Time to put away the needle and thread and stop stitching up selections

by Peter Watt

If I was sat in Labour party HQ in Victoria Street right now, staring down the barrel of further financial strife, then I would be tempted to do everything I could to minimise unnecessary expenditure.  And I would be right to do so.  If the reports are true that the party overspent last year by £1.7 million then it is quite a big gun after all!

But if it really is financial strife that has apparently lead to a proposal to ban sitting MPs from standing for election to directly elected mayors or police and crime commissioners later this year, then that is a terrible error.

It is however an error that merely highlights a serious malaise at the heart of our politics, and to be fair, the politics of all of the major parties.

On the face of it, the argument for the decision to ban ambitious MP’s from standing is persuasive.  Each by-election will cost £70 – £100,000 or so.  We might lose to another (popular) candidate.  Why take the risk?

But these reasons are all predicated on an out-of-date thought process.

The assumption is that the only way to win is for the party to impose the “right” candidate. That the campaign must be run using the central party machine which imposes the will of the “experts” on the locals.  And finally that the campaign must then spend on staff, hotels, travel, campaign HQ and lots of flash literature.  All spending money that the party doesn’t actually have.

To be fair, for many years this model served the party pretty well.  As I know well because I have worked on, planned, set budgets for and managed selections (read into that what you will) for more by-elections than I care to remember.  But it is a model that is simply no longer fit for purpose.

Voters, who may have been impressed in the past by our professional campaigns, are now cynical of political parties and career politicians.  Instead they desperately want an authenticity from their politicians that they increasingly feel is absent from much of what they are offered.

For example, take a look at the increasing number of “others” in opinion polls or the enthusiasm with which George Galloway was embraced in Bradford West.

And voters are right to be cynical.  The system of “business as usual” politics on offer from the main parties is deliberately exclusive and elitist, favouring the loyal activist or those who are simply favoured.

It means that we have a politics that sees the elites desperately holding onto the last vestiges of central control, albeit control of an ever-dwindling army.  And although the closed world of party politics may well give a pretence of control to those on the inside, in reality its authority over the world outside is waning.

Just look at recent experience. Rumours of the abortive, ham-fisted attempts to import a candidate into Bradford West from Manchester tell a tale of central machine unable to impose its will and at odds with the local constituency even before the election.

Meanwhile, the decision to allow proxy voting in Manchester Central, reversing the party’s previous position with just five days to go before the selection, is symptomatic of how even the most basic attempts at central control are going awry.

Voters look on with disdain or are simply not interested and don’t notice what their political “masters” are doing.  It’s how we ended up deciding to run a campaign against the Tories whilst getting hammered by Respect in Bradford West.  It’s how we end up in London deciding to run on reducing fares at a time when voters don’t believe that it can actually be afforded.  The machine is simply no longer fit for purpose.

But we could try something different.  Parties could de-centralise, become more efficient and smaller.  For instance, if you look again at the issue of selecting candidates for directly elected mayors and police and crime commissioners then we could be radical.  If we are worried about the cost of by-elections then let’s fight them differently.

They only cost so much because for all intents and purposes we move a campaigning machine into town lock, stock and barrel.  And we have to do this because we need to campaign at, not with, local people.  Instead we could open up the selection process so that the campaign didn’t start with a stitch-up.

Primaries would be an opportunity to build local support for the candidate before the campaign proper started.  Candidates would have to think local rather than national in order to get selected and local advocates could become the heart of the election machine.  Such a campaign would not need to cost tens of thousands and being local does not mean that it won’t be professional or need advice from experts.  But advice is not the same as control.

Now such a process will, say the detractors, itself cost money.  And of course that is true, but less than the cost of a by-election and with the use of technology the process could be simplified.  It just needs the political will.  The alternative of course is that we pretend that business as usual politics will suffice.

But maintaining the current system as it is not sustainable.  It is too expensive, too exclusive and is rightly distrusted by more and more voters.  Pretending otherwise would be a very stupid and dangerous thing to do because at some point there will come a tipping point.  At that point the cynicism with the big political parties as they are will overwhelm them.

And the chances are they won’t know until it’s happened that it’s coming.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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15 Responses to “Time to put away the needle and thread and stop stitching up selections”

  1. Grammarian says:

    “If I was sat…..”

    What’s wrong with using the (correct) present tense? Oops, sorry, I fporgot that politicos don’t believe in the education necessary to support effective communication.

    There is just nothing more that we need to know.

  2. Jack Knifeman says:

    Present tense?
    He needs the subjunctive mood:
    “If I were sitting…” – it’s a counterfactual conditional.

  3. libertarian says:

    Good piece Peter.

    All of the 3 main political parties have fallen into the same trap, they’ve failed to adapt to a new world bought about by the “long tail” of internet/social media.

    All the parties are centralised bureaucracies trying to exercise top down control using the “post normal democracy” methodology espoused by their heroes in the EU.

    It isn’t going to work any longer. To be honest I can’t see any of the main parties being likely to form a government on their own in the foreseeable future. The mass of the voting public are sick and tired of ALL politicians, none of them are believed or trusted. Grassroots movements are the new way forward, returning real “power to the people” should be the objective of any political party that truly seeks to engage the public.

    Meanwhile membership of political parties continues to fall off a cliff but all the time that Labour are funded by Unions, Tories by billionaire non dom’s and Lib Dems by crooks there is no imperative to adapt behaviour to engage the public.

  4. Clint Spencer says:

    The party is run by self serving careerists, supported by the blind and ideological. We need some new rules. No more PPE Oxbridge.

  5. Erica Blair says:

    ‘I would be tempted to do everything I could to minimise unnecessary expenditure. ‘

    of course the party wouldn’t be in such terrible financial straits if Peter Watt hadn’t asked donors to make loans rather than donations in order to hide their existence from the electorate.

    The Labour Party has suffered enough from the advice given by Peter Watt, it doesn’t need any more.

    Perhaps he should join the party of his greatest political heroine, Margaret Thatcher.

  6. keith says:

    Labour has become identified with stitch up’s to suit the hierarchy of the party. We have seen it happen with New Labour making sure that only “on-message” candidates were selected to keep the control freaks happy, and this undemocratic seedy style of party management culminated in Brown being unelected without going through a proper election because it suited him and his elite.
    Of all the main parties, Labour is by far the worst offender of this behaviour and will be distrusted by many voters until it starts behaving like a genuinely democratic party.

  7. ditherywig says:

    No, the last thing we want is politicians of any stripe – Lab, Lib or Con running for Mayor or Police Chief. We need competent successful apolitical individuals who can bring real world experience and common sense to the job – qualities no politicians seem to possess.

  8. Peter Watt says:

    Eric’s – thanks for the comment but that wasn’t me. Feel free to apologise! 😉

  9. Peter Watt says:

    Sorry ‘Erica’

  10. Mark Seddon says:

    Better late than never, but a good piece by Peter Watt. The major parties hold on the electorate is now so shallow, the political establishment so reviled, the media so littered with parocialism as to make it increasingly irrelevant, anything is possible.

  11. paul barker says:

    If you want to blame someone for labours crippling debts blame yourself, if your a labour member. I dont remember a storm of protest at labours couting of millionaires & their “loans”. Try accepting some responsibility for once.

  12. Seymour says:

    If any MP or councillor or other type of elected official wants to run for a mayorship they should have to resign before the election.

    No waiting to see if they win before resigning or perhaps keeping both salaries.

    Come to that, you should only be allowed to hold one paid elected position at a time.

  13. Clint Spencer says:


    your a laugh a minute aren’t you? Quite frankly Peter was a part of a generation that attracted money that Labour never saw before and balanced the union contributions. Moreover they got elected, not a concept that the ideological understand. Peter should be applauded for that.

    What I will say though is that Labour has reached a turning point. Some say that Labour is a broad church, IMHO it needs to divorce the name calling loony fringe (this is you – Thatcher reference). That way you can have your own party of like minded and unelectable people and we can concentrate on the business of offering the country an alternative to the Cons.

  14. Rallan says:

    “What I will say though is that Labour has reached a turning point. Some say that Labour is a broad church, IMHO it needs to divorce the name calling loony fringe (this is you – Thatcher reference).”

    Labour is too tribal and too emotional to do this. As as see it the Labour Party will drift unelectably leftward and hold together for all the wrong reasons, even if they go quietly bankrupt. Labour will only to survive like this because the whole “political class” refuse to change the status quo and NONE of the political parties command enough public respect to be truly credible.

    This will last until none of the parties can even pretend to represent the people. I give it up to 10 years before the whole political system fragments to include a mishmash of smaller parties, and the UK (if it still is the UK) suffers political paralysis and even more rapid decline.

  15. Mike Homfray says:

    I agree with a lot of the substantive points made, but I’m not convinced about primaries, simply because they would be even more expensive and prone to the most efficient campaign reaping the most rewards.

    The problem is that there now seems to be two main sorts of candidate selected:
    1. The ambitious London-based politico, with the networks, contacts, ability to take time to nurture a seat, etc
    2. The local worthy who has sat on the council for years and has finally managed to rise to the top, often because the local party decide they want someone local following an MP of category 1, and they are the safest bet.

    Its just so difficult to actually win a selection now, and will remain so unless the whole way that selections take place are changed

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