Labour's Search For New MPs Has Provoked A Fresh Clash Between Leadership And The Left
The Labour party leadership is being criticised for the way MP selections are being run under Keir Starmer (Alamy)
Record polling leads for Labour suggest they could soon be set to win their first general election since 2005, but ongoing internal rows over who will stand to be the party's MPs show no sign of abating in the new year.
In the final selection for a Labour parliamentary candidate of 2022, the initial panel was disbanded after a row between local representatives and the national leadership, which could be seen as emblematic of a wider struggle for the soul of the party.
Danny Beales, from the centre of the party and currently a councillor in Labour-led Camden where the party's leader Keir Starmer is an MP, was picked to stand against Boris Johnson in the seat of Uxbridge & South Ruislip at the next election.
The decision was announced a fortnight after the London regional branch of the Labour Party stepped in over what it called a “clear breach” of procedural guidelines on campaigning for a candidate before shortlisting has been completed. They cited an email sent to local members by the Constituency Labour Party (CLP) secretary and procedural secretary on 26 November that allegedly featured “prominent coverage and photographs” of a candidate.
The local party secretary said the email and Facebook post cited in the decision, related to the CLP’s annual Christmas food bank fundraiser, and was not seeking to influence members, but was simply thanking two activists for helping out.
But as one of those named, Connor Liberty, was also standing to be the parliamentary candidate, it was deemed to be a breach and a new panel was set up to determine the outcome, with those on the left of the party crying foul and arguing it was really about boosting the chances of the central party’s preferred candidate. Labour’s leadership, formally known as Leader of the Opposition, or LOTO, deny this.
It was the third selection panel to be disbanded in the capital this autumn, after the regional party stepped in over decisions in Kensington, where the former MP for the constituency Emma Dent-Coad was blocked from standing again, and in Camberwell and Peckham, the highly-prized South London seat which has been held since 1982 by party grandee Harriet Harman, who has said she does not wish to stand at the next election.
In dozens of other seats, the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) – whose membership has shifted to be much more pro-Starmer after this summer's elections – has been involved in ways Momentum, the left-wing pressure group, say has breached their own rules, such as not long-listing candidates with major union backing, and applying rules on past statements and social media unequally.
As NEC members sit on a panel alongside local representatives to interview potential candidates, they have become a target for criticism from the left if their preferred choice does not make it onto a shortlist, seeing it as part of a wider move by the current leadership to shut down the left wing of the party.
Momentum has accused LOTO of a “stitch-up”, and Starmer himself of “betrayal”, after he promised more local control over candidate selection when he became leader.
A source on Labour’s NEC told PoliticsHome they accept they have been very involved in the 70 selections made so far, but rejected any suggestion that this is being driven by ideology, and said it is instead about “quality control” of candidates.
The message from the top of the party has always been about "not getting any Jared O’Maras or more Mike Hills" – both of whom were elected as MPs for the party and then forced to stand down in disgrace. “It’s about avoiding piss poor candidates who are only there as part of some insidery game of thrones between various groups,” a senior Labour source said.
They said their aim is “really simple” when it comes to selecting people to stand in 2024, and is about making sure “the next intake is the best Labour has had in terms of potential future ministers”.
Momentum have highlighted that Christian Wakeford, who was elected as a Conservative MP in 2019 but crossed the floor to join the Labour benches at the start of 2022 in protest at Boris Johnson's handling of the partygate scandal, was waved through the re-selection process in Bury South and is now automatically the candidate for that seat at the next election.
This means he has avoided the process known as “triggering”, where sitting MPs can have their selection for their seat re-contested, despite winning it for Labour at the last election, something that has been faced by left-wing MPs like Ian Byrne and Zarah Sultana
They survived the challenge, but fellow member of the Socialist Campaign Group in the Commons Sam Tarry lost the battle in his Ilford South seat – and has gone from being a front-bench spokesperson to losing his seat in the space of a few months.
The senior Labour source told PoliticsHome that changing the rules on selections last year, which allowed for NEC members to outnumber CLP reps on selection panels, “would remove the deathly grip” of groups like Momentum and big unions like Unite from the candidate process, adding that the fact they “are now complaining about it is just standard”.
"When you try to remove factionalism from the Labour Party, those who benefit greatly from factionalism get very cross indeed," they added.
The NEC source said it is also about allowing for a fuller process this time around after the snap elections in 2017 and 2019 meant that candidates had to be chosen very quickly and in many cases people were simply imposed on individual constituencies by LOTO, then under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, without any local involvement.
They worry the Conservatives have been better at doing due diligence and auditing potential Labour candidates than Labour have themselves, and the current process is about not leaving the party exposed to criticism in the way it has been in the last few elections.
As well as O'Mara and Hill they also cited Fiona Onasanya, who won the seat of Peterborough in 2017 only to then be found guilty of perverting the course of justice and jailed for three months.
“We want to pretty much avoid having anything like that again, especially if we're going to be a party of government as well,” the source added.
“The last thing you want to be distracted by is other scandals. Quite frankly, for far too many years the Conservatives have spent a lot more money on vetting our candidates than we have ourselves, and I think it's really important that we as the NEC do a thorough quality check.”
On the left’s argument that the NEC’s role has been to promote candidates from the right of the party, the NEC source said they “obviously challenge that narrative”, and point to Faiza Shaheen, a left-wing candidate who was elected to fight Chingford and Wood Green in North London, held by Conservative MP and former party leader Iain Duncan Smith since 1997, for a second time. Duncan Smith's majority was slashed to just 1,262 in the 2019 election, making the seat a key target for Labour.
But the left point to Darren Rodwell, who they say is on the Labour right and who drew strong criticism after a video emerged of the white candidate saying at a Black History Month event that he has “the worst tan possible for a Black man”, and yet was still selected to fight Barking in East London for the party.
He publicly apologised for the comments, and the NEC source defended the decision to make him the candidate. They said Rodwell “was a really good example of where actually someone showed contrition and understood what they did”, and that during the interview process for the seat he acknowledged what he said was wrong.
However, LOTO has failed to quell internal dissatisfaction over the selection process so far, with criticism from unions like Usdaw that are normally aligned with the leadership, and centre-left pressure group Compass, now openly campaigning against it, after its director Neal Lawson sent a letter to Labour’s general secretary David Evans calling on the party’s central office to stop the “spurious and factional dismissal of talent and breadth” in its current round of candidate selections.
The NEC source said it was unlikely they might change tack after left-wing groups like Momentum have raised concern and with several negative stories in the media.
“The process is really clear at the moment, I think we've gotten into a good rhythm of it”, they said, with hundreds more to be voted on in the coming months.
“I think what I want to see is more diverse candidates, as well as more working class candidates.
“But hopefully we're going to get into a position where by March time, we stop having fights with each other, and actually we're all getting behind our candidates.
“But I can't see the process changing at the moment.”
The source on the Labour left also did not anticipate a change of approach to candidate selection in the new year. “Nothing that has happened so far under Keir’s tenure and during the selection scandal, indicates that these people are embarrassed or can be shamed into action,” they said.
But they remained optimistic that left wing candidates would still end up on the ballot come 2024.
“I wouldn't say that it's hopeless from a left point of view, because there will be places where a left winger does get through to the shortlist; sometimes they'll win and sometimes they won't, but ultimately all we're asking for is a fair fight,” they explained.
However they said “it is fundamentally a defensive struggle for us at the moment”, accusing LOTO of wanting to “purge” the left from the party.
“I think the fundamental truth here is, they don't view us as legitimate actors, and they don't think that we should have any role in the Labour Party.”
They believe the Labour leadership is “determined after the Corbyn years to make sure that we can never again ascend”. A LOTO source flatly rejected this claim.
But the left-wing source said they have “lots of friends still in the party” who see their role and value.
“But there is a small coterie right at the top who hold the reins of power and are intent on our destruction, and so on goes the fight.”
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