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Progress, class and parliamentary selections

I am one of those who wants to see more working class people – and a bigger range of people generally – active in the highest levels of politics. So I welcome the emphasis the party is placing on broadening the social composition of parliament. That process is certainly not going to be resolved across the course of one term. The work that is done in this period will help lay the groundwork for what needs to be achieved and then sustained.

But I am sure that the one way not to broaden representation in Parliament is to follow the advice of those who would give full advantage to a privileged layer of professional activists and members of the existing political class.

Former spin doctors, SPADS and PADs have a very important contribution to make including in the Parliamentary Labour Party – but we cannot allow that to distort the whole composition of the PLP.

Labour’s NEC has rightly taken a look at how we select candidates and made some important changes, which were backed unanimously by the entire NEC. The Progress organisation has opposed these changes whilst using the language of its opponents. That opposition is really about shifting the balance back a narrower political and social base.

First, the NEC lengthened the period of selection from one month to between two and three. There is much debate about this but I am absolutely confident that we cannot go back to one month.

Under the old system a political adviser working for an MP would have an inbuilt advantage. It is easier to get time off for a short sharp one month burst of campaigning to win a selection if you work in politics or have a good relationship with an understanding flexible employer than if you are most nurses, engineers, schoolteachers, shop workers or builders.

Under the old system candidates in more flexible and political professions could get out of the blocks and round a CLP in a way that others often could not. One effect of the change the NEC made to lengthen the process of selection is that people in jobs where it is hard to take time off can now spend their spare time at weekends and evenings talking to members. It adapts our selection procedure to the reality of working lives.

Second, we have made it possible for any member who applies for selection in a particular seat to immediately have access to the members of that CLP. Each potential candidate can purchase the CLP membership list, for a small fee. For years selections have been loaded in favour of those well-connected establishment-friendly candidates who could get the membership list through back channels way in advance of their rivals. That factional advantage is fundamentally challenged by the more level playing field that the NEC has introduced.

The deputy director of Progress, Richard Angell, has complained that “crucially, those going for selection will get the membership list” before longlisting – and argues there is no need for this until after shortlisting. All that would do is reinstate the in-built advantage of the most well-connected establishment candidates. In many cases they would be making contact with members whilst other candidates were stuck at the starting line.

That Progress sees this as crucial is highly telling.

Third, we have reintroduced an element of nominations into the selection system. In the past there was a danger that candidates with strong local support could be overlooked in favour of candidates who conformed to the received wisdom of what an MP looks like, in the mould of the professional political classes. Making sure that shortlisting committees can take account of branch and affiliated views through their nominations is part of a much-needed system of checks and balances.

A return to the highly truncated four week selection, effectively proposed by Richard Angell in his article, would set back opportunities to widen access and decimate a meaningful nomination phase.

The real story to be told is that under Ed Miliband and Iain McNicol, Labour now has the most fair and transparent selection process for many years. Regressing to systems that favour a minority over the majority is not the right way for Labour to move forward.

4 Comments

  1. Robbie Scott says:

    I agree with most of this but i don’t understand the shortlist/longlist debate. Why couldn’t you just ban candidates from contacting members during X time period under and throw off anybody who breaks that rule? I’m not sure many people would risk it.

    Also I completely object to my personal details being given out to candidates, particularly email address. Why can’t prospective candidates communicate to members via the party? The party could charge them all say £150 and produce 3 standard booklets with all of their spiel init. That would completely remove any money advantage.

    I’m currently receiving emails from prospective MEP candidates, am I right in thinking that the candidates have membership lists for the entire region? In my case London? How many thousands of members is that ? What happens if somebody forgets to BCC an email? Mail clients often do this by mistake

    Also it gives perspective MEP candidates a huge advantage should they stand to be candidates in the future particularly MP/GLA/ Mayoral candidates.

  2. Alex says:

    Robbie: I might be wrong, but I think that when you supply your e-mail to the party you are agreeing to be contacted by the party including by candidates. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but I’d rather my contact details went out via an official channel than handed over to a prospective candidate in the digital equivalent of a backroom deal involving brown envelopes.

  3. John p Reid says:

    Ken you clearly misrepresent Progress view on selection, you say that they disagreed with the NEC decision, but he’s at least 2 NEC members, who we vote for who are in progress and that excludes, other people who sit on the NEC, like euro most or Harriet harmn, also working class representation, can’t Spads be working class, or for that matter can those in other left wing groups like CLPD not be middle class

  4. F Kafka says:

    Robbie – yes it does give them an advantage. It was a London MEP who broke party rules to give Oona King a membership list in her failed attempt to beat Ken for 2012 mayoral selection.

    This change will abate that problem.

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