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Labour's left are leaving, but are they right to be saying they've been dismissed unfairly?

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

8 min read

Since Keir Starmer became Labour leader, figures on the left of the party have resigned, lost their seats or been blocked from longlists. Are they right to say that they have been cast out unfairly? Sophie Church reports. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall

“This is a question I ask myself: whether Nye Bevan would have got through the selection procedures of today, a formidable character of the left.” 

When Rachael Maskell was elected as York Central’s Labour MP in 2015, she said candidate selection was fair. But as left-leaning candidates fail to advance through the process, she now fears Labour is losing its way. 

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the party, many of those considered to be on Labour’s left have resigned or lost their seat. Take the Labour MP for Cynon Valley. Beth Winter, a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, lost her fight for the new seat of Merthyr Tydfil and Upper Cynon to fellow sitting MP Gerald Jones. She blamed the unjust manner of the process, which left “major questions outstanding”. (A spokesperson for Welsh Labour said it was a “regrettable” result of the boundary review: “The selection procedure was designed to give all members across the new seat a chance to take part in selecting their candidate, and, as a result, we saw a very high turnout.”)

Another example is North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll, who resigned from the Labour Party after being barred from a shortlist of candidates due to an appearance with film director Ken Loach. Loach was expelled from the party in 2021.  

Every time I’ve looked into a case like that, I’ve found there is much more to it than I’d been told

While these events happened after Corbyn was suspended from the party, Emma Dent Coad, the former Labour MP for Kensington, thinks a move against the left was happening long before the former leader’s exit. 

Just a few days after Dent Coad’s election in 2017 – when she was still finding her feet after a surprise victory – Grenfell Tower went up in flames. While she received support from Labour and Tory MPs, she says support from the Labour Party was lacking. “It took me a while to realise that the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was not going to support me,” she says, “and that was quite a shock.”

Dent Coad is certain her treatment was due to her perceived politics. “Suddenly, I was a hard, mad lefty and… I’m considered this terrible person because I’m associated with something they call hard [left]… I was associated with things that I found very, very difficult.”

Dent Coad’s time in Westminster was not without controversy. In 2017, she apologised for calling a Conservative candidate a “token ghetto boy”. In 2019, she lost her seat. She later criticised Keir Starmer for accepting hospitality from a firm fined £10.8m for defective cladding, was reprimanded by the National Executive Council (NEC) and removed from the longlist for selection. That was the “final straw in a huge pile of last straws”, and she resigned from the party. 

Now, a crowdfunding campaign has raised enough money for her to run as an independent candidate. Will she do so? “Of course I’ll stand,” she says. “Of course I will.”

But for John Cryer, the chair of the PLP, there is usually [a] good reason behind the decision to block candidates. “I will get somebody coming up to me saying, ‘This is Stalinism, and my mate was blocked because he or she… liked some tweet, and they’ve never done anything wrong’,” he says, “and I’ll stop looking into it because every time I’ve looked into a case like that, I’ve found there is much more to it than I’d been told.” 

Labour rosette

Former Labour MP and now independent peer Lord Mann agrees that the idea of candidates being targeted for no reason is “absolute nonsense”. The party is simply enforcing discipline. 

“You’ve got one or two people who’ve chosen to go and do some very extraordinary things – like this chap, Driscoll – and Keir Starmer’s not going to have that,” he says, “but that’s about having party discipline. Corbyn claimed he was doing that as well. Leaders are not that tolerant of people who try and mess around.”

He adds that left-leaning candidates failing to be selected would be a boon for Starmer, but nothing more. “Starmer will be quite delighted if a more centre Labour MP wins a selection against somebody likely to vote against the Labour whip all the time. I’m sure he’s delighted. But his ability to influence that is grossly overstated.”

Whether intentional or not, the veteran political journalist Michael Crick, who is also the author of the X (formerly known as Twitter) account Tomorrow’sMPs, thinks Labour has managed a process that has left a more homogenised group of candidates on the longlist. To him, this signals a party unsure of its footing. “I think it’s… an institutional lack of self-confidence,” he says. “If you’re confident of your views, you don’t mind a few critics around the place… a group of yes people in Parliament isn’t really much use.”

We need people of extraordinary calibre and ability, and I can’t see many of those in the Labour list

However, some failed candidates have felt hesitant to run again, whatever their shade of red. One Labour councillor, who asked to remain anonymous, said he “probably won’t run again” after his experience, as he “just found it unpleasant”. 

He blames this on Labour HQ meddling. Three to six months before the selection process began, he says candidates came to the area, accessed membership lists from previous failed parliamentary candidates, and began actively lobbying for votes – effectively starting the process before it had begun. In the end, these candidates were successful, and he, who had lived in the area for many years, was not. 

He adds that a day before the hustings, he received a phone call from Labour head office and was told that “although the husting questions are decided locally, they are likely to be this”. However, the questions on the day were completely different.

The councillor does not think he was set up, but he believes it was a case of the party rallying round their preferred candidates. “I guess some candidates have worked for MPs and worked with them high up in the Labour Party,” he reflects. “Even if they have nothing to do with the area, if people high up in the Labour Party want them to be elected, they’ll find a safe seat for them, and use their contacts to make it as easy as possible for them.”

Labour is firm in its stance. A spokesperson told The House: “Thanks to Keir Starmer’s leadership, Labour is now a serious, credible government in waiting, and our candidates reflect that. Robust due diligence processes have been put in place to make sure everyone selected is of the highest calibre, and for that, we’ll make no apologies.”

Crick says the claim that Labour is unfairly parachuting candidates into faraway seats is misleading. In fact, he thinks that Labour is – like all parties – ensuring local candidates stand in local seats. 

“They’ve done it very cleverly,” he explains. “People who want to be candidates go along and speak to them... And the advice they get is… ‘Well, where do you come from?’... and [the centre] encourage them to go back to the place where they come from.”

The councillor experienced just this. “Someone just appeared out of nowhere,” he says, “because he was born in the area, and he positioned himself as the local candidate because he was born there but he didn’t live in the area – [he] hadn’t lived there for 15, 20 years.”

Why would local candidates be preferable?

“I think it’s driven by the mood of the electorate, says Crick, “and the mood of the activists. And I think… there’s an overwhelming feeling [of]: we don’t want special advisers from London.”

However, choosing from local candidates reduces choice, says Crick, and therefore reduces quality. “Personally, I think that right now, the world faces so many problems that we need people of extraordinary calibre and ability, and I can’t see many of those in the Labour list. I really cannot.”

In the run-up to an election, having a talented team is important. However, the way that team is led may be even more so. For Maskell, this centralisation of decision-making – where the NEC and leader’s office pull the levers on candidate selections, and members are consulted less – represents a party being managed, not led. 

“I think where we did see leadership as we have throughout our history, I think we’ve seen a real confidence and a unity in the Labour Party,” she says. “When we’re under a managed system, it’s very brittle, and not least when parts of that Labour family are being put very much on the outside of their party.”

A Labour spokesperson said: “Labour has changed. Keir believes that politics can be a force for good, and that his government can restore the faith in it that 13 years of Tory government has carelessly eroded.”  

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