Labour and De-Selection | Necessary Change or Ideological Purge?
At the Labour Party Conference last year, delegates agreed by a sizable majority to reform rules of leadership elections and most notably the process of selecting Labour Parliamentary candidates. While this is perhaps last year’s news, it has become more interesting to think about given the fallout from eight Labour MPs resigning their positions in the party, defecting to a new ‘group’ known as The Independent Group (TIG) but did not call by-elections and were not de-selected.
Until last year, Labour operated under a trigger ballot system, whereby MPs who wished to seek re-election in Parliament would face a ‘trigger ballot’ which involved local branches and unions consulting members and participating in a yes/no vote on whether to select the MP again. If the MP wins the vote, then he becomes the candidate for the next election. If he loses, then a full selection contest is triggered, whereby the MP may stand again to be selected but faces opposing candidates who may be selected instead. However, since Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party in 2015, there have been growing calls, particularly by Momentum, to introduce mandatory re-selection in order to hold Labour MPs more accountable to their local members, particularly if their behaviour contradicts the will of the local party. So, at the Labour Party Conference last year, a compromise of sorts was agreed. The threshold for forcing MPs to face a full selection contest was reduced from 50% to 33%, making it easier for opponents and the local party to push somebody else to become the candidate. Many on the left argue that this is a good thing, as Labour MPs would otherwise enjoy more autonomy and exercise their powers more for themselves or another interest instead of local party. Critics argue that it is an ideological system designed to purge opponents of Jeremy Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), which has notoriously been a problem for the leader since he assumed office.
This debate has relevance in the ongoing fallout between the eight MPs who decided to leave the party and the Labour Party itself. Formed just under two weeks ago, TIG comprises of eight former Labour MPs, in particular, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, and Angela Smith. Alongside them are three former Conservative MPs, including Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, and Sarah Wollaston. With eleven MPs, TIG is now the joint-fourth largest bloc in Parliament alongside the Liberal Democrats. Their defection centres mainly around their dissatisfaction with the Brexit positions of the major parties, but also with respect to the former Labour MPs, their reasoning also extends to disapproval for Corbyn’s leadership and the ongoing anti-Semitism problem within the party and how it’s being dealt with.
The main debate at the moment is whether these MPs should stand in a by-election, and fundamentally whether an MP should be de-selected in future if they choose to resign the whip and continue to operate as an MP despite being elected on a manifesto they no longer represent. Well, in short, the view I take is that these MPs should call by-elections because they were elected on manifestos they are not affiliated with anymore, and to carry on as MPs on that mandate would go against the wishes of their constituents. It has been done before, such as with Zac Goldsmith in 2016 when he resigned from the Conservative Party and stood as an Independent after the government decided to back the third runway at Heathrow. He ultimately lost, but the point is that he was willing to call a by-election. While by-elections and de-selection can be separated, in this instance, I think there is a similarity. Both operate with the intention of clarifying the wishes of the local party and membership that their MP is working for them. When you have eleven MPs who made a unilateral decision without consulting their constituents to resign from their respective parties, that poses a problem. MPs should not be able to do this without mandatory by-elections, and in the case of a clash of interests, de-selection should be considered also. If they win their seat again, then power to them. It raises the question of person versus party, and no person is bigger than the party.
It is a good thing that de-selection has been made easier for local parties, but whether it should go further is another debate to be had. Labour is all about the broad-church, or at least it was. I want Labour to accommodate the centre-left as well as those further to the left, representing working-class values and tolerance. I would not want Labour MPs to be de-selected just because they do not share the exact same ideology as those they represent. But it is all about the conduct and behaviour, and when a Labour MP is not factoring in their constituents and subsequently creating problems, then perhaps someone else should replace them. Labour needs stability and unity at the moment, but that seems like a far-away prospect now.
Cover image via Sophie Brown