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Labour executive tinkers with candidate selection but radical surgery needed

(With Postscript on by-elections and late selections and please also see this update)

Selecting a parliamentary candidate in a winnable seat is perhaps the greatest influence a party member has on the political process. And it might happen only once in 20 or 30 years. You would think Labour’s national executive would give it serious consideration once in a while, and especially after the furore in Rotherham two months ago but yesterday it nodded through a revision to Labour’s selection process without discussion. The change is a first stab at improving the process and moves it in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.

The process used to select the 37 candidates selected so far this parliament (excluding by-elections) was smuggled through as a “pilot” exercise under cover of Refounding Labour, also with virtually no discussion and certain party officials later tried to make it permanent. Fortunately, Jim Kennedy of UCATT, Chair of the executive’s organisation committee, intervened and held a proper review, which is not yet complete but will continue at a future meeting.

The main complaints about the pilot process were:

  1. The recommended advertising period was ridiculously short at only 2 weeks.
  2. Member branches and trade unions were denied the right to interview candidates and nominate.
  3. Shortlisting self-nominated applicants was left to a small “selection committee” of 6 to 10 members whose decision could not be overturned by local party members.
  4. Shortlists could contain as few as two names even if there were plenty of applicants (as happened in the Thurrock selection)

The greatest innovation (at least for Labour held and target seats) is the reintroduction of nominations (one man and/or one woman in open selections and for up to two women in all-women shortlist selections, plus a BAME nomination if neither of the first two are BAME). This is welcome. However, these can only be made on the basis of candidate statements and they will be considered alongside “self-nominations”. Nominations close within three weeks from the meeting of the selection committee which agrees the timetable, giving a distinct advantage to “insiders” and careerists.

Anyone who receives nominations from Labour Party branches with a combined membership of more than 50 per cent of the CLP membership must be short-listed, subject to meeting eligibility criteria, but no other members branch nomination need be included even on the longlist (from which the shortlist is chosen after interviews by the selection committee), although nominations from affiliates and the Coop must at least be long-listed. With no obligation to give any preference to nominated candidates, even those with substantial support from members branches and affiliates unless they are backed by members branches with 50% of the membership, the reintroduction of nominations can only be regarded as excessively tokenistic.

It is also not explicit that nominations could be made in by-elections, nor any obligation on the NEC panel  to shortlist those nominated by members branches with 50% of the membership nominated.

In another welcome change, the shortlist must incude at least three women women in all-women shortlist selections, and at least four (including at least two women) in open selections. Where a BAME candidate applies, at least one BAME candidate must be included on the shortlist.

However, the remaining inadequacies, which are very significant, are these:

  1. The nominations process remains tokenistic. It should entirely replace self-nomination save only that the executive/selection committee should also have the power to make nominations, notably in order to meet equalities requirements.
  2. The period in which nominations are accepted is far too short and yet there are three weeks in a 10-week process between the close of nominations (week three) and when the selection committee actually interviews long-listed candidates. This is an unnecessarily long period for the CVs to be considered and a longlist drawn up. The dates for longlist consideration (on the basis of CVs) and shortlist interviews can be agreed and advertised together with the final selection at the start of the process.
  3. Branches should be entitled, indeed encouraged, to interview whichever candidates they choose on the basis of their CVs prior to nomination. This should not preclude hustings or informal meetings later, though it may affect how many are held.
  4. The selection committee is too small and there is no reason why the constituency executive should not fulfil this function, perhaps with the power to co-opt additional members if it feels it necessary.
  5. It should be possible for the shortlist to be overturned by local party members. The purpose of a shortlist is to make the selection process manageable, not to exclude popular candidates. Those who choose the candidate must surely be satisfied with the choice they are offered.

Postscript

Twitter respondents raise the issue of preventing “parachuting” favoured candidates into seats. The answer for most selections is that the proposals to adress remaining inadequacies above would address this in most cases – though there is no way to prevent those with powerful friends having some advantage as long as party bureaucrats can get away with bending the rules or turning a blind eye. They would also provide for a necessary return to having a proper nominations process for by-elections. The cases they do not deal with are by-elections and late selections.

Yesterday’s NEC did resolve, in relation to by-elections after the Rotherham debacle, at least to endeavour to include an NEC CLP representative on the shortlisting panel. However, there was not a word on who chooses who will be on the panel – the key issue for democrats – or the inclusion of representatives of local parties on panels which is surely essential if selections are not returned to the CLP.

Late selections, which often when older MPs are induced to retire with offers of peerages or whatever, are dealt with in a similar fashion to by-elections. There is of course no real reason for extra NEC involvement in most of these cases, though there may be a need for some abbreviation of the normal CLP process.

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