In commenting further on the Rotheram by-election now just two weeks away, we are working hard on our self-restraint. The walk-out of the vast majority of party members from the selection meeting, the fact that the final tally in an OMOV ballot of all party members was 13 to 11, speaks for itself. The post-mortem on the details of the selection process, the composition, decisions and motives of the NEC panel, will have now to await the post-mortem on the by-election itself.
Labour Uncut and LabourList have provided possible explanations of the NEC panel’s “clean skin” strategy and some of the details of the machinations. We shall say no more on that for now — we want to see Sarah Champion, who has no responsibility for the mistakes made in the name of Labour’s national executive, win the seat for Labour.
But the not-so-clever tacticians who have acted in the name of the executive (we do not blame the executive itself) have not got us off to a good start. Especially since the last Labour MP is a crook who was himself chosen in 1994 from a shortlist imposed on the local party, which excluded the popular local candidate, Peter Thirlwall, now an independent local councillor.
Back then, the local party had at least been allowed to interview potential candidates and make nominations before the shortlisting, and were given a choice of six candidates. But the exclusion of Thirlwall, who had more nominations than anyone else, caused a local row then too. Party member, Ron Rose (scriptwriter of The Bill), accused the national party of “the worst kind of arrogance“:
It’s incredible that they could be so crude and insensitive…. If I were asked to write a play about this, it would be a political farce. You would have to do it in the theatre, because nobody would believe it on television, not even if you cast Rik Mayall.”
The farce unfortunately continues. This time the national party’s action has managed to alienate most of the local party, nine affiliated trade unions because their favoured candidate was also excluded, as well as many people in the local community. The Rotherham Advertiser describes it as a “shocking debacle”.
And since four out of the six Labour MPs Rotherham has had since 1933 were first elected at by-elections, you can understand why they think that central control in these circumstances is unfair even if . And judging by the twitter-sphere reaction, there are plenty in the party, right, left and centre who agree with them. The question is, what change is needed.
Two years ago, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy circulated a rule change which proposed something of a compromise: that whenever the NEC imposed a shortlist, it should have at least six names, half the panel should be nominated by the local party and the other half drawn by lot from available NEC members (to avoid ‘manipulation’ of the composition). Six constituency parties submitted this proposal (Amber Valley, Blackpool South, Caerphilly, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Newport West and Uxbridge and South Ruislip) but, as with almost every rule change proposed by CLPs last year and this, they were denied any debate or vote. On the pretext of Refounding Labour and a highly dubious interpretation of the 3 year rule designed to prevent repeated debate of the same issue, party members were denied any debate of most issues.
We think the time has passed for such compromise. There should be a return to local selection without interference. Control freakery, diktats from the centre, have served Rotherham and the party badly. And before the defenders of central control plead that it was designed to benefit the party in by-elections of national significance, let’s examine why it was introduced in the first place. It happened in 1988. Historian Eric Shaw in The Labour Party since 1979 – Crisis and Transformation explains that it was as a result of the Greenwich by-election a year earlier when Labour’s Deirdre Wood lost to Rosie Barnes of the SDP:
Despite head office pressure, the local party insisted upon selecting a candidate associated with the ‘loony left’, as a result of which (the leadership felt) not only was a safe Labour seat lost to the SDP but its national standing suffered grievously.
Ex chief whip, MichaelCocks, helpfully explained what was understood widely in the unmodernised party of the time by the description ‘loony left’, telling the Sunday Times that the London Left was obsessed with “irrelevant minorities” (meaning gays and probably blacks) and the choice of candidate ought to be taken away from local parties.
The reality of the Greenwich by-election can be explained very differently, however. Deirdre Wood had been the hard working and very widely liked GLC and ILEA member for Greenwich since 1981. Of the seven hundred party members who attended nominating meetings during the selection, two-thirds backed Deirdre, incuding many on the right of the party. Unfortunately, as was later confirmed in the Guardian by Newsnight’s Vincent Hanna, Labour Party head office staff briefed against her from the beginning of the selection process, favouring other candidates including Kinnock’s preferred choice, Glenys (now Baroness) Thornton.
The poison spread by Labour’s own staff was later used in a scurrilous Tory smear campaign, focussing on the alleged extravagance and inefficiency of London local government and its interest in irrelevant issues of race, gender and sexuality, for which, somehow, Deirdre had considerable responsibility. The national Labour Party (many of whose leading figures essentially agreed with the Tories on these issues) would not permit Deirdre to respond so the Tory smears went unanswered.
The Tories, who’d needed a swing of only 1.7% to overcome Labour’s 38% in 1983, did very little in the constituency, however, and their own vote collapsed, allowing the SDP to come through the middle. Deirdre’s vote actually held up very well, but the loss – entirely of the national party’s making – allowed the SDP another surge and was very damaging to Kinnock.
Those whose interference had caused such damage sought to avoid a repetition by interfering even more. To cause yet more damage. We can only hope that it can be contained.
It should not be allowed to happen again. Who knows, the Rotherham constituency party (who this year submitted a rule change to make it easier to trigger a full parliamentary reselection process) may choose to submit such a proposal next year? We suspect others will too.