by Peter Watt
Hoorah! I am delighted to see that we are well and truly into selection season again. It means that we can expect many more stories of the “it’s a stitch-up” genre.
Because selection stitch-ups are the stuff of activist legend and fantasy. They contain all of the elements that excite: corrupted internal democracy, re-interpretation of rules, officious officials, favours being done for favoured sons and daughters and the rights of the local party being impinged. Lovely. Still, good to see that in Thurrock, at least, the new generation and Ed’s new politics have all come to nothing. Nope, in selections, at least, it all looks like good old fashioned business as usual.
I personally find it all a little bit bizarre. Why don’t we just grow up a bit and either recognise the current system for what it is or if we don’t like it change it.
The current system of selections for parliamentary seats is in theory a model of democracy. Rules and regulations enshrine the rights of local members to select their candidate. But in reality, various powerful factions load the dice in their favour. The leader’s office will have a pool of candidates that it wants selecting. The trade unions another block. There will be groups of candidates that differing factions will see as being broadly okay and will therefore help: all within the rules. And other groups that differing factions will see as broadly not okay, and they will not be helped: all within the rules. Of course not all of the factions will get their way. Not every one of the leader’s candidates will get selected. But proportionately, the impact of the favoured and not favoured will be high.
Everyone knows that it is this way. Local parties expect it and sometimes like getting the chance to select one of the great and good over the local. Sometimes they themselves load the dice in favour or against certain candidates. Candidates who at other times can barely remember if they are in a trade union or not suddenly become committed members of several. Membership lists are either easy or impossible to get access to. And the cut off date for new members taking part is either fixed early or late, depending on whether certain candidates need more or less members taking part.
And then there is the policy of positive discrimination. I have been a strong supporter of all women shortlists and they have definitely helped increase the proportion of women in the PLP. But let’s not pretend that every decision over which seats have open or all women selections has been taken purely on the basis of equality. I have heard some cracking arguments and justifications over the years as to why a particular seat should be designated as open or not. Some were really creative. One or two were even reasonable. Generally though, they were all argued by people who wanted to promote or stop a particular candidate or candidates.
To be clear, I am not particularly complaining about any of this. What I am bemoaning is the lack of honesty. What we have is faux ritual outrage and a pretence that it doesn’t happen; when everyone knows that it does. Not only does everyone know it, they expect it and only complain when their candidate seems to be disadvantaged.
So if you think that the very best pool of potential MPs is the diminishing ranks of party activists, then there is nothing wrong with the system. It works, it selects our own; people like us and from within us. Better still we enjoy the ritual of selections, the scores of how many are selected from the left, from the right, how many are Blairites or ex SPADS. And we enjoy crying foul when it suits us.
I wonder who, for instance, will become this cycle of selections “rulebook martyr”. You know who I mean; the failed candidate who becomes the pin up for all of those cheated from glory. They will probably be left wing and it will no doubt be fun as they become the symbol of the battle for supremacy for the soul of the party. I expect that there will be a twitter campaign for them and probably some points of order at conference. We will love it and they will probably end up in business or the media.
But does it really have to be this way? Is this really the very best way to persuade a sceptical public that political parties are the best vehicle for delivering on their hopes and vanquishing their fears? I don’t think so. It smacks of so much that is wrong with our politics at the moment. A self satisfied and self selecting elite (that is all of us who are party members), pretending that we know best and jealously guarding our turf. We are becoming more and more irrelevant and we can’t see it happening. Or can’t admit that it is.
We could have been brave in refounding Labour, maybe there is still time. The fact is that we should open up our selections so that the public are involved in the selection of our candidates. I am not particularly worried whether we have open or closed primaries, there are arguments in favour of both. But I am worried that we have a processes whereby voters can be involved in choosing their candidates. It certainly would not fix all of the deep seated problems that we have in engaging with the public. But it could be the start of a long process of re-building the reputation of political parties with the public. We would certainly need to be honest and recognise that we have a problem before we took the step.
Or we could just leave things as they are. The public aren’t interested. And after all we like the status quo, it seems to suit us. So bugger the voters.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.