by Gaye Johnston
Equal opportunities selection processes for vital public sector jobs are now the UK norm. The system was pioneered by Labour Councils in the 1980s when the author was a Darlington councillor. It is therefore surprising that, since 1994, one type responsible public post (which pays £64,000 per year plus generous expenses) has been filled using a selection process which resembles a very steep gradient playing field. These are the dubious Labour Parliamentary selection practices which have recently been uncovered in the selection at Erith and Thamesmead. Fortunately the problems at this selection have now been fairly resolved but they were but the tip of a vast and long buried iceberg.
For many years prior to 1994 Labour Parliamentary candidates were chosen after giving a speech to selectors and answering a battery of questions. Only those who had heard all the candidates at the selection meeting were allowed to vote. Up to a point this was scrupulously fair. However one problem was that sick, or unavoidably absent electors were unable to vote. The second issue was that only representative delegates to the local Party’s General Committee had the vote. The principal of one member one vote (OMOV) is since firmly established across the Labour Party and should continue to apply to Parliamentary selections.
However when OMOV was introduced in 1994, it was implemented in a way which did not allow most hopefuls to have anything like an equal opportunity of being chosen. Postal votes were permitted to all members without having to prove that they had a sound reason for not attending the hustings. The result was the current large scale harvesting of postal votes ahead of the speeches. This situation in which large numbers, often a majority of eligible members, cast their votes without having heard all, or even any, of the candidates has existed since the mid 1990s. Susan Press of the Labour Representation Committee reported this phenomenon at the recent Calder Valley selection in which she was a candidate. It affected myself as early as 1995 in the selection at Heywood and Middleton when a large number of delegates, came out of the hustings and informed me that, had they heard me speak earlier, they would have voted for me. I suffered a similar experience in a selection in Liverpool in 2001. The solution to this problem is to severely and strictly restrict postal votes to those who prove conclusively they absolutely cannot vote without them (e.g. through medical or employer’s certificate) and to disqualify candidates whose agents collect them.
The Erith and Thamesmead case has involved the destruction of ballot papers. Whilst this abuse has never been proved before in selections it has often been rumoured.
The greatest unfairness of all has been the differential distribution of lists of Party members to aspiring candidates. During the 1990s no hopeful was supposed to have full lists of members because of data protection laws. In practice anyone who was an officer of the Constituency Party or a friend of theirs could obtain a list- as could candidates being favoured by the Party leadership. During the Bolton North East selection (1996) a member of Party staff, referring to the list distribution system, said to the author that there was no way that the selection could be absolutely fair. During the same period a Blairite MP advised the writer that she was obviously being blocked so why continue to seek a candidature? After 2000 lists were distributed to all applicants but only at the eleventh hour before the hustings and when many postal votes had already been cast. This was the upshot of complaints about certain candidates having lists, which were denied to the rest, during London Mayoral selections.
Later lists became more widely available but still only to leadership favoured candidates and sometimes to those being promoted by trades unions. Ann Black, a Centre-Left Grass Roots Alliance supported member of Labour’s National Executive (NEC), has called for all hopefuls to be given a list early in each selection process. So far her recommendation has not been agreed by the NEC. The importance of having this list is that it enables candidates to contact Party members and seek their support directly. When so many votes are cast without a direct interview of candidates the facility for them to contact the selectorate in other ways is vital.
The Labour Party was founded, among other reasons, to help working people to get into Parliament. As the Erith and Thamesmead case shows money now talks. Favoured candidates with plenty of cash can buy, and distribute, expensive publicity and use costly PR agencies to canvass for them. Most people cannot afford such luxuries. This situation is highly questionable in a party whose MPs should mirror the general population. This problem was lamented by Meg Russell in her interesting book Building New Labour (2005).
The final coup de grace, which eliminates candidates who are not cronies of the Party leadership, is the taking over of the whole process by the NEC Organisation Committee or, as at Erith and Thamesmead, by the Regional Labour Party. Since the Greenwich by-election debacle in the late 1980s the NEC Organisation Committee has drawn up the shortlist for by election candidates. This process is supposed to check on candidate competence but, as the partner of a cabinet minister once confided in me, this is also used to exclude all to the left of the Party leadership. At the last Rotherham candidate selection the writer was told (correctly) by the late Hedley Salt who would be on the NEC shortlist- before we had even been interviewed! Increasingly the running of other selections has been taken over by the hierarchy -particularly as General elections approach. The result is that the Parliamentary Labour Party is stuffed with apparatchiks and cronies –but there are a minority of able and honourable exceptions.
Parliamentary selection procedures must now be cleaned up and developed into a system that is transparent and fair if the Labour Party is to retain any credibility for its MPs and to achieve real democracy for its grass roots members.
Gaye Johnston is Chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Vice Chair of Save the Labour Party. She was parliamentary candidate in the Tory marginal seats of Langbaurgh (Cleveland) in 1983 and Swindon in 1987. She is standing for the Labour Party Conference Arrangements Committee in 2009.