Embracing reform

First published in Progress magazine

In the run-up to the last general election, it was not uncommon for fewer than 200 party members in safe Labour seats to effectively decide the constituency’s next member of parliament. In power, Labour shied away from creating opportunities for non-members to help select our candidates. At the same time, we saw our membership decline and disengage, allowing smaller and more vocal groups to dominate stagnating CLPs.

Paradoxically, opposition presents an opportunity to revitalise the party and put this disturbing trend right. Our growing membership now offers us the chance to look with confidence at how to broaden Labour’s engagement with non-members in the selection of both our candidates and party leader.

Open primaries have been championed by many Labour progressives as a tool for selecting parliamentary candidates. Ippr associate director Will Straw, for instance, has led the way, arguing they will bring about more democratically credible local candidates, while re-engaging voters and non-members at a grassroots level.

New ideas are springing up right across the country. In Progress’ recent tour of the country to hear ideas for Peter Hain’s party reform project one party member suggested that, if a local Labour party could not recruit one per cent of the Labour vote in its area as party members, then it should automatically lose the right to select the next parliamentary candidate, and be left only to devise a suitable shortlist. The final decision would be handed over to Labour supporters – including members – in the constituency.

When the MP John Mann gave Labour supporters in his seat of Bassetlaw a say over how his vote should be cast in the Labour leadership election, 6,000 local residents who had indicated their support for Labour got involved in the election and chose their preferred candidate. Imagine if this engagement had happened in every seat in the land, including allowing those without a Labour MP to still nominate and have sway: it would have been the biggest inter-general election consultation ever with the public on who the future prime minister should be.

There are many paths the party could take towards thoroughgoing reform; the possibilities are almost endless. Abolishing the separate electoral college section for MPs and creating something akin to Labour’s London mayoral candidate vote could be one way forward. This is an approach thought to have caught the eye of some in the unions. Alternatively, asking voters to register as Labour supporters and handing one of the three colleges over to them would radically open the party up to its own supporters. Imagine, too, how this might transform how we do voter ID and campaigning. Or how about MPs shortlisting candidates down to a choice of two, and allowing the final decision to be made by party members, trade unions, members of socialist societies and registered Labour supporters?

Now is the time to get our internal affairs right so that we can face the world with a strong party structure behind us, while also letting in more of that world than we have done before. In government, party reform took a back seat. It shouldn’t in opposition.

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Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress and David Chaplin is chair of the Young Fabians

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