Why I spoiled my Labour Euro-selections ballot paper

by Ben Cobley

Electoral Reform Services will have received my ballot paper by now.

I had thought of writing rude messages on it, or tearing it into small pieces and dropping them into the envelope as a mark of my disdain, but on the balance I plumped for a classic piece of English fudge/moderation: a big X scrawled across the page and a little message offering my unsolicited opinion on the Labour party’s approach to democracy.

This is the first time I have ever treated a ballot paper in such a way. I used to approach them with a form of reverence, taking voting as a privilege and a pleasure.

Then I joined the Labour party.

These latest selections for European Parliament candidates are just the latest example of an approach to democracy within Labour that Erich Honecker would have recognised and admired (and which I like to call institutionalised fixing”.

Let’s put aside the ceaseless cascade of emails that have been filling members’ inboxes with blandities, platitudes and waffle (though any more talk of “campaigning”, “a fairer Europe” or “Labour values” and I might run for the hills).

Instead, let’s talk about choice.

As a Londoner, I am faced with no choice in whether I wish to re-select Mary Honeyball and Claude Moraes, despite them having a track record for which they can be held accountable. They will automatically come top of the ballot.

Then I am given a clutch of six other candidates whose views seem to be almost interchangeable (unless you can see beyond the double-speak which hides their more interesting and contentious views).

The most high-profile of the six is Lucy Anderson, who has got backing from Ken Livingstone and Owen Jones among others. She says: “We need a co-ordinated Labour effort to challenge Euro-scepticism and austerity.” Most other candidates make similar statements, focusing on promoting ‘Europe’ (not the EU) and fighting austerity.

These candidates all seem to be ardently (or unquestioningly) pro-EU, with hardly a shred of scepticism between them.

Where is the diversity here? (And I don’t mean the skin-deep version, which is well-provided-for: I mean real choice in politics). Where are Labour’s Euro-sceptics? We know they are out there, but are they not allowed near European elections? Would it not be good to give the electorate a bit of choice?

So how did the successful candidates get on to the paper?

Regular readers of Labour Uncut will know part of the answer to this question: it was a fix.

Perhaps the most startling example of this was the exclusion of Anne Fairweather, who attracted the most votes from London Labour members last time they had the chance to select new MEP candidates. As was written here on 15th April, “Her crime seems to have been to work in business and not be one of the chosen candidates of the unions and the left.”

Diversity? What diversity?

The source of Fairweather’s exclusion was a seven-strong selection panel from which five “are either serving officials in the unions or have been backed by Labour Briefing – a hard left publication committed to establishing the most left-wing policy platform for the party since 1983.”

The only successful London candidate not to profess a union background is the rather interesting Andrea Biondi, a professor of European law (though his agenda is much the same as the others).

But there is much more to be concerned about with this process. As Jon Worth has written, “you had to be an insider to even know this European Parliament selection process was even happening.”

Worth has also detailed on his blog how we have had a selection panel in East Midlands Region selecting one of its own panel members as a candidate: Nicki Brooks, apparently as part of a need to secure gender balance because they didn’t have enough female applicants (something which itself raises serious questions of process).

Achieving gender balance is also the justification for the process of “zipping” which is practised in these European selections as a form of legitimised fixing. Zipping is not quite up there with stuffing ballot boxes but does offer another two fingers to members by pre-empting their votes to ensure equal “representation” of women and men. So it doesn’t matter if your three male candidates are rubbish and female ones good or vice versa: you will get what you are given.

Since fixing is woven into our rule book through a whole miasma of bureaucratic preferences and favouritisms like this, can it really come as a surprise that those in positions of power practise it themselves?

As Unite’s leader Len McCluskey has said, the practice of centralised capture and control is not new, and not restricted to the big unions: Tony Blair and New Labour practised it ruthlessly to exercise control over the party.

Peter Watt, the Blairite former general secretary, explained it openly here: “There was an understanding that controlling process meant controlling the party.  Conferences, policy making and of course selections were all ruthlessly managed.”

Watt has changed his mind on fixing. But as McCluskey has it, the unions are just getting their own back with the European selections.

“Because we’re having some success, suddenly these people are crying foul. Well I’m delighted to read it. I’m delighted when Tony Blair and everyone else intervenes because it demonstrates that we are having an impact and an influence and we’ll continue to do so.”

I think a lot of the people with real power in and around the party need to do some reflecting on what these practices say about Labour’s real “values”: let alone, God forbid, “One Nation Labour.” For values to mean anything, they need to be practised, especially in situations where they are not altogether convenient to self- and group-interest.

Since I joined Labour in 2010, I’ve seen precious little sign of this.

Ben Cobley is author of A Free Left Blog and Branch Secretary of Abbey Ward BLP, Merton.

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10 Responses to “Why I spoiled my Labour Euro-selections ballot paper”

  1. Danny says:

    “Watt has changed his mind on fixing.”

    He’ll say he has changed his mind on fixing. What he really means is he doesn’t like the current outcomes. When it was returning careerists totally detached from the electorate, the only people complaining were the unions.

    Now the unions are returning candidates who have spent years helping, supporting and fighting for workers, not hob-nobing in Westminster or providing “special-advice” to MPs.

    I agree the process sucks, but if the results are a more diverse and representative party that loosens the grip of the Oxbridge, SPAD, parachutist, careerist politicians more interested in their own ambitions than the core values of the Labour party or for the common voter in the street, then I think it’s good.

    Where I am, we’ve got a cracking set of candidates to select and very few people who know of him will begrudge Richard Howitt standing. I know the eastern region hasn’t really been mired by as much controversy as other places, but the process here has returned some very impressive members of the Labour party. I look at some of the wet-behind-the-ears MPs we have sitting in the Commons and compare them with some of the people on the shortlist and almost shed a tear. We have clueless prats like Luciana Berger, Stephen Twigg and Liam Byrne in parliament when we have vastly superior individuals elsewhere in the party who could be doing some much better who won’t get a look in.

  2. swatantra says:

    Spoil sport. But I can understand the frustration. I behaved impecably and returned my ballot yesterday. I’ve never liked this business of ‘Lists’ anyway; it smacks of a fix. And I’m always hopeful that an incumbent however good they are will be upstaged by a complete unknown as I’m always in favour of a regular turnover of incumbents, and the belief that Public Service is not a job for life, and there are people out there that could do the job just as well but don’t get the chance.
    The frustration arises in that the incumbent gets the advantage, always, and its not an open contest. True, incumbents like Richard Howitt will always deservedly have the advantage anyway because of the work and dedication they put in.
    But who are we to complain; its a Euro Election, and thats the way that Europeans do things, at the moment, until the British can show them there’s a better and fairer way.

  3. Renie Anjeh says:

    I voted for Seb Dance as my Number One choice as I believe that he is the best candidate for MEP with the experience and values to represent London. I think that to pick Lucy Anderson over Anne Fairweather was clearly a huge mistake, and shows that as a party we need to look pragmatically at the influence the unions play in all selections. Breaking the link would be wrong and anti-Labour but that does not mean we should allow unacceptable high levels of influence from one group in the party. However, if you say that publicly you get called a ‘rightwing Thatcherite Tory entryist’ by the Left so everyone shuts up about it even though they know that there’s a problem.

  4. Susan Masters says:

    Agree on lack of diversity on policy in campaign literature. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a hustings in West Ham, meet all the candidates and (with a table of 5/6 others) ask them questions – including why I should vote for each one over their rivals. That helped. Also got to find out more about their actual experience in Europe (so could guess at effectiveness). Without that I might well have been stumped – most of my ward members have admitted to being overwhelmed with literature and yet utterly bamboozled, I have to say.

  5. John Reid says:

    Renie and Swantantra I agree, Danny you say that the careerists are detached from the electorate, t hen praise the unions, Lol! As if the unions a attached to the electorate,

    P.s Richard in Eseex, is great and Seb dance and sanchia were my first choices too,

  6. Danny says:

    I’m ever so sorry John. I was suffering under the illusion that 6 million people (and rising) parted with their hard earned cash to affiliate themselves with a union. I would say representing a movement greater in number than the whole of the population of the East of England is just a tiny little bit more representative than a careerist politician parachuted in from London who represents, well, one person. Themselves. And their hallowed, must be fulfilled at all costs, career ambitions.

  7. Felix says:

    Hear, hear Danny. A Blairite blog moaning about fixing, with most of the people who blog here having turned a blind eye to it during the many years it went on under their guru. How I chuckled! That barely audible whine you hear there, that’s irony ever so slowly expiring.

  8. John Reid says:

    Felix, labour-uncut. A Blairite blog, and what was this turning a blin eye, you talk of, OMOV, or any vote Blair got through, the House of Commons, even deselection of people like liz Davies or Geroge Galloway was democratic, the only fixing was of all women shortlist s, and even the. In Nye Bevans old seat, labour lost the seat!

    Danny, you assume that everyone who s in a u ion is affiliated with labour or want that unions that gives to labour, to have a left winger, she wasn’t parachuted in,any more than a let winger gets the selection for a seat nowhere near they live, for that after ,some union affiliated supporters, vote Tory!

    Any proof, she’s a career politician, isn’t a career, a job where some one puts their life’s work into it!

  9. Ben Cobley says:

    I would just like to emphasise that I (the person who wrote this article) is not a Blairite nor a New Labour type. It is either lazy or dishonest (and perhaps a bit of both) for people to append these labels with such abandon and so little knowledge.

  10. uglyfatbloke says:

    Just be thankful you don’t live in Scotland where candidates are chosen strictly on the time-honoured basis of who their friends are and an assurance that they will keep on the right side of the Orange Order….of course it helps if your partner/sibling/cousin/old pal is already part of a significant Scottish Labour dynasty.

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