Opening selections back up to working people

First published by ProgressOnline

I was really pleased to see Paul Cotterill write a reply to my recent article, Selective Memory, on the increased time and financial costs recently added by the organisational subcommittee of the NEC to Labour’s selections process.

In the piece I argue that Labour should establish two principles when developing its selection process. First, that the part of the process with the membership list, where aspiring candidates need to go door-to-door, fit into statutory holiday entitlement, time off for working people so hard won by the trade unions and the Labour government. Second, that aspiring candidates shouldn’t have to incur costs before being guaranteed a place on the shortlist and the right to make a speech to the whole membership.

I am sure there are many points that Cotterill and I agree on, not least the need for more working-class and fewer ‘professional politicians’ to be selected. In the same vein, I wish to reply to the three main criticisms the author makes of my piece.

First, I am surprised we don’t agree that, whatever process we put in place, Labour’s structures will always be more accessible to full-time politicos, whether they be researchers and advisers, thinktankers or employed trade union officials. The ‘we’ve got too many special advisers’ line has fallen into general parlance in the party. In addition, the nine ‘trade unionists’ that got elected to parliament in 2010 were all full-time officials prior to being selected or elected, not senior lay reps. We must act to level the playing field for working people, which means removing time and financial barriers.

Second, the point is well made about the cost of leaflets. ‘Glossies’ are not the important part of the process, the message is. The problem with solution of using riso machines that Cotterill suggests is that before you are the Labour candidate you cannot use Labour party resources for your selection campaign. This bars most candidates from access to cheap leaflets. This is something the party could explore changing as we move toward. Maybe there is a joint Progress-Though Cowards Flinch campaign in that one.

The idea that most working-class candidates ‘will have some [financial] support from a union branch’ ignores the fact that in most unions the branches no longer hold political funds and that Len McCluskey himself has said it’s not working class candidates in particular that his union (and others) are interested in supporting, but those who ‘share core trade union values and will support policies that will benefit Unite’s 1.5 million members – irrespective of an individual’s class’. This also means that different branches of the same union cannot support different candidates and ignores that in vast swaths of the country the ‘big three’ unions are all supporting the same candidate.

Finally, what Cotterill calls the ‘most important flaw in [my] argument’ is that branch nominations have been reintroduced in a big way is ‘so that candidates get a chance, in more informal settings, to discuss local issues with members’. If only this were true. Aspiring candidates are actively excluded from the Labour party branch meetings where the nomination takes place and in most unions the nominations process is done by regional or national committees, on behalf of the branches affiliated to the CLP in question. These regional and national committees normally take place (not unreasonably) well in advance of the selections process itself so are by definition not open to all candidates. Clearly Cotterill and I both wish to give candidates the chance to engage with levy-payers in the area coterminous with the constituency’s borders. The regional and national committees mentioned above don’t seem to agree.

In the Labour party we can surely agree that barriers of time and cost should be limited where possible, because access is as an important principle to democracy as the one member, one vote ballot.

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

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Photo: John Keogh

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