Celebrity stitch-up: the game show coming to a CLP near you

by Peter Watt

Hoorah! I am delighted to see that we are well and truly into selection season again. It means that we can expect many more stories of the “it’s a stitch-up” genre.

Because selection stitch-ups are the stuff of activist legend and fantasy. They contain all of the elements that excite: corrupted internal democracy, re-interpretation of rules, officious officials, favours being done for favoured sons and daughters and the rights of the local party being impinged. Lovely. Still, good to see that in Thurrock, at least, the new generation and Ed’s new politics have all come to nothing. Nope, in selections, at least, it all looks like good old fashioned business as usual.

I personally find it all a little bit bizarre. Why don’t we just grow up a bit and either recognise the current system for what it is or if we don’t like it change it.

The current system of selections for parliamentary seats is in theory a model of democracy. Rules and regulations enshrine the rights of local members to select their candidate. But in reality, various powerful factions load the dice in their favour. The leader’s office will have a pool of candidates that it wants selecting. The trade unions another block. There will be groups of candidates that differing factions will see as being broadly okay and will therefore help: all within the rules. And other groups that differing factions will see as broadly not okay, and they will not be helped: all within the rules. Of course not all of the factions will get their way. Not every one of the leader’s candidates will get selected. But proportionately, the impact of the favoured and not favoured will be high.

Everyone knows that it is this way. Local parties expect it and sometimes like getting the chance to select one of the great and good over the local. Sometimes they themselves load the dice in favour or against certain candidates. Candidates who at other times can barely remember if they are in a trade union or not suddenly become committed members of several. Membership lists are either easy or impossible to get access to. And the cut off date for new members taking part is either fixed early or late, depending on whether certain candidates need more or less members taking part.

And then there is the policy of positive discrimination. I have been a strong supporter of all women shortlists and they have definitely helped increase the proportion of women in the PLP. But let’s not pretend that every decision over which seats have open or all women selections has been taken purely on the basis of equality. I have heard some cracking arguments and justifications over the years as to why a particular seat should be designated as open or not. Some were really creative. One or two were even reasonable.  Generally though, they were all argued by people who wanted to promote or stop a particular candidate or candidates.

To be clear, I am not particularly complaining about any of this. What I am bemoaning is the lack of honesty. What we have is faux ritual outrage and a pretence that it doesn’t happen; when everyone knows that it does. Not only does everyone know it, they expect it and only complain when their candidate seems to be disadvantaged.

So if you think that the very best pool of potential MPs is the diminishing ranks of party activists, then there is nothing wrong with the system. It works, it selects our own; people like us and from within us. Better still we enjoy the ritual of selections, the scores of how many are selected from the left, from the right, how many are Blairites or ex SPADS. And we enjoy crying foul when it suits us.

I wonder who, for instance, will become this cycle of selections “rulebook martyr”. You know who I mean; the failed candidate who becomes the pin up for all of those cheated from glory. They will probably be left wing and it will no doubt be fun as they become the symbol of the battle for supremacy for the soul of the party. I expect that there will be a twitter campaign for them and probably some points of order at conference. We will love it and they will probably end up in business or the media.

But does it really have to be this way? Is this really the very best way to persuade a sceptical public that political parties are the best vehicle for delivering on their hopes and vanquishing their fears?  I don’t think so. It smacks of so much that is wrong with our politics at the moment. A self satisfied and self selecting elite (that is all of us who are party members), pretending that we know best and jealously guarding our turf. We are becoming more and more irrelevant and we can’t see it happening. Or can’t admit that it is.

We could have been brave in refounding Labour, maybe there is still time. The fact is that we should open up our selections so that the public are involved in the selection of our candidates. I am not particularly worried whether we have open or closed primaries, there are arguments in favour of both. But I am worried that we have a processes whereby voters can be involved in choosing their candidates. It certainly would not fix all of the deep seated problems that we have in engaging with the public. But it could be the start of a long process of re-building the reputation of political parties with the public.  We would certainly need to be honest and recognise that we have a problem before we took the step.

Or we could just leave things as they are. The public aren’t interested. And after all we like the status quo, it seems to suit us. So bugger the voters.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

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13 Responses to “Celebrity stitch-up: the game show coming to a CLP near you”

  1. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:


    Form the outside of the Party the people no longer even entertain the idea that political parties are “the best vehicle for delivering on their hopes and vanquishing their despair”. They believe the opposite and are looking for the least worst option. This has not been the case for many a long year. It is hard to imagine politicos who have become very wealthy as a result of the failed real economy (as a result in representational decline by politicians) over the past thirty years. Long time that thirty years.

    Having experienced the Parliamentary selection process three times (both by CLP and NEC) I can honestly say both processes are sad corrupt relics of a bygone age, both had stitch ups deeply interwoven in the process so that when a candidates CV magically disappears or a another candidate (via LGA and meeting with MPs) is fast tracked blatantly or when decisions are made in a cowardly manner behind closed doors, nobody was surprised.

    It has become acceptable in the Labour Party to treat democracy like a passing joke.

    This has very serious implications indeed especially with regard the attitude of elected reps when dealing with the public, many of who have nothing but contempt for the public. I see this daily and this is the real reason the “re-founding” of Labour will amount to nothing.

    You cannot expect people to volunteer their time and energy for a cause whose rhetoric is so blatantly deceitful or if not a deceit then so blatantly inaccurate when the less industrious members are disenfranchised from democracy and taking the Party forwards with well developed instincts from meeting the public and serving them because Ed Milliband has a few choice corporate banking names in his diary, or the local thug in a CLP will use any means at all to get his gang to weaken opponents.

    Worse the whole thing smacks of a serious lack of professionalism that most the public equate to their lives and the selections that they manage and take part in. There will always be a degree of fiddling and understandable local popularism and that’s fine, after all its popular characters who sway people.

    But this issue should have been sorted out. You all have to choose and make a decision about what is your Party. Are you going to be a conservative, regressive and barbaric party creating your own problems and continue to lose authenticity and legitimacy in the eyes of the people?

    Are you going to pretend that because five members of your party think that what you have done or achieved then that makes everything all right? When the public are cursing you for it and planning to vote you out in the future?

    Are you going to open the Party to the real public or continue to play these silly cynical fixes of marketing and selling the person who you believe (when the vast majority of you are so out of touch its incredible) that this is what the public desire? When he public and other members can see it for what it truly is…a fix.

    Ed failed here. This could have been a great new beginning for him but the emotional intelligence of the public is very great and that is why he (and I doubt any of the other candidates would be in a different situation because people are concerned at the moment over the economy and jobs and are not interested in any internal nepotistic Labour Party celebrity games – they want serious people with gravity and depth that they know are needed to get us all out of the mess the politicians placed us all in)

    If Labour cannot practice Equal opportunities if the Party cannot practice basic democracy (and it struggles badly at the moment which should tell you all you need to know about the kinds of people involved in the Party currently) then it will remain in practice a regressive Party focused on privilege and be the enemy of all the principles it was created to challenge and is in no position to offer any alternative to the Tories.

    At the moment there is nothing in the Party to truly sway people beyond the Tories themselves. So these “fixes” have not delivered any substantive product to the Party. They have not created a new narrative, not delivered a bold new vision, in fact they have left Labour in a Limbo with a narrow shallow outlook that is completely out of kilter with that of the public. Empathy is at an all time low in the Party and without it you cannot understand people. Imagination is non-existent with Glassman being the best option (hardly a roadside winner as he is limited to London Citizens and not the bigger picture – useful but by no means the person to take us…sorry “you” beyond Cameron’s Big Society in a way that defeats it rather than follows in its wake or agrees with it).

    As long as the Labour practices these outdated methods people will simply continue to believe it is a mere marketing gimmick selling whatever, delivering the opposite for its corporate banker masters.

    More importantly it adds to the image people have in their minds of Milliband and Balls and their “shady” Cabinet…that you are truly, well and truly only in it for yourselves and cashing in on being MPs…and they would be right.

    Re-founding Labour has not happened, it has not occurred, it has only been delayed and when the time comes for the Party to be of use (and electorally successful rather than join the rest of the center left strategic rabble across Europe that nobody in their right mind trusts because they all share their corrupt intentions and methods and the people despise corruption in center left parties – something the Leaderships just fail to grasp) it will be harder to sell to the Members because they will have “heard it all before”. So in the long term Party trust will decline as these selections occur.

    Remember people will always think of Labour as a “moral Party” and they should and so the expectations of the contributions and sacrifices made by your elected reps and the processes employed by the Party will always be a test for Labour that will have a harder job of winning power if it fails to win people over. People expect politicians to be corrupt and so the Tories are the default position, Labours failure to live up to its legacy rewards the Tories.

    Political Elite plus Centre Left equals electoral defeat.

    You cant be Equality and be Elitist.

    Labour will not have a voice until it has one willing to challenge false perceptions.
    It cannot even begin to begin this until it understands the perceptions, the deeper rooted concerns of people that go way beyond a poll.

    Democracy: The process is (tragically sometimes) more important than the outcome though it will never be perfect.

    Policy The outcome is more important than the process, but the process has to be within a range of agreed values.

    Its not rocket science.

  2. The Future says:

    This was a good article that sadly drifted towards the end. I don’t want to get into an argument for or against primaries but I did want to pick you up on the assertion throughout the article summarised by the statement “the diminishing ranks of party activists.”

    I actually think that this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. In my 20 years in the party I can honestly say that the young people we have now are by far and away the best yet. Confident, intelligent and dare I say it ‘human’ they are most crucially of all active. Not active in the lets turn up to meetings and sit around talking sense but active in a let’s get out there and speak to the voters kind of way.

    And this relates back to one of your final points. About fixing the deep seated problem of engagement with the public. The way we fix this is by having a culture of campaigning in the party. By been seen to be out there in communities fighting for the interests and views of normal voters. Would the public’s view of the Labour party not be improved if every MP had the can do attitude of someone like Stella Creasey?

    So the way you solve the engagement problem, is not by engaging with the public on who we select. But making sure we have candidates that are willing to engage with them once they are selected.

  3. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Lol Errata

    You cannot expect people to volunteer their time and energy for a cause whose rhetoric is so blatantly deceitful or if not a deceit then so blatantly inaccurate when the MORE industrious members are disenfranchised from democracy and taking the Party forwards with well developed instincts from meeting the public and serving them because Ed Milliband has a few choice corporate banking names in his diary, or the local thug in a CLP will use any means at all to get his gang to weaken opponents.

  4. Nick says:

    You’ve certainly buggered us.

    You’ve created an economy whose sole purpose is to service your debts.

    Meanwhile, all you care about in this post is how to get your mates into the trough at Westminster

  5. John Slinger says:

    I have to say I agree with the broad thrust of this, Peter. No selection system is perfect, but one which encourages candidates and the local party to look outwards rather than inwards has to be preferable to the status quo. We surely need energetic, thoughtful candidates who can engage with and listen to the wider electorate. This is not always the outcome of ‘traditional’ selections.

  6. Peter Watt says:

    The Future – thanks for the comment but I guess we disagree on our respective conclusions. For me, the point is that we can’t any longer choose candidates without involving the public. We need their involvement in selections to give their candidacy a legitimacy that activists selecting simply cannot.

  7. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Just watched the last vestige of democracy disappear in Barking and Dagenham as community groups that helped us in the elections have been betrayed. Half of the Labour group did not bother to attend their last meeting as they know they are powerless and redundant whilst the old guard who helped the BNP in still hold sway and with it a complete contempt for the public. The Leader today announced committees are irrelevant and that his views alone mattered, at a public meeting before the Chief Executive could stop him after a member of the public asked by a referred decision by committee back to the Executive.

    CHPs finished. No more community groups that can engage the Council and tonight all Community groups effectively told they are on their own and that the council would not help them by facilitating them into aiding one another.

    At the public consultation minimal information was given to residents and they were unable to really offer alternatives in an informed intelligent manner.

    A sad day for the Labour Party. I am glad I have gone Independent though i am still recruiting new members in the hopes they can change the future.

  8. Madasafish says:

    I could just about change a few words and say the same for the Conservative Party.. Not that I am a member or a candidate or an activist..

    I think the problem is true for ALL UK political Parties..

    After all, there are three millionaires – one at the head of each of the three main parties.

    Anyone think that is representative of the UK population? Of course it ain’t.

    But it IS representative of the need for those with wealth to ensure it is kept by them.. No I am not suggesting more taxation of the rich.. that does not work in the long term. What I am saying is that the political system has been corrupted by power and money.

    After all if MPs in the last parliament had worked for any commercial company, the MD would have been fired for spending his time on feathering his own nest and most of the Directors would be in jail for fraud.. Let alone about half the managers.

    And the Company would be bust.

    The truth is : Politicians make promises which are impossible to keep, They make no attempt to keep them as they are regarded as only a means to election . Period.

    And many of the political writings – especially on the economy – are written by people who must know what they are saying are blatant lies..

    So the problem is not unique to Labour..

    MPs are regarded as scum in most cases.. (a few honourable exceptions: frank Field, Dennis Skinner) . Those reputations are totally deserved as MPs work hard to gain that reputation and appear to want to continue to be regarded as scum. (See Dr Fox and the 25% of MPs who don’t think they need to provide receipts with expenses).

    I have to say based on this Parliament, I see no change in that judgement is needed.

    Needless to say, if my views are at all typical, democracy is in trouble.

  9. Amber Star says:

    Decisions get made by the people who care enough to show up, Peter.

    If a candidate & her/his supporters can’t overcome the occasional bully or cut through the apathy in their own CLP, why the hell should they expect ‘the public’ to do that job for them?

    Does our current system mean that there will be a few sore losers carping about having been robbed? Yes, it does.

    Is it the best possible way to select candidates? Possibly not.

    Is having public primaries the best way to select candidates? I have yet to see a convincing argument for this. It’s proponents have failed to make the case. They seem reluctant to suggest which seats could be used to pilot the idea. I’d imagine the first one would garner much media attention & consequently arouse the public’s interest… who’d bet on the attention being sustained through to the 10th or even the 5th ‘boring’ council seat selection?

    So, Peter, if you really believe in this idea – which 10 ‘ordinary’ seat selections would you propose be used in a pilot? How would the prospective candidates from which the public may select be chosen in the first place? And who qualifies as being ‘the public’? Anybody who happens by? Registered voters in the ward/seat? And how will their eligibility to vote be established?

    Until you put some meat on the bones of the public primaries idea, your articles about it are just puff pieces…

  10. Stuart Bruce says:

    Spot on. I watched an old episode of Yes Prime Minister yesterday,from more than 20 years ago, that ridiculed how councillors were selected by half a dozen people in a back room and MPs by the same process, but just a few more people. It’s unacceptable in 2011 that we are using such an archaic and flawed system.

  11. Peter Watt says:

    Amber Star – personally I would allow any voter to register and I would have the local party shortlist the candidates.

  12. Amber Star says:

    @ Peter

    At least you have some definite proposals i.e. Voters register in advance to take part & the local party short-lists the candidates. That would effectively shift most of the carping to being about the selection process rather than the vote, if nothing else 😉

    However, it’s hard to get Labour members to show up for selection votes, never mind attracting unaligned members of the public… And I’d bet money that the only ‘public’ who’d register to vote would be our political opponents’ activists so that they could vote for our least electable candidates.

    Sorry to sound so negative – as I said, I’d be interested to see a pilot scheme of e.g. 10 local council elections to see what would happen in the ‘real’ world.

  13. John Slinger says:

    Excellent piece by Peter Watt.

    Peter co-signed a letter I sent to the Guardian which was supportive of what Ed Miliband said in a recent speech about trying out primaries for some selections.

    You can sign an online version of the letter here http://slingerblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/guardian-letter-supporting-ed-miliband.html

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