Labour’s parliamentary selection process comes under the spotlight again as criticisms are made of the process in Thurrock, Essex. Sarah Mackinlay, the daughter of Andrew Mackinlay who lost the seat last year retired at the general election, has been kept off the shortlist of two but Polly Billington, a close aide to Ed Miliband, has made it. Although there is no evidence of any improper interference by Ed’s office or regional staff, there is undoubtedly resentment around. Not surprising since, so far, the process has given no role to any party member (let alone local trade unionist) who isn’t on the small selection committee (which can have no more than ten members). There is no nomination process and the only chance party members will get to influence the choice is, on 3 December, to choose between just two candidates who have been shortlisted, neither of them with any local connection.
Back in January, Labour’s national executive gave the go-ahead to 26 parliamentary selection processes, all in southern England and the Midlands. They were carefully chosen marginal seats, well away from Labour seats whose MPs might be displaced by boundary changes and the reduction in the number of seats from 650 to 600. It was recognition by the executive of the advantage of having candidates in place in marginals, subject to the constraint of saving the jobs of existing MPs. The most marginal of all was Thurrock, with a Tory majority of 92, who were to have an all-woman shortlist.
However, at the same time, the executive decided to try out a new selection process. Even though there was no urgency about these selections, there was no nomination process. Indeed the selection procedure in the old, pre-Refounding Labour rulebook which included a proper nomination process involving members branches and affiliates has now been deleted entirely, along with the requirement to shortlist at least six candidates and anyone nominated by branches involving more than half the membership. All that’s left about selection procedures in the new rulebook concerns protecting sitting MPs. The shortlist is entirely decided (subject to the approval of the “NEC’s representative”) by the six to ten of the selection committee.
We don’t have anything against Polly Billington but there is no doubt that the two months off she was granted by Ed Milliband gives her a considerable advantage even without any manipulation of the process. However, she is by no means alone amongst political insiders in getting such advantages. What we do wish is that Ed Miliband would give greater priority to ensuring that working class candidates get real assistance in overcoming the disadvantages of political outsiders, and to ensuring that party members (and even trade unionists) get some real say in who represents them. The elitist process we have now is just not fit for purpose.
Sarah Mackinlay may or may not be who the majority of party members in Thurrock want as their candidate. On the whole, we’re not enthusiastic about political dynasties. But Thurrock members certainly deserve one local candidate and a wider choice. The NEC or Ed Miliband should stop the process and ensure they get it.