rahman
©️ Jakub Junek/Shutterstock.com

At Labour conference this year, a landmark rule change passed that would – if implemented – transform the candidate selection process and democratise the party in the interests of ordinary members.

The amendment, which Momentum supported, was proposed by Brenda Stephenson, a City of Durham Labour member, whose party had a local candidate excluded from their shortlist in the run-up to the 2019 snap election. This caused “a great deal of bad feeling”, says Stephenson, with the incident prompting City of Durham activists to write and move a motion at Labour conference 2021 that would stop Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) from imposing candidates for by-elections and snap general elections. The rule change passed with support from 62% of the Constituency Labour Party section of delegates, proving that it is an idea with support from across the diverse wings of the party.

The Keir Starmer of early 2020 would have been happy that this motion passed at conference. In his campaign literature, he wrote that “local party members should select their candidates for every election” and argued that the “NEC should not impose candidates on local parties”. This is the exact essence of what was proposed in Brenda Stephenson’s rule change.

The Keir Starmer of late 2021 appears to think very differently, however. It was revealed by LabourList last week that the shortlist for the selection of the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election candidate would be decided not by local party members but once again by the NEC. Conference voted for these shortlists to be decided by a panel of three CLP reps, one NEC rep and one regional board rep. But the leadership has insisted on three NEC reps, one CLP rep and one REC rep, ripping power away from ordinary members and putting it right back into the hands of the party establishment. What is the excuse for this flagrant overturning of a decision made by conference?

Well, there isn’t one. At least, not a good one. In a statement provided by the NEC officers, their reason for the decision is that “legal advice” was given as a result of the “inexpert drafting” of the rule change. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the motion, and it is just as well-drafted as countless other rule changes that have been eagerly taken up by the NEC in the past. But even if there were an issue with its wording, it is the NEC’s role to implement rule changes and, where required, develop additional guidance to enable that to happen – not unilaterally overturn them.

If the Labour leadership is willing to so quickly and blatantly override the sovereignty of conference, this poses serious questions for democracy and governance in the Labour Party. Activists and unions turn up to conference, and work tirelessly in the run up to it, on the basis that what they say and do matters. But when the NEC ignores their democratic wishes and overturns rule changes made on the conference floor, the party is in a potentially perilous position. Democracy is not conditional: it must be fundamental to the functioning of any left-wing political party.

But this issue is not just a matter of principle. The Labour Party’s history is littered with instances of candidates being foisted on local parties and it leading to defeat. We had one such example this year in Hartlepool, where the leadership imposed the candidate of their choice on the local party. In a humiliating defeat, Labour lost a seat it had held for decades – and many local campaigners saw the selection of Dr Paul Williams, a Remainer in a staunchly Brexit seat, as a key factor. Local members picking their candidates is an important democratic principle, but it is also the most effective way of choosing a candidate that is well-liked in the community and has enough backing within the CLP to launch a strong ground campaign. When it comes to these issues, it is undeniably true that Labour members know better than a small clique at the top of the party.

The NEC decision to overturn a conference rule change is a move that should worry all within the party. Like the rule change itself, this is not a partisan issue. People from all wings of the party should care about the fundamental democratic rights of members and the sovereignty of conference – and all those that do must become part of a coalition that pushes back firmly against this. It will improve our chances of winning elections: in a mass membership party such as ours, we need to unleash the potential of our activists, not stifle it by hoarding power at the top of the party. For all who value the importance of a fair and successful Labour Party, let’s do everything we can to oppose this anti-democratic move.

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