Reselection of MPs and Party Conference: A Delegates’ Guide
by Rachel Godfrey Wood (@RachelGodfreyWo) on August 23, 2018



Radically democratising the way in which candidates are selected is a basic pre-requisite for being able to transform the rest of society. A genuinely democratic selection process should allow local parties to make sure they select the best possible candidates, taking into account both their personal and political qualities, and should ensure that there is strong accountability between MPs, members, and affiliates. In the absence of such accountability, it is unrealistic to expect the majority of current Labour MPs to be fully committed to implementing radical policies in the face of what will inevitably be ferocious resistance from the country’s financial, political, and media elites. Although the selection of candidates in seats with sitting Labour MPs has not been part of the Democracy Review, a number of rule changes seeking to address this issue are on the agenda for this year’s Conference, and Momentum, CLPD and Unite are all likely to push for major changes.

What’s in a Name?

One key point to make is that whilst there is generalised agreement amongst the left regarding the importance of reforms to the reselection of MPs, confusion reigns when it comes to the actual details and desired outcomes. Terms like ‘mandatory reselection’, ‘open selection’, ‘reform of the trigger ballot’ are often thrown around carelessly, without any serious interrogation of what different proposals actually entail, and what types of outcomes they would lead to. Delegates at this year’s Party Conference will need to have a clear idea of the nuances between different proposals, and what types of political outcomes they actually entail. At the same time, delegates also need to be aware of the tactical concerns that need to be considered to ensure that the left seizes this historic opportunity. We must ensure that Conference does not become a mere marketplace, with individual members focused on expressing their individual preferences - it is a site of contestation in which both victories and defeats are borne out of the collective positions of the diverse constituent actors of the Labour Party, and tactical considerations are paramount. Focusing narrowly on one specific formulation, as a recent article by Joe Bilsborough does, to the exclusion of any consideration of alternative proposals, or of the wider tactical concerns likely to be at play, increases the risk of delegates focusing on proposals which have little chance of seeing the light of day, or voting against proposals which would actually provide a lot of the accountability and democracy that party members are looking for.

This article attempts to clear up this confusion. It starts off by identifying the major flaws with the existing trigger ballot system, which is rightly treated with contempt by large numbers of Labour Party and Momentum activists. Rather than focusing on potentially misleading labels of different proposals, it proposes a more meaningful distinction between different types of possible reforms, distinguishing between ones which allow new candidates to campaign from the beginning of a selection, and ones that do not. It subsequently discusses the four relevant proposals which are currently on the agenda at this year’s Labour Party Conference, as well as of alternatives that could potentially be discussed and put forward by the NEC, and finishes off with some tactical considerations for delegates in the runup to Party Conference.

The Existing Trigger Ballot System

The existing trigger ballot system used by the Labour Party was introduced under Neil Kinnock in 1990 to draw a line under the period between 1983 and 1990, when mandatory reselection was implemented. In that period, only 8 MPs were actually deselected, although it is worth remembering that this was a period when the left were in a state of perpetual decline, and that a number of right-wing MPs had already left to form the Social Democratic Party. The trigger ballot retains the theoretical possibility of members choosing another candidate, but in practice makes it virtually impossible for them to do this except in the most extreme cases. It does this by allowing the MP to be automatically reselected provided they can win support from over half of all party and affiliate branches in an affirmative (trigger) ballot, in which members can only decide if they want an open selection, or are happy with the sitting MP. The system is open to abuse, because each branch counts for one, regardless of how many members those branches actually represent. This means that even if every single party branch votes in favour of an open selection, the MP can still get automatically reselected if they win support from enough affiliate branches.

However, the main problem with trigger ballot is not simply that it is open to abuse (although that is obviously critical), but that it prevents other candidates from standing at the earliest possible stage. As a result the odds are stacked in favour of sitting MPs, who, in addition to the advantages they enjoy as incumbents (profile, relationships, paid staff, better access to membership data), are able to campaign positively for themselves, whereas any activists who want a genuine contest have to campaign negatively against them. This prevents potential candidates from becoming known to the membership, from getting access to membership lists, or from communicating key messages or listening to members’ concerns, and is more likely to lead to an uncomradely negative contest. Thanks to the trigger ballot, any British version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez simply wouldn’t stand a chance of becoming a Labour MP unless she happened to live in or near the constituency of an MP who retired. Given this, alternative versions of ways to select candidates in seats with sitting MPs should be judged primarily in terms of whether or not they allow new candidates to stand at the earliest possible stage (i.e. the nomination process), rather than their labelling or title.

Conference Options

There are currently four different rule changes on Conference agenda that meet the criteria of allowing new candidates to stand from the beginning of the selection process: A version promoted by Labour International, one from Portsmouth North and Rochester and Strood, a version submitted by Bristol West, Worthing West, and Hove, and another by Rayleigh and Wickford, Kensington, and Hastings and Rye. In addition there are four additional rule changes on the agenda (West Lancashire, Richmond Park, Cheltenham, and Manchester Gorton) which cover Parliamentary Selections but do not address the question of trigger ballots in any substantial way. The fact that there are four key rule changes on the agenda of Conference all aiming to radically reform the way candidates are selected is a sign of the vibrancy of the Labour movement, but it is not without its dangers: how will delegates be able to judge how to vote?

The first point to make is that the Bristol West/Worthing West/Hove version and the Rayleigh and Wickford/Kensington/Hastings and Rye versions allow the sitting MP to get automatically reselected, without a full selection, if they can achieve certain thresholds at the nomination stage. The thinking behind this is that any MP who can achieve these thresholds would win an open selection anyway, and there is little to be gained by the party having a large number of open selections where the outcome is virtually guaranteed. The Bristol West/Worthing West/Hove version explicitly states that the MP must achieve nominations from party branches representing over two thirds of the membership, as well as over from two thirds of affiliates’ branches, to prevent the abuses mentioned earlier. Meanwhile the Rayleigh and Wickford/Kensington/Hastings and Rye version is less precise, saying simply that MPs can win automatically if they can win 66% of nominations from ‘both party units and affiliates’, making it less clear if they have to achieve the threshold in each separate section, or from the totality of nominations, and it does not attach weight to the membership size of the branches. It should be emphasised that in both versions, other candidates would be able to compete for the nominations, so these proposals are doing more than merely ‘reforming the trigger ballot’.

By contrast the Labour International and Portsmouth/Rochester and Strood versions guarantee an open selection regardless of how many nominations the sitting MP gets. The main advantage of these versions is simplicity and clarity, while the main disadvantage is the increased effort that would go into large numbers of open selections where there is probably little chance of a challenger winning. The Labour International version also attempts to fix the date of selections in seats without sitting MPs to 12 months after the previous election, presumably in order to make sure local parties have a candidate in place as early as possible so that they can campaign effectively. However a possible downside to this is that the time costs to Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) in marginal seats can be exorbitant - PPCs are often expected to campaign as much as a sitting MP without receiving the financial support to do so. In the worst scenarios, this can lead to burnout, and can discourage working class candidates from standing. Meanwhile the Portsmouth/Rochester and Strood version suffers from unclear wording - it outlines a process of mandatory reselection but fails to delete the words ‘trigger ballot’ from subsequent clauses, meaning it would require additional adjustments to be brought into line with the rest of the rule book. Notwithstanding their details, however, it is important to emphasise that in terms of advancing democracy and accountability, these four rule changes have far more in common than separating them.

Joker in the Pack - the National Executive Committee

As is often the case with major rule changes at the Labour Party Conference, the decisive factor may end up being the position taken by the National Executive Committee, which meets on Tuesday September 18th, a few days before Conference begins. The NEC could recommend one of the rule changes already on the agenda, it could recommend an alternative formulation, or if it is convinced by the broader arguments but undecided regarding the actual mechanics of a new system, it could defer some of the details to a future consultation process, asking delegates to remit their proposals in the meantime. In practice, the recommendation by the NEC tends to be decisive, because trade unions delegations usually vote in favour of the recommendations on the basis that they have been adequately represented on the NEC. Voting against the NEC recommendation is generally little more than a symbolic protest.

This leaves open the possibility that an alternative version could make it onto the agenda if the NEC felt it was superior than one of the existing ones, or if there was a greater degree of political consensus behind it. For example, one possibility could be to retain the trigger ballot but allow new candidates to campaign for an open selection. This could broaden the alliance in favour of an open selection, as well as making it clearer to members who the alternative candidates are. Alternatively, the threshold in the Bristol West rule change could be reversed, meaning that any challengers could force an open selection by reaching that threshold (e.g. one-third of the nominations in either category). This would put the onus on challengers to demonstrate they have enough support to make an open selection worthwhile, as opposed to asking MPs to demonstrate they have enough support to justify avoiding an open selection, and would arguably encourage activists to focus on campaigning ‘positively’ for a candidate. A much more limited change would be to adopt half of the Bristol West proposal, namely to separate the party branches from affiliates’ branches, and increase the threshold of the trigger ballot to two thirds, but without allowing new candidates to compete for nominations (i.e. retaining the trigger ballot). This would prevent the abuse of the current system by large numbers of affiliates’ branches which don’t actually have many active members at all, and could improve accountability to the extent of making the existing system more robust, but would not meet the basic criteria of allowing challengers to stand, and would therefore constitute a tweaking of the existing system rather than its radical overhaul.

Conclusion

Because of the powers the NEC has to propose rule changes of its own just before Conference, therefore, the opportunities available to the Party are not necessarily limited to the ones currently on the agenda. Crucially, however, votes on the actual Conference floor will depend heavily on tactical considerations rather than the individual preferences of each delegate for particular options. In the absence of an NEC recommendation, the order in which rule changes are taken is crucial - if one of the versions is passed, the others will fall. Moreover, because of the confusion regarding the labelling of different proposals, and the actual content, the positions taken by trade unions could potentially be ambiguous. For example, given that there are four proposals with similar objectives, the right within the trade unions could convince their delegations to vote for a version which is less likely to pass, or which they know other key trade unions will vote against, and then vote against a version which has a better chance of getting passed - thus claiming to vote for ‘mandatory reselection’ but in reality scuppering any prospect of meaningful change. CLP delegates should therefore be as coordinated as possible, and avoid the trap of voting against a version they perceive to be less than perfect if that is the one that has the best chance of getting passed. As with last year’s Party Conference, Momentum will be making recommendations to delegates in the run-up to and during Conference via emails, text messages, and a Conference App, and delegates who support democratisation of the party are very much encouraged to sign up to these updates.


author

Rachel Godfrey Wood (@RachelGodfreyWo)

Rachel Godfrey Wood is a Lead Organiser for Momentum.

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