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On Progress and the parliamentary candidate selection process

Richard Angell, Deputy Head of Progress party-within-the-party, has written an interesting column on how Labour parliamentary candidates are selected and new rules to increase working-class representation.  This might sound dull as ditchwater, but the process is actually a pretty key variable when it comes to what kind of person we end up getting to represent us in parliament.

Richard, who runs Progress’s member-only selection training, claims that:

the way in which ‘org sub’ has set about implementing changes – massively increasing the cost and more than doubling the time potential candidates need to spend in the constituency they hope to contest – are likely to make it easier for full-time politicos – whether they be ‘Westminster village’ thinktankers and aides to frontbenchers or trade union officials – and harder still for others to stand for Labour.

There are a number of problems with his ensuing argument.

First, there’s the decidedly worrying assertion that the extension of the selection period from four to eleven weeks means that:

it will not be a level playing field, as those who work for an MP, a think-tank, or trade union, are given all the time off they need to campaign.

Really?  I’m not certain your average taxpayer, who generally foots the bill for those working for MPs, would be too pleased to hear that.  Put simply, if that is happening, it should stop immediately.  Likewise with trade unions.  And the idea that people working for think-tanks can simply take paid sabbatical for an eleven-week period ignores they fact that think-tanks – like any other business – have to generate income in order to survive.  As it happens, I know a think-tanker who is running for selection, and the idea that he can simply drop his work commitments for nearly three months looks a little absurd.

Then there’s Richard’s argument that needing £1,000 for 3 leaflets (in a 300 member constituency) will militate against working class candidates.  This is rubbish. First, many working class candidates will have some support from a union branch.  Second, and more important, it doesn’t need to cost that much.  As a councillor in a ward with 1,000 houses I produced a quarterly newsletter of eight to twelve pages for many years at no more than than around £150 per year all in, using an old Riso printer and buying the paper from Makro.  No, it wasn’t glossy, but it was effective.  I think Richard is simply assuming the Progress-style glossies are a prerequisite for a successful campaign, when in fact clearly low-cost materials can be just as effective with the right content (as Richard himself acknowledges with his DVD anecdote).

The most important flaw in Richard’s argument, though, is this:

Crucially, those going for selection will get the membership list – and the expense of an all-member mailing – before the party draws up a longlist, let alone a shortlist. This makes the cost of entry very high for some, with no guarantee of getting to make your case directly to the membership. The additional complication of supporting nominations makes the process more likely to favour insiders and ‘chosen sons’.

This conveniently ignores why the nominations process has been reintroduced.  Obviously I can’t speak for the sub org on this, but I assume it is so that candidates get a chance, in more informal settings, to discuss local issues with members, and learn what their priorities might be, not least so that come the shortlisting this can be reflected in their interview.  It seems to me perfectly reasonable that, come the longlisting, those doing the listing should consider thee extent to which local members and other parts of the labour movement have been convinced enough by the candidate that they then offer their nomination.  To suggest that engagement with members and unions is simply a bureaucratic impediment is, I am afraid, something of an insult.

More generally, there is an assumption underlying Richard’s piece which requires challenge.  This is that MPs are some kind of supremely talented breed, and that to fill a seat we need to catch the net nationwide for the brightest and the best – the clue is in the way Richard’s reference to “the time potential candidates need to spend in the constituency”.  But as I’ve set out previously, the job of an MP is really just not that difficult – and the salary is broadly commensurate with the skill set needed for the job – and, we really don’t need to shop around nationally to get good candidates in place.  I could name at least a dozen people in my own constituency who would make very good local MPs, most of them from working class backgrounds.  While I’m not against people coming up from London to pitch in if they so wish, any move which makes it easier for local candidates who are already in (or at least close to) the constituency, should be welcomed.

Ultimately, Richard’s piece is a contrived defence of the status quo: MPs as overlords of their constituencies rather than servants of it.  The NEC sub org committee has delivered a small victory for those who’d like to see candidates able and willing to engage with the genuine grassroots, and to do so in ways which favour working class candidates – such as knowing the local patch – over and above the glossy professional CVs and skills required to sell yourself to the party hierarchy.

This article previously appeared at Where Cowards Flinch where Paul regularly blogs.

2 Comments

  1. John p Reid says:

    I reckon that people will start referring to CLPD as a party in a party soon,

  2. Patrick Coates says:

    What about the LRC

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