Parliamentary selections: democracy a la Monty Python

by Rob Marchant

The last few days have seen two major Labour news stories. First, the clash between the pro and anti camps for the additional vote (AV) referendum. Second, the controversy over supposed changes to Labour’s funding and voting model with respect to trade unions. What is not, perhaps, immediately obvious is that the two are connected.

It is surprising that people in the Labour party can get so exercised over AV. There are so many other policy areas, which the public deeply cares about, on which we should be staking out our position, in order to engage them. What is more difficult to understand is not that people get worked up about AV, but how inconsistent our thinking is.

We are ready, and rightly, to defend Parliamentary democracy to the death. With the AV/PR debate, many of us take it to another level. We agonise over how we can make it adequately representative and fair. Rum, given that, when applied to our own internal party elections, these words fail to ring true.

Take parliamentary selections, for example. Are they representative and fair? Our process is Byzantine to start with (p76-86 here if you are interested). But, in addition, there are the distorting “special cases” which have multiplied over the years. If you are from an ethnic minority, you are a special case and can leapfrog some parts of the process. A woman? Special case. Disabled, or from a manual or clerical background? Special case, at least in theory. On a union’s national Parliamentary list? Special case. Backed by a local affiliate? Special case.

There are good historical reasons for many of these special cases. Some of those reasons are still relevant today. But the reality is that almost every winning candidate is a special case. The only truly special cases are those that are not special. It is democracy á la Monty Python. We believe our rulebook to be a beacon of progressive values that protects those vulnerable to prejudice. It is the opposite. We have tinkered with the system to its near destruction.

We also tend to decide our candidates in a near vacuum. As Peter Watt put it a couple of days ago, “we actively exclude the public in a systematic way from being involved in…choosing the candidates that want to become their elected public servants”. But it is worse than that. We do not just exclude the public; we partially exclude the membership too. By distorting which candidates get on the shortlist.

In other words, it is not an open-access group of candidates with which we present members. But one which has already excluded, or made it harder for, a variety of activists who might just have made excellent MPs. Non-trade unionists. Non-women. Non-ethnic minorities. Jim Murphy MP recently asked why we have fewer members of the armed forces as candidates than other parties. It is a demographic which contains proportionally fewer trade unionists, women, and ethnic minorities – mystery solved. That is the reality, and it alienates many of our own supporters, as we saw when the local party imploded in Blaenau Gwent.

And if you have no union list approval, well, good luck. Because we subcontract out a substantial part of the selection process to a small group of senior union officials whose interests are not necessarily identical to the party’s interests. And this is just Parliamentary selections, let alone choosing a leader.

We work ourselves up about the importance of being fair and representative, while ignoring our own house entirely. Or, worse, we jump to defend the status quo. We fear that any change is a ruse to “break the union link”, “centralise power”, or some other such paranoia. But change is necessary. For a start, how does this whole process look to people outside the party? We are saying that it is important that elections are representative and fair. Just not in our own party, thank you very much.

The current systems have an exquisite, inbuilt locking mechanism for change-prevention. Because, if you have just been selected or elected, you are poorly placed adversely to criticise how you got there. Or you now have other fish to fry. Whereas if you have failed to be selected, your comments will be interpreted as sour grapes. And if you have not been closely involved in the process, it is probably too impenetrable to understand or care about. So, although many people realise the system is broken, no-one wants to be seen to call for it to be fixed. This elegant and circular logic neatly locks in all the tinkering, perpetuating the existing system indefinitely.

If we seriously want to make our party democracy work for the new century, we now have a short window in which to do it. Because in office we will never get round to it. Even the wildly reforming New Labour leadership did little about the party rulebook after 1997. Things got busy.

The lesson is: do it now. While we are not distracted by governing. While the party rank and file might see the need for change. There are a bunch of ways we could reform the system, of which primaries are just one. But what is clear is that the current system of party democracy, as well as its funding, is crying out for reform.

Rob Marchant also blogs here at the Centre Left.


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12 Responses to “Parliamentary selections: democracy a la Monty Python”

  1. Dear Rob

    If we want to break the locking mechanisms then a return to compulsory reselection could help.

    If we want to address public mistrust in elected representatives the last unfulfilled ambition of the 19th century Chartist movement – annual parliamentary elections could help.

    If we want to ensure more ethical political party funding rebuilding membership and small donations could help.

    Not so much reform as rejuvenation.

    BTW Glad to see Save the Labour Party’s posting of the Rule Book was of help.

  2. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Compulsory reselection might help, but it’s likely it’d cause at least as many problems in of itself.

    I think it’s simpler than that though. Impose a simple set of criteria for all shortlists – at least two women, at least one union member, at least one ethnic minority, at least one candidate from a manual or clerical background. At least half the shortlist to live in the CLP, an adjacent one or in the same county or metropolitan borough.

    Then let the CLP get on with it, with the NEC’s role limited to certifying the election and intervening where there are complaints of fraud. Even then, their power to be limited to suspending the membership of those complicit in the fraud, then letting the rest of the CLP rerun the reselection.

    I’d also bar all non-local candidates where the selection is made twelve months or less before an election, as there’s most skulduggery when it’s special advisers or similar being parachuted in.

  3. Peter, afraid I can’t agree with annual elections or compulsory reselection, and having read all 11 points of the Save The Labour Party’s 11-point statement, I think I disagreed fundamentally with all 11. On the other hand, I have nothing against rebuilding membership and increasing small donations. Anyway the Rule Book was very useful, it was the only place I could find it – so many thanks if it was you who supplied it.

    Edward, noooooo! All the limiting and quota-ing to certain demographics is precisely what’s wrong with the system, which is what the article is all about. I’m afraid what you are suggesting is the same, if not considerably worse.

  4. Quibble says:

    Labour are missing a trick here.

    Cameron has ‘Big Society’, Labour should champion an ‘Open Democracy’ meme.
    Hold a few open primaries, engage with people outside the party machines.

    Fortune favours the brave.

  5. Quibble, I agree that primaries are a good way of doing this, although I’m open to other ways too. The advantage of primaries is that the general public wouldn’t stand for all the social engineering that we attempt to do by our various quotas and exclusions. This would help normalise things towards how people outside the Party bubble might carry out a fair selection.

  6. Speedy says:

    >>at least one union member<<

    I would expect any parliamentary candidate worth their salt to be a union member even if they haven't been an active one or even if that union isn't party affiliated.

    It shows a commitment to the party's values, a vague belief in the values of the wider labour movement and it will help them win by giving them links with a source of funding.

    Finally, I quite like the way of shortlisting a candidate that allows all CLP affiliates to make nominations. It is inclusive to union branches, youth groups (whether Young Labour or Labour Students), individual party branches and any locally affiliated socialist societies.

  7. Speedy says:

    Primaries are a terrible idea that take power away from the people who have made the effort to get involved in the party and spend months slogging away on the doorsteps.

  8. Dear Rob

    Thanks for being forthright. Can we at least agree that all applicants to be the PPC attend ward hustings?

    Yours on bended knee

  9. Speedy, I think maybe the process is not clear enough here. The issue is not really whether or not the candidate is a union member – almost all are. However the important point noted above is whether you have got onto a union list, which usually involves signing up to all that union’s policies, whether you agree with them or not. In practice it is somewhat tricky to get selected if you are male and not on one of these lists.

    Peter, now that is a very different issue. I am strongly in favour of ward hustings. One the biggest problem with safe seat selections is that, as a matter of standard practice, candidates are no longer invited to speak at them. A big mistake.

    As a result, a nomination is made on the basis of a big pile of CVs. It is therefore almost impossible for a candidate from outside the area to walk off with a branch nomination – with a field of, say, thirty candidates, these will almost always go to known faces as no-one has had the chance to hear them speak.

    By the way, it is largely for this reason that the union lists are so powerful, because without being on one, you must be local or a “special case”.

    At the very least, if AWSs are to continue to exclude some candidates from their own CLP selections, it is vital that these excluded candidates be given a fair chance at others.

    So Peter, it may shock you to know that on this point I am fully in agreement.

  10. Speedy, I think maybe the process is not clear enough here. The issue is not really whether or not the candidate is a union member – almost all are. However the important point noted above is whether you have got onto a union list, which usually involves signing up to all that union’s policies, whether you agree with them or not. In practice it is somewhat tricky to get selected if you are male and not on one of these lists.

    Peter, now that is a very different issue. I am strongly in favour of ward hustings. One the biggest problem with safe seat selections is that, as a matter of standard practice, candidates are no longer invited to speak at them. A big mistake.

    As a result, a nomination is made on the basis of a big pile of CVs. It is therefore almost impossible for a candidate from outside the area to walk off with a branch nomination – with a field of, say, thirty candidates, these will almost always go to known faces as no-one has had the chance to hear them speak.

    By the way, it is largely for this reason that the union lists are so powerful, because without being on one, you must be local or a “special case”.

    At the very least, if AWSs are to continue to exclude some candidates from their own CLP selections, it is vital that these excluded candidates be given a fair chance at others.

    So Peter, it may shock you to know that on this point I am fully in agreement.

  11. humpty says:

    Rob Marchant !

    Is this the guy who wanted to be the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.

    Rob – the reason you haven’t been selected is that you cut an unimpressive figure. I remember you telephoning me and coming across as a complete idiot. Your CV was a joke. I think you need to look closer to home for reasons why you haven’t made it near Parliament and never will.

  12. Ooh, look, I’ve picked up a troll.

    Morning, troll.

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