Labour Insiders Dismiss Accusations Of "Chaotic" Wakefield By-Election Selection Process
There is anger from both the left and Labour MPs at the way the party leadership handled the Wakefield candidate selection (Alamy)
Labour insiders have played down accusations of a chaotic process to select their candidate for the upcoming Wakefield by-election which saw local members walk out in protest.
But some MPs have also expressed frustration with the party’s leadership for causing an unnecessary row over candidate selection with the local party at the start of a crucial campaign to win back a seat that had been held by Labour for 87 years until they lost it to the Tories in 2019.
One frontbencher told PoliticsHome that “lots of us were really pissed off” with the handling of the process by Sir Keir Starmer’s aides, while left-wing activists criticised it as a “stitch-up”.
The by-election was prompted by the resignation of former Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan, who won the seat from Labour with a 3,358-vote majority in 2019, after he was was convicted for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy last month.
The seat is seen as a key target for Starmer in proving he can win back 'red wall' voters who swung to the Conservatives under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. But the executive committee of the Wakefield Constituency Labour Party (CLP) resigned en masse last week after three local candidates – including the deputy council leader Jack Hemingway – were kept off the shortlist.
Members were asked to choose between Kate Dearden and Simon Lightwood, neither of whom are from Wakefield, with some walking out of the meeting to cast their votes on Sunday. Lightwood has however noted that he has "lived, worked and studied in Wakefield" following the fall-out over his selection.
A source close to the campaign insisted the meeting was “nowhere near as fractious or as hyped up as people have been making out,” pointing out only a "tiny fraction” actually disrupted the proceedings.
“The vast majority of people stayed and voted, and there was a lot of support for Simon in the room, he's already very well known in the constituency, and really well known by the members,” they said.
“It was definitely a hiccup in the campaign, but we'll move beyond it very quickly behind a great candidate.”
There was also frustration among Labour MPs that party leadership gave support to Lightwood as a candidate, then apparently switched to Dearden, having convinced her to run for selection, before switching back to Lightwood.
The campaign insider denied that the central party had flip-flopped, and said there was always support for both candidates and they would have been happy with either of them.
Lightwood, who beat Dearden, is an NHS worker and a member of Labour's National Policy Forum. After his victory he said the constituency had been “without an MP and a voice in Westminster for over a year,” urging the Conservatives to set a date for the by-election as soon as possible.
The writ has not yet been moved, meaning no date is confirmed, and PoliticsHome understands some Labour figures are now worried about the Conservatives pushing back both their selection of a candidate and the by-election, with the Wakefield contest possibly not taking place until August.
But there is also suggestion that the Wakefield by-election could be set as early as 23 June, alongside a second by-election in Tiverton and Honiton, triggered after the Tory MP Neil Parish resigned over watching pornography in the House of Commons.
Limits on campaign spending kick in as soon as a party picks their official candidate, and there are worries that Labour selected too quickly and the party must slow down its campaign to ensure it does not hit its spending cap much too early.
“They’re going to push it into the long grass,” a Labour MP said.
But a campaign source said they felt strongly that the party had needed to get a candidate in place as soon as possible to “fill the vacuum” left by Khan.
One of the members of the local executive who resigned last week criticised the way the process was handled, saying they had been trying to get the selection underway for almost a year as Khan’s legal case proceeded.
They told PoliticsHome that on the day of the local elections on 5 May, a selection process with a timescale of just seven days was sprung on them, and they were initially not set to have a representative of the CLP on the selection panel.
They said the set-up was in contravention of rule changes agreed by the party last year, and were angry that “no local candidates” made it onto the long list of four.
As well as Hemingway another local councillor, Michael Graham – who last week was informed he had completed Labour’s future candidates programme – was also left off, angering the CLP executive.
But the campaign insider said candidate selection is always in the gift of the National Executive Committee (NEC) at a by-election, and that the normal rules will apply in the lead-up to a general election.
A spokesperson for the left-wing Momentum campaign said the Wakefield selection process was a “blatant stitch-up” that has undermined Labour’s election chances.
“This is not about left versus right. It’s about the Labour leadership blocking popular local candidates in favour of a narrow clique more interested in Westminster than what goes on in the constituency," they said.
“If this out of touch, top-down approach is replicated across Parliamentary selections for 2024, we will see exactly what we have just seen in the local elections: a demoralised membership unwilling to canvas and an electorate tired of the same old political games.”
A Labour insider who is supportive of Starmer dismissed the criticism and said some have been making a “massive mountain out of a molehill”. While they acknowledged that the row about selection has been a distraction, they did not believe it would "seriously impact on people’s vote" when the by-election takes place.
But the former CLP executive member said local members feel “disenfranchised from the system and are wondering if they should be giving their valuable time and great effort in campaigning".
They added: “I’m scared that it's damaged Labour's chances in a race we should walk.”
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