Labour’s new way of selecting parliamentary candidates makes a mockery of calls for more working class MPs

by Peter Watt

Class is back on the agenda.  Bashing the posh “Eton” Tories has become popular again for many in Labour’s ranks.  Personally I think the “posh” attacks are pretty appalling.   But the Tories don’t really help themselves and I guess you could argue that they invited it with the “we’re all in it together” nonsense.  But it’s a long time since the Labour party was stuffed full of working class members or representatives.

Nope, Labour may not have quite the public school quotient of the Tories but our ranks are still drawn from a narrow pool.  We are pretty much wholly middle class and there are an awful lot of teachers and lawyers at most party meetings!  The same is true of our MP’s except that there are also a fair old number of political professionals from the ranks of trade unions and political advisors.

The party has though made some real strides over recent years in increasing the numbers of women.  There’s a way to go, but the progress is clearly good news.  And you’d think that the recent signals that the party was looking to diversify its ranks in Westminster further, by recruiting more working class MPs for instance, would be the start of further progress.  But I fear that it is in fact just hollow words that will come to nothing.

Those who really know the Labour party know that real power is in the hands of those who control the organisation.  And that means that you need to understand the rules and procedures.  Better still, mould them to your own ends.

It is why the Organisation Sub-Committee (Org Sub) of the NEC is the committee that every member of the NEC wants to be on.  And it’s why the Trade Unions fight so hard to make sure that they have plenty of reps on it and generally chair it.  You see, the Org Sub controls selections, discipline, the rule book and internal elections.  And the reality is, that it is the wording of the rules and regulations for the selection of Parliamentary candidates, approved by the Org Sub that determines whether fine words are translated into reality.

For instance, when push comes to shove, years of fighting for more women in parliament ultimately meant that Org Sub had to approve selections procedures that made it happen. And when I wrote those procedures back in the day, it was a painful process that involved every line and word being fought over.  The reason? As well as looking at how to maximise the number of women elected, all of the stakeholders were also trying to make sure that their vested interest (trade union, socialist society and so on) was advantaged.  It meant that we could increase the number of women selected for safe seats but also that those trade union officials and grandees who needed rewarding (or simply getting rid of) got their seat irrespective of their gender.

I say all this to make the point – the way that the procedures are drafted is a political choice with consequences.  Which is why I can confidently assert that this round of selections, far from breaking the mould, will simply select more of the same.  If anything it will result in even more political professionals and trade union officials becoming Labour MP’s.  The words about the need to have a parliamentary party that better reflects society are fine sounding but are ultimately cosmetic.

In January the Org Sub approved some new procedures for selecting parliamentary candidates.  It has of course always been difficult, rightly so, to get selected.  You need to work hard, campaign  with members and glad-hand for months.  You probably need to have money yourself or support from a trade union.  And you need to be able to give up work for a period to stand any chance.  So if you are going to increase the numbers of political professionals being selected then you need to address this.  So Org Sub, in their wisdom, decided to do something about it by making it even more skewed in favour of the political classes who are already being selected and elected.

How?  Well, they have lengthened the time that you need to give up work to dedicate to getting selected to at least 9 weeks and increased the amount of spare cash that you need to stand any chance.  You have to be at it full-time from the moment that the selection starts because they decided branch and trade union nominations are once again a key part of getting longlisted and shortlisted.  So you need to campaign for those nominations from the get-go.  Further, they have decided that membership lists are available to candidates from the start of the process.  Previously they were available only after shortlisting.    So if you’re not campaigning from the start then your opponents will be.  And they have also increased the number of leaflets that you are allowed (in other words have to) produce from two to three so increasing the costs of campaigning.

So if you can’t afford to take a couple of months off work, pay for accommodation and travel, abandon your family and pay for your own materials you are screwed.  In other words you need to be a political insider whose boss is supporting them; a trade union official or very rich.   The speeches and interviews have talked of increasing diversity.  The Org Sub had a choice to approve procedures that could have made this a reality.  Instead they chose to reinforce the lack of diversity.

Working parent?  Working class?  Squeezed middle?

Don’t bother applying!

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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17 Responses to “Labour’s new way of selecting parliamentary candidates makes a mockery of calls for more working class MPs”

  1. John mann says:

    I am surprised that a former General Secretary does not understand the real way in which candidates are selected. The new rules are fairer, but the big issue is whether the unions ever get their act together to encourage and train potential candidates. Most normal people have no desire whatsoever to join the Westminster circus

  2. Jack Johnson says:

    The lack of working class representation in the Labour Party is not only anti
    democratic but a disgrace for a social democratic political party.

  3. Daniel Maguire says:

    Disagree profoundly with Peter Watt on this. These new rules will favour local candidates. The previous rules created the problems Peter rightly criticises. Peter focuses his criticism on candidates pushed forward by the Trade Unions, but what of the (more numerous) middle-class political professionals who are pushed forward by regional and national staff? Let’s focus on what we can agree on: we need more candidates from working class backgrounds. One of the best ways to do this would be for the Trade Unions to encourage their members in workplaces and communities to put their names forward rather than full-time offices or retired Executive Council members etc.

    The new rules will encourage prospective candidates to engage with local branches. Yes, this may well cost more (in time, money and loss of income) for non-local candidates, but local candidates will have been engaging with local branches for years as activists, officers etc. candidates should engage more with branches, and should have access to membership records etc. The best working class candidates will be those who work (paid, voluntary, caring etc) in their local communities: shop stewards, community workers, youth workers, carers, parents, factory workers, call centre workers etc.

    The current rules suit professional ‘campaigning’ to be a candidate – it should be much more about engaging with the local branches, local trade unions etc.

    I welcome these changes, with a caveat that the Trade Unions must look wider and lower down to encourage and enable their shop floor and community members to feel able to stand.

  4. KT says:

    This is so very true!
    Also if CLPs do not have active branches the affiliate nominations are even more important – ie trade unions. There is also no requirement for a single affiliate or branch to nominate a woman.
    The additional literature is not only expensive but also is money spent before a candidate even knows if they have a realistic chance of being a contender which seems deeply unfair and definitely puts off anyone who is resource strapped ie not affiliate backed or rich.
    As a young mother with little funds available I think it is pretty much game over for me.

  5. LesAbbey says:

    There’s a way to go, but the progress is clearly good news.

    Did Peter really manage to get through an article on how candidates are selected without mentioning Progress with a big ‘p’ once?

  6. Andrea says:

    “In other words you need to be a political insider whose boss is supporting them; a trade union official or very rich. ”

    You need to be
    a trade union official
    a SpAd
    someone working for the party
    someone working for an MP
    an active member of Progress or similar organizations which can lend active support
    a long standing local activist (usually senior councillor)

    some of these are more effective than others (for ex trade unions must up their game in selection races).

    The system proposed is basically similar to the one used pre 2010. So I doubt it will suddenly change the type of candidates chosen. I also think the short selection process adopted after 2010 generally produced the same type of candidates anyway.

    I also believe that the lack of candidates with a “real job” is not just the fault of the selection process. It’s also because SpAds/trade union offficers, senior Cllr and party workers are probably more interested in being a parliamentary candidates.
    As Daniel Maguire indicatd in its comment, unions and the party should find a way to encourage more members in workplaces and communities to put their names forward.

    Judgint from Ann Black’s latest NEC report it seems the whole NEC sit on the organization subcommittee now (except the newcomers and Christine Shawcross).

  7. Renie Anjeh says:

    I think there have been some good candidates selected from normal working class backgrounds such as Lisa Forbes in Peterborough, Lara Norris in Great Yarmouth, Lee Sherriff in Carlisle and Suzy Stride in Harlow so I would not completely knock the system we have. The problem is that reform of the party has not gone wider enough as it should do. The trade union conference vote is too large, it should be one third of conference vote not 50% or equal to other affiliates. We need to have business people on the NEC as well. A BAME A-List for winnable seats should be fostered with a clear target of increasing the amount of black and Asian Labour MPs to 40 or 50. Open primaries should be adopted for some of our selections, or at least piloted in some of our target seats and the 106 target seats should have finished selecting by the summer 2013 before seats like Hertsmere begin selecting.

  8. Ex-Labour says:

    Interesting concept discussed in this blog. Labour should select more ‘working class’ candidates as opposed to ‘middle class’ appointees? How does this reflect on the fact that in a recent survey 72% of the population saw themselves as ‘middle class’ ? Is it not about the best person for the job rather than affirmative action i.e. lets have more women, or selecting someone becuase they’ve been one of the party faithful or an active trade unionist ? Quite frankly when I was a trade union member meeting the local leadership and when I also meet with local Labour activists / councilors (all of whom i know well) it fills me with dread as all of them put together couldn’t manage to gain a GCSE between them. Prospective MP’s of all sides should be intelligent, hardworking, committed and have a sense of public duty. Skewing the process so uncle Bob gets a job is really not the way to go and will ultimately fail.

  9. e says:

    Your criticisms would imply a narrow definition of “working class” suggestive of the view that a university education and professional skills cause “class” change. Does it? And you seem to be saying “fairness” demands the possibility/probability of a working person (presumably low.ish waged) standing successfully without first garnering support from any collective. Is that reasonable?

    And in any case, is the perceived lack of “working class” representation really caused by the background of current personnel? Or more likely, the successful demonization of said class, along with the rise of individualism, which of course influenced all classes. Note influenced; Labour seems to be backing out of the cul-de-sac the nation finds itself in, about time…

  10. Dave says:

    I’m not sure I wholly concur. One of the abuses that is most comnplained about is where CLPs are confronted with a shortlist of candiates shorn of local figures with demonstrable support. Sure there may be sound political reasons for not even shortlisting the council leader, but it’s understandable that longstanding veterans feel unhappy – esp when it is obvious who benefits! If you are going to give long/shortlisting back to CLPs you have to allow time. The main cost comes to the ‘London type’, who has to take time out to travel to the northern industrial town and stay there for a period slugging round TU and LP branch mtgs and buttering up local worthies. The local prospective candidates should find that phase a lot easier because (a) it’s fairly close to home, (b) they are already networked.

    The cost of leaflet production is not terribly high and it should be regarded as a core competence for any wannabe MP. Those with cash to burn on postage may find they do less well than contenders who hand deliver their material – accompanied by a friendly knock on the door. Most serious contenders for majority seats would expect to try and contact every CLP member at least 3 times anyway!

    Actually, the main risk to the Party may be that too many CLPs end up selecting mediocre local worthies rather than bright young things (Blair, Miliband etc) with no previous connections. It’s worth noting that selections often go through the preferences, which can favour outsiders who make it into the final stage.

    To my mind the class issue is a bit irrelevant to the process itself. CLPs will tend to select middle class men and women because CLPs select in their own image. Most senior trade unionists lead pretty middle class lifestyles. So do most headteachers, social work professionals and lawyers. Few people want to vote for an MP who dresses and speaks like a football hooligan (I realise this isn’t what PW has in mind); but they do want someone who they identify with.

    If you are going to entrust the (effective) selection of MPs in safe seats to a couple of hundred men and women who are abnormal enough to pay £43 quid a year to once in a generation pick a parliamentary candidate, then why not permit them to consider a Corbyn, McDonnell or Mullin, rather than restricting their choice to a shortlist of bright young things who happen to be on message acolytes of the current leader? Is that really going to be healthy for the PLP in the longer term?

  11. Peter Watt says:

    Dave, I don’t agree with the relatively benign impact you describe of the procedures in terms of who will need to travel and so on. But I completely agree that:

    ‘CLPs will tend to select middle class men and women because CLPs select in their own image. Most senior trade unionists lead pretty middle class lifestyles. So do most headteachers, social work professionals and lawyers.’

    and the results are inevitable if you:

    ‘entrust the (effective) selection of MPs in safe seats to a couple of hundred men and women who are abnormal enough to pay £43 quid a year to once in a generation pick a parliamentary candidate’

    It’s why I think if we are serious about selecting a greater diversity of candidates (MPs) then we need a radically different approach.

  12. davidc says:

    “In other words you need to be a political insider whose boss is supporting them; a trade union official or very rich. ”

    You need to be
    a trade union official
    a SpAd
    someone working for the party
    someone working for an MP
    an active member of Progress or similar organizations which can lend active support
    a long standing local activist (usually senior councillor)

    to the above you can add being the husband of a senior mp and being parachuted into an aws seat

  13. swatantra says:

    I agree with all that Renie Anjeh says, but would add that its about time the Unions put up ther own candidates in biut 40 odd seats in the industrial and manufacturing heartlands, and I don’t mean Union officials but sons and daughters of the soil and toil; they could either stand as Labour & Unions, and if Labour didn’t like that idea, then as Plain Unions.
    And I’d also say its about time we had that A list of BAME candidates in winnable seats. The Tories seem to be catching up on us in terms of BAME MPS and that surely cannot be right.

  14. AnneJGP says:

    Interesting article, and interesting comments. Really helpful in understanding what goes into selecting a candidate. Thank you, everybody.

  15. Anne says:

    Some interesting points made – It all very well saying that more working class candidates are required – but some one said that 72% consider themselves as middle class – so the pool of candidates will be greater from this group. Also candidates should have some attributes for the job – good communicator, intelligent – able to understand and put forward points of view and to understand situations. This will not be achieve if the pool of candidates is reduced by gender or race – it should be the best person for the job – most suitable for the job regardless of class.

    I believe that some of the problems that politician have encountered in recent years – form all parties – is attributed to MPs who should never have been selected in the first place eg expenses fraud, bad behaviour – how on earth some of these MPs got past the first selection post is unbelievable.

  16. Neil Humphrey says:

    Where is this recent survey, where 72% of the population saw themselves as ‘middle class’? This was the lie sold by Thatcher, when you owe your own home. (No pay, no home, values can go down as well as up).
    It is interesting because the BBC say 7 class types now, and if you map then to the traditional 3, then 68% are basically working class.
    My definition is, “If you are financially well off to afford being ill for over a year (most insurances reduce or end), without debt arrears, then you are middle class; if you pay thousands in school fees, ditto”. Unsecured debt arrears of £1 can now have you homeless from your mortgaged home – look at new CCJ laws from Oct 2012.

  17. jayne brencher says:

    This is a fundamental flaw in true party representation.I agree that local, worthy working people,especially women with caring responsibilities-children or elderly parents are essentially discounted.They have neither the time nor the money to engage in lengthy and expensive selection campaigns.Unfortunately, this leads to poor representation and general disengagement and disillusionment with politics-leading to voter apathy.This is a serious issue in a party that purports to represent the very people who are excluded from the process.Politics is a professional business and SPADS,researchers,who you know..insiders and rich, educated prospective candidates will always succeed.Limiting the resources spent on selection and ensuring voting can only take place after the hustings will let people see the sincere not the slick!How about the general public having a say?

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