Much of the discussion around Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party has focused on the perceived threat to moderate, mostly critical, MPs, who feel vulnerable to the threat of deselection as a Labour candidate at the next election.
“Deselection” is one of those weird words so regularly used by political activists and journalists that we forget it has very little meaning to ordinary voters. But although its meaning is relatively simple, the Labour Party processes that will decide MPs’ fates during this parliament and beyond, are absurdly complex, perhaps inevitably so, given that they have evolved through a long series of political and managerial compromise and manoeuvring.
The historical backdrop
For decades, sitting Labour MPs, particularly those in so-called “safe” seats, had no need to seek the endorsement of their local parties in order to remain their candidate at subsequent elections. Unless you found yourself in prison or lost the party whip, you could pretty much assume a very comfortable sinecure until your retirement.
That all changed in the 1970s when the Bennite Left of the party started to demand major internal reforms, the flagship of which was “mandatory reselection” of MPs as candidates – a move finally achieved after the 1979 election. This meant that once in each parliament, MPs would have to seek activists’ endorsement. And in those days it actually was activists, not ordinary members: the decision was taken by the “General Management Committee” (GMC) of a local party, a committee which comprised of delegates elected by local party and trade union branches. Usually this was a fairly large body of more than 100 members, often many more. But in some areas where the local party had become moribund, a handful of activists would hold the sitting MP’s career in their hands. It was this issue, even more than nuclear disarmament and membership of the European Community, that became the main catalyst for the launch of the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP).
The trouble for the party’s right wing was that the Left had a point; without the need to be accountable to their local parties, far too many MPs had become lazy and complacent. But instead of weeding out such parliamentarians, the Left used mandatory reselection as an opportunity to promote its sectarian agenda. It wasn’t just lazy MPs who were targeted – it was also those who opposed the Bennite narrative of nationalisation, high taxation, import controls and unilateral disarmament.
In the 1980s, Neil Kinnock wanted to expand the franchise to ordinary members, but was prevented from removing trade unions from the voting process altogether. So the party introduced a local “electoral college” for the selection and reselection of candidates. This gave ordinary members a vote for the first time, leaving GMCs with the rights of nomination and shortlisting only. The electoral college gave unions and affiliated organisation up to 40 per cent of the vote, with ordinary members having at least 60 per cent (the actual balance was different in each seat, depending on party and union membership).
The next major development, in the early 1990s, was the introduction of the “trigger ballot”. This was aimed at honouring Labour conference’s desire to maintain reselection, while making it easier for MPs to defend their positions. This allowed for a sitting MP to be subject to a full-scale ballot of the membership if, but only if, he or she lost the trigger ballot, which involved giving each trade union branch, party branch and affiliated organisation (Fabians, Co-op Party, for example) a single yes/no vote each. If there was a two-thirds majority in favour of the automatic reselection of the MP, that was that (the two thirds threshold was later reduced, under Blair, to 50 per cent).
However, if the number of affirmative ballots fell below that two thirds threshold, the sitting MP had to face a full open contest in which he could face other candidates.
In 1993, one member, one vote (OMOV) finally arrived in the Labour Party. John Smith’s reforms meant that the trade unions no longer enjoyed a formal role in selection and reselections, except individually, as fully paid up members of the party. But they did retain their right to nominate.
The problem with the trigger ballot (which remains part of Labour’s reselection process), incidentally, is that it is more than likely that any trade union, with a little bit of organising and a lot of imagination, can contrive to affiliate more branches to a local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) than the actual party can. For example, when I went through a rather fraught reselection fight in 2004, my 300 local party members’ views were represented by four branches. Amicus (later to become Unite) had seven, the TGWU (later also to become part of Unite) had four, Unison had six and the GMB had six. That gives a total of 23 union branches versus four party branches, each branch having exactly the same weight. And whereas local party branches had to meet and have an OMOV vote to decide whether or not to endorse me (they all did), a single local union official, usually someone who didn’t live in the constituency, could take the decision on behalf of all his affiliated branches.
Nevertheless, the threat of reselection for political reasons became much harder to follow through, provided the trade unions were on the side of the MP, which they usually were.
However, when there’s a reduction in the number of seats in the Commons, as there was for Scotland in 2005 (reducing from 72 to 59 as a a consequence of the Scotland Act) and as there now looks likely to be, from 650 to 600 over the whole of the country, the situation becomes ever so slightly more complicated.
Almost every existing seat will change and some will be abolished altogether. So if you’re a sitting MP and your existing seat no longer features on the constituency map drawn up by the Boundary Commission, does that mean you can’t be a candidate?
No. Because although the constituency – which is, after all, merely some lines on a map – may disappear, the people you currently represent will not. The Labour Party rule is that a sitting MP is free to seek nomination in any new constituency where 40 per cent of his current constituents will be living after the next election. Sometimes that means he can seek nomination in more than one, but he has to state early on which one he’s going for. If he is the only sitting MP expressing an interest in said seat then the affirmative trigger ballot process begins. If he wins more than 50 per cent in the ballot of party, trade union and affiliated organisations’ branches, he is deemed the official Labour candidate for that new constituency at the 2020 election.
However, what if an MP’s constituency is split so many ways that there is no new constituency in which 40 per cent of his current constituents are to be allocated? In such a case, in the past, Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) have always guaranteed that the MP in question will not be denied the chance to stand somewhere, and so is usually given a choice to stand in any constituency where at least some of his current constituents live. It is likely that the NEC will follow this practice again this time.
Now, where there is the standard 15-year cyclical review of boundaries, and boundaries change with the shift in population, there’s often a consensual arrangement whereby sitting MPs agree to fight seats where no-one else is expressing a claim, and so avoiding any MP v MP contests. Not always, but usually. But when the Commons is about to lose 50 seats, a large number of contests is unavoidable, especially when the age of your average MP is so much lower than it’s been in the past and there are, consequently, fewer willing candidates for voluntary retirement.
So where two or more sitting MPs declare an interest in one seat, there’s no trigger ballot and the membership chooses the winning candidate on an OMOV basis.
This situation creates a perfect storm for Labour in particular, given the influx of thousands of new members, most of whom are enthused by the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Whatever the denials of Corbyn himself and of Momentum, the campaigning organisation that emerged from his successful leadership campaign, there’s little doubt that a lot of the new members are keen to make sure that at the next election, more left-leaning candidates are selected in safe and target Labour seats than there are at present. This will make life incredibly difficult for a lot of moderate, centre-left MPs. Do they say what they think of Corbyn and the road he’s taking the party down, and therefore risk losing out to a more left-wing colleague after the boundary changes take effect? Or do they keep silent, or even mouth support for Corbyn, in the hope that they can win the favour of the new recruits?
But crucially – and this is where Corbyn-supporting activists could be frustrated – the standard practice in the past has been not to allow new entrants (those who are not already MPs) to stand in such circumstances. Assuming this practice is followed this time around, it will lead, in many cases, to activists being given the choice between moderate MPs without the option of a left-winger.
A complicating factor is that, according to received wisdom, the number of Corbyn-friendly candidates Labour selects will hardly matter if Corbyn leads his party to a disastrous wipe-out in 2020 (though understandably, that will come as scant comfort to those MPs who lose out on the chance to stand again).
Another complicating factor – and one which may yet ride over the hills to rescue worried MPs (of all parties) – is the Prime Minister. However tempting David Cameron might find it to sow the seeds of panic and confusion among the Opposition benches, he cannot do so without having a similar effect on his own side. He is known to be under considerable pressure from some in his party to go ahead with the equalisation of the constituencies (that is, making sure that every seat has more or less the same number of voters residing there, unlike the status quo where there are widely differing sizes of local electorates and therefore a significant gap in the number of votes needed to elect Tory as opposed to Labour MPs), for which a democratic argument can be made, but to ditch the arbitrary reduction in the number of seats, which is more problematic. It’s difficult to argue that you’re “cutting the cost of politics” when you’re axing the number of democratically-elected politicians while massively increasing the unelected House of Lords.
One final complicating factor: veteran Labour MP Frank Field, who has the scars on his back from previous attempts by the far Left to deselect him in the 1980s, has suggested that any moderate MP who loses out in this bunfight should immediately resign from the House, create a by-election and stand for re-election as an independent. This won’t happen (unless Frank himself does it). Labour MPs are overwhelmingly tribal and loyal to the party, even when it treats them badly (as it is about to do).
Nevertheless, this whole situation risks providing a compelling, dramatic narrative from the mid-point of this parliament onwards, a narrative that will do far more harm to the Labour Party than to the Conservatives, even if the reduction in the number of seats goes ahead.
It’s at times like this that we should remember that “May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse.