Selective memory

First published in Progress magazine

New rules will not bring more working-class candidates

Last year’s conference saw Labour adopt a rule change which pledged it to ‘select more candidates who reflect the full diversity of our society … and to increase working-class representation’. In its first meeting of the new year, Labour’s organisation subcommittee of the National Executive Committee set about implementing this new rule.

The need to increase working-class representation has been recently reiterated by Ed Miliband, and endorsed by figures from across the party. From Unite general secretary Len McCluskey to former home secretary Alan Johnson, everyone agrees that we need a more diverse mix of people elected to parliament.

It is therefore hugely surprising 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.

After the 2010 election, a series of changes were made to the selection rules. The best reform was that the period of time when candidates had access to membership lists and could go door-to-door talking to party members fitted nicely into the statutory holiday time that every worker enjoys. This change meant that the candidates Labour has selected so far look a bit more like working Britain: in Carlisle the party selected Lee Sherriff, a care worker; in Burton, Jon Wheale, a former army officer; Reading West chose Victoria Groulef, who runs a small business, while Peterborough picked Lisa Forbes, a full-time mum. Into the mix, the party has also added long-serving local councillors and former MPs aiming to win back their seats. The much-criticised former special advisers are the exception rather than the rule, although, as they have always been, those selected are no less impressive nor gung-ho in their attacks on the Tories.

But the party has now decided to allow selection campaigns to run for nine to 11 weeks (compared to the current four) and has increased from two to three the number of leaflets candidates are allowed to send. 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 guarentee 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’.

How are shift-workers or those people paid an hourly rate possibly expected to throw their hat into the ring if you have to make yourself available to party members for longer than most employers will allow in leave? And it will not be a level playing field, as those who work for an MP, a thinktank, or trade union, are given all the time off they need to campaign.

Before 2010 there were no limits on the number of leaflets those going for selection could send. There were reports of ‘spending wars’ and accusations of people ‘buying seats’, although the reality is that high-spenders rarely benefitted. The candidate who sent every party member a DVD, for instance, got just two votes at their final hustings.

But the realpolitik of campaigns is that whatever you set as the maximum soon becomes the minimum. If the campaign allows three leaflets and nine weeks of going door-to-door, that is what people will feel required to do for fear of appearing less organised, hard working or capable. The new process means it is almost impossible to run a selection in a seat with 300 members on less than £1,000 – hardly the way to implement resolutions to get more working-class people into parliament.

It is time for the NEC to look again. We need short, affordable and accessible selection campaigns, ones that are no longer than statutory holiday time, where there is no need to spend until after shortlisting, and supporting nominations are used to give momentum, resources and access to shortlisted candidates.

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UPDATE: On 14 May 2013 the NEC org sub changed the maximum from 13 to eight weeks in a move that will make selections more accessible to all, especially to working people.

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Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress. For more on selections, see here.

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Photo: Felix O

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