Labour selections are not about factional advantage, but getting ready for power

Luke Akehurst

Labour has now selected 59 parliamentary candidates in seats where the Labour MP has retired, or which are the most winnable attack marginals. This is the first time since the 2010-2015 parliament that many of these Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have been able to run competitive, democratic selections, as the snap elections in 2017 and 2019 led to the widespread imposition of candidates by NEC panels, due to lack of time to run full selections.

The boundary review, due to come to a conclusion in 2023, has meant some selections have had to be delayed where there is a fundamental change expected between the ‘old’ boundaries and the ‘new’ boundaries. These CLPs will have to wait until after CLP boundaries are changed, which will be after annual conference 2023. However, the possibility of a snap general election in spring 2023 on the old boundaries means we are pushing ahead everywhere that we can.

The process is based on that used in the run up to 2015, but with some fundamental changes. Legally, we can’t use all-women shortlists because the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is already more than 50% women. We have therefore ensured diversity by pushing for gender balance on each longlist and shortlist and at least one BAME candidate at each stage, as well as branches being able to give additional nominations to women and BAME candidates.

After representations about the impact of the previous long (12-week) process on candidates with work or caring responsibilities, particularly women and people who don’t work in politics, and the advantage it gave to political ‘full-timers’, we shortened the process dramatically to just five weeks. We also made it more accessible by bringing in a spending limit for the first time, to stop candidates with personal cash or big money backers dominating and stop an arms race of glossier and glossier materials.

Most dramatically, and receiving the most publicity, the national executive committee now gets involved at the front end of the process by chairing panels that do the longlisting of candidates. This is both to ensure diversity but also to operate quality control and ensure all candidates reach a minimum level we are happy to have in front of the public, and to carry out due diligence to ensure there is nothing about candidates that could embarrass the party.

It’s difficult to know how anyone could have seen the events of recent years and not see the need for due diligence checks. Whether it was Jared O’Mara, Mike Hill, Claudia Webbe or, in just the one constituency of Peterborough Fiona Onasanya and Lisa Forbes, too many Labour candidates have been allowed to run and then discovered to have skeletons in their cupboards, or fatal flaws that lead to appalling publicity, lost reputation and votes, and unnecessary by-elections.

Lack of proper due diligence meant that multiple Labour candidates in 2019 never even made it as far as the starting line of the election but were forced to stand down when the media (and Tory headquarters) did the job publicly of exposing misdemeanours that Labour should have researched and blocked them for privately. This time we are determined that every candidate should be one that Labour voters can be proud to vote for.

Not least among the due diligence concerns is our legal obligation to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and our moral obligation to the Jewish community, not to allow anyone to represent the party as a candidate who has been involved in antisemitism or has been part of whitewashing it and denying it is a problem. This is not about factional advantage or stitch-ups, it is about getting ready for power and being the professional organisation we should be.

What’s been the impact of these changes? Members seem enthused by the process and happy with the quality of candidates they are getting to choose from, and as soon as candidates have been selected there has been a noticeable uptick in campaigning activity.

The due diligence has worked because the controversy has all been about a very small number of people complaining they weren’t allowed to stand, and the media and Tories have been left with no targets at all among the people actually selected – there just haven’t been the usual run of hatchet jobs on fatally flawed candidates.

The measures we have taken to help women candidates (and presumably cultural change in the party) have ensured that, despite not being able to use all-women shortlists, 29 out of 59 candidates selected so far have been women.

The shorter timetable has helped local candidates at the expense of well-funded outsiders. Most candidates selected have a credible local connection and often a long history of local public service as councillors. We need to keep an eye on the process to ensure that candidates can make it through who bring vital life or political experience to parliament that doesn’t fit this ‘local champion’ mould also get into the mix, and to avoid a situation where our best talents are not excluded because they are unlucky enough to be based in an area that is unwinnable or already has a Labour MP.

Ethnic diversity has been good in the sense that over 15% of selected candidates are BAME, but there are specific groups that are under-represented in parliament, notably Black men and the East and South East Asian communities, that haven’t been successful yet in this round, and we may need to take further steps to address this.

Politically, almost all candidates are enthusiastically supportive of Keir Starmer and the direction he is taking the party in, but it’s not monolithic and the soft-left group Open Labour says six of its members have been selected, whilst high-profile Momentum activist Faiza Shaheen has been picked to run in Chingford and Woodford Green.

This balance is to be expected given the dramatic changes to composition of the membership and political control of CLPs since 2019, particularly as many candidates have been picked in a period where Keir has soared to a 20-point poll lead. It’s also necessary and helpful – you can’t have a massive political gap between your candidates and the personal pitch they are making, and the national message, without voters noticing.

There are still about half the marginal seats that we need to form a majority left to fill, and the tranche after that, which would give us a working majority. And that’s before we pick candidates in the least winnable couple of hundred seats, where we need energetic people to take the fight to the Tories and SNP without the support of the professional organising staff who will be in the marginals – and who we need to make sure are of a high calibre so that, if this is another 1997 landslide, we aren’t in the scenario Peter Mandelson was on election night of having scores of new MPs “who we’d frankly not heard of and knew nothing about”. So, there’s a lot more to do, not least for those of us on the national and regional executive committees staffing up innumerable longlisting panels, but a lot already done.

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