by Kevin Meagher
The bad karma emanating from Denis MacShane’s resignation appears to have seeped into the process to select his successor, if last night’s shambles is anything to go by.
Reports that half the membership in Rotherham walked out of the selection meeting in protest over the shortlist of just two candidates they were presented with must qualify as the worst-ever start to a parliamentary by-election campaign.
In its defence, the party needed to act quickly if it was to move the writ to include Rotherham in the brace of by-elections in Croydon and Middlesbrough already scheduled to take place on November 29.
It made sense to do so. The reputation of politics is low enough without MPs being found to have “knowingly submitting 19 false invoices” by the House of Commons’ standards and privileges committee as MacShane was (oddly enough, the committee is chaired by MacShane’s neighbouring MP, Kevin Barron).
But the other festering issue in Rotherham is child abuse, particularly the lamentable, grotesque failure of the authorities in the town to stamp out the grooming of vulnerable young white girls by gangs of predominantly Pakistani men.
So the party was left with a dilemma. Move quickly, and a short campaign could prevent a head of steam building up, either about MacShane or child abuse. So far, so smart.
But then it started to unravel. Rather than allowing the local party to influence the selection shortlist a decision was taken to drop-in a “clean skin” candidate. Someone from outside the usual political haunts who wouldn’t draw quite so much heat from a jaundiced electorate, sick of all politicians.
The party’s mechanism for doing so is the shortlist. Like John Ford claiming customers could have a car in any colour as long as its black, the party said members could have any candidate as long as it was either ex-RAF wing commander Sophy Gardner or hospice boss Sarah Champion.
So no room then for local favourite Mahroof Hussain who was left off the shortlist. He’s a cabinet member on Rotherham council and a proud holder of the MBE. A decent pedigree in anyone’s book. So good in fact that he was shortlisted to become the party’s Middlesbrough by-election candidate the week before.
Then there was Richard Burgon a trade union lawyer and another highly credible candidate. There was no harm in including either of them, or others, on a shortlist.
The failure to listen to and treat the local party members with respect led to 60 of them walking out of last night’s selection meeting in protest. The Guardian reports that fewer than 50 were left in the room to vote in the selection. Trade unions are seething. And the party’s campaign, already framed against a difficult backdrop, miscues.
Superficially, the “clean skin” scenario is attractive. Ex-army major Dan Jarvis became a safe bet to win in the Barnsley Central by-election (caused, of course, by Eric Illsley’s imprisonment) partly through his novelty at not being the usual type of candidate. The problem with this theory though is that it is unproveable. Do locals prefer someone new, preferably without any political shop markings, or do they want someone rooted in their community and with a clear understanding of their everyday concerns? Either way, it is surely counter-productive if the local party becomes so angry at the presumptuousness of the party elite in handling the selection that they sit on their hands for the duration of the campaign, as some are threatening to do in Rotherham.
By-elections are national events – political circuses where flaky candidates or micro-controversies take on their own life and expand out of all proportion – so fixing the process to maximise the “right” result will always go on, and sometimes it is a necessary evil, a last resort.
But the party needs to stop reaching for it as an opening gambit. It is now stuck in the dark ages in its approach to party management. Social media allows a light to be shone into the darkest crevices. If we espouse “the new politics” then we need to show we practice it too. It is massively damaging when we are seen to have feet of clay.
Also, it is not enough to simply cry “long live the king” and expect everyone to move along and get behind the eventual winner. This mess is not the fault of the local party members. They have already been let down by Denis MacShane. They have been let down again by the party. Emotions are raw and although Sarah Champion runs a children’s hospice and is, on the face of it, an entirely suitable candidate, the circumstances of her selection are shoddy.
Today sees close of nominations in Rotherham. The die is cast. The campaign has begun. However an acceptance from the party leadership that this was not Labour’s finest hour would be a helpful start in repairing the damage.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut