Labour’s internal democracy is rotten

by Kevin Meagher 

You need to cast your mind back quite a bit to remember Liz Davies and the injustice she received at the hands of the Labour party.

She was, all too briefly, the Labour parliamentary candidate for Leeds North East ahead of the 1997 general election. A councillor in Islington, Davies had been properly selected by members for the marginal seat that, in due course, was to fall to Labour.

However, she was accused of disrupting meetings of Islington Council by three other Labour councillors. Their highly-disputed version of events was swallowed wholesale by the National Executive Committee and her candidacy was cancelled.

Handily, she was also barrister and later sued her accusers, who included James Purnell, an adviser to Tony Blair at the time and later and MP himself and Cabinet Minister.

The matter was settled out of court, with the three accused forced to make a donation to the election funds of local Labour MPs (benefitting Jeremy Corbyn).

Why this trip down memory lane?

I was reminded of this injustice after last week’s imposition of Dan Carden, an aide to Unite’s General Secretary, Len McCluskey, as the Labour candidate for Liverpool Walton – the safest Labour seat in the country – vacated by Steve Rotheram, the newly-elected metro mayor for the Liverpool City Region.

I say ‘imposition,’ but party rules allow the NEC to truncate the normal OMOV selection processes during a general election campaign. Personally, I don’t see why an extraordinary constituency meeting could not have been called in each of the seats with a retiring Labour MP to select a fresh candidate on the night, (recycling the gathering as a campaign launch).

Anyway, just because party high-ups have these powers, it doesn’t excuse them ignoring  local circumstances. The onus is on the NEC to find a candidate that fits the seat, preferably with the consent of local members.

The obvious choice for Liverpool Walton was the city’s elected Mayor, Joe Anderson. A brilliant and determined advocate for Liverpool and a giant of Labour local government, he deals directly with ministers at the highest levels and is widely respected for his relentless focus on delivery and improvement.

Moreover, he’s a former merchant seaman who grew up in poverty, living in a tenement building. He has the experience, heft and back story. Joe would have been a great MP for Liverpool Walton.

Last week, he was invited to London by the NEC for an interview with other hopefuls. He needn’t have bothered. His bat was broken before he went to the crease. All his talent, commitment and experience counted for nothing with the interview panel. But it wasn’t just Anderson who had a wasted journey. Theresa Griffin, a respected and experienced MEP for the North West was also deemed surplus to requirements.

While senior Liverpool councillors David Hanratty and Jim Noakes didn’t even get the courtesy of an interview. Any of these four would have made excellent MPs for their home city.

Instead, they were all stitched up. This was Unite’s seat and they had reserved it for one of their own. This is how Labour’s internal politics now works. A world of secret lobbying. Backroom deals. Of towels slung over sun-loungers. A Tudor court, with favours distributed at the whim of the party and trade union leadership.

None of which is to blame all this on Jeremy Corbyn.

Depressingly, this has been going on for decades. The parachuting of Tristram Hunt into Stoke North back in 2010 caused the constituency secretary to resign in protest and stand as an independent.

So whether you are sympathetic to the treatment meted out to Liz Davies or Joe Anderson is irrelevant. Objectively, both were treated shabbily. Blairites and Corbynites alike have abused the party’s selection processes for their own ends. It doesn’t make it excusable. At the risk of sounding trite, a democratic political party needs to behave democratically.

But it’s the trade unions that are the greatest puzzlement. I’ve never understood why they spend so much time shoe-horning ‘their’ candidates into seats. It’s an absolute waste of time and effort.

Any Labour candidate would happily pursue their areas of concern. The only explanation for their involvement in parliamentary selections is to reward acolytes.

Of course no-one ‘deserves’ a seat, but Anderson certainly deserves a proper explanation as to why he was denied one.

Personally, I’ve never been sold on open primaries, but I’m now a late convert. Labour’s selection processes are rotten. A carve-up that doesn’t even pretend to be fair, open or meritocratic.

Drawing straws would be preferable to the system we have.

But as the plaything of left and right factions, where does the impetus for reform come from?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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9 Responses to “Labour’s internal democracy is rotten”

  1. paul barker says:

    What was the point of that ? You point out flaws in Labours structure/culture & then conclude theres nothing to be done. Its your site of course but this seems like a waste of metaphorical ink.

  2. Ex labour says:

    Is this the “brilliant” Joe Anderson who appears regularly in Private Eye’s ‘Rotten Borough’s’ column…..its surely is.

    If this is what’s deemed a good candidate then Labour is way off course…again.

    Just read ‘Wirralleaks’ to get the lowdown on Murkyside.

    As for parachuting candidates in, it was ever thus. Unite has stranglehold over Labour, as ever. What’s the story ?

  3. Ian says:

    Labour’s internal politics has always been sickeningly cynical. Seeing the way Labour runs its own affairs has always been the biggest impediment with trusting them to run the country.

  4. 07052015 says:

    It was ever thus -read the biographies of Jenkins,Crosland etc -there have been dozens and dozens of alleged stitch ups david miliband,alan johnson,michael wills .

    And yes it carries on -tom watsons close friend michael dugher stands down ,both good guys,but who gets selected in his place.?

    Lets face it the recent selections are all part of the leadership election to come.

  5. Delta says:

    Yes. A Rotten system for a rotten Party….I see the Unite Union electoral result was farce too.
    Labour could not be so dead without such feeble witted mindless thuggish imbeciles showing the world that only the stupid thrive in its incestuous and nepotistic ranks.

  6. anosrep says:

    This post is correct as far as it goes (and I don’t often agree with Mr Meagher’s posts here), but it’s only a part of the problem with Labour’s ‘democracy’. Let’s not forget the summary expulsion of tens of thousands (at least) of members during the 2015 and 2016 leadership elections, for such heinous offences as having been a member of a communist or Trotskyist group years before (so why weren’t Denis Healey and John Reid expelled?), having previously voted Green or, er, liking the Foo Fighters. There was also a complete lack of a proper appeal process. Not to mention the retrospective imposition of the six-month requirement unless you submitted to the extortion of what for many is a large sum of money.

    The party rulebook needs to be changed so that local parties are sovereign in the selection of their candidates, subject to the NEC intervening only if there is strong evidence of something seriously compromising, e.g. criminality or current or recent anti-Labour activity. And even then the NEC should only be able to veto a candidate, not impose one, snap election or no snap election. And there needs to be a strict procedure for the suspension and expulsion of members, with an outline of the allegation against them being given to them at the time of their suspension and full details within a week, and no permanent expulsion to take effect until they have had an opportunity to present their case in writing and, if that is rejection, at a hearing with witnesses. There must be a strict timetable for this, so that if the party ‘prosecutors’ fail to meet the time limits then the suspension is automatically void and full membership rights are restored without further procedure.

  7. John P Reid says:

    07052015(funny your avatar is of an a Election we lost) you could be in to something I could see Ellie reeves backing Yvette over Rebecca long Bailey next year, and as much as i’d prefer Yvette, to me that symbolizes, middle class Oxbridge university types, parachuted into working class, metropolitan areas, so they can tell the working class how to live their lives,without realizing,that the public won’t go for it.

  8. Kevin, that the NEC overrides the CLPs and has done for more than a decade is well known. That we need to return power to the CLPs to select their parliamentary candidates is very basic internal democracy, but be warned by the leadership election(s). You will lose big time if ordinary members get to choose who will be their candidate. The sense of entitlement of the middle-class careerists will be a thing of the past. Then again it would be good for the party.

  9. tyronen says:

    If you play around with a site like Electoral Calculus you see Atul’s prediction is very plausible and yet is still entirely consistent with the current polls.

    The reason for the Tory victory isn’t Corbyn. His polling is about the same as Ed Miliband’s in 2015. Yet he will win vastly fewer seats with the same number of votes.

    The real reason is the de facto Tory-Lib Dem-Ukip merger. This creates such an overpowering Tory presence, weighted just right in many marginal seats, that the long-held Labour advantage in the constituency map is now completely reversed.

    If by some miracle Corbyn repeated Blair’s 2005 performance (Lab +3 over Con), the Cons would still be the largest party by a margin of 20 seats. In order for Labour to be the largest party, they’d need a 5-point margin. To get that given the low support for the Lib Dems and Ukip, Labour would need to poll at 41 percent, which is what Blair got in 2001.

    To win an outright majority, Labour would need a 12-point margin – as large as what Blair had in 1997. Yet that would only win a bare majority today, not the landslide of that election.

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