Labour’s NEC has ignored increasing pressure to introduce mandatory reselection for all MPs, instead choosing to simplify existing thresholds to trigger a contest. This will be portrayed as a defeat for the left and a victory for Labour moderates, but it is actually in the interest of all party factions to delay mandatory reselection.
The principle of mandatory reselection is simple. All Labour MPs would automatically have to face a full and open selection ballot within their local party to be able to stand at any general election.
In an ideal world this would indeed be the case for any MP. Having to actively seek the approval of local grassroots members increases accountability among all MPs, even those representing the safest of seats – seats which under the UK’s current First Past the Post electoral system effectively guarantee you a job for life.
Calls for the introduction of mandatory reselection have recently been bolstered by the actions of rogue Labour MPs. Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer and John Mann angered many local and national party members by voting with the government against a customs union amendment in a knife-edge Brexit vote – saving Theresa May from a humiliating defeat. Hoey in particular has faced considerable criticism over her vote considering the significant support for remain in her constituency and local party.
Of these four rebels, Field has now resigned the Labour whip shortly after a no-confidence vote against him in his constituency party, while Stringer and Hoey have both faced similar confidence votes against them – with Stringer surviving and Hoey defeated. The three rebel MPs still under the Labour whip remain under heavy pressure for deselection.
On the other side of the party, the actions of ‘moderate’ Labour MPs such as Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie – who are allegedly discussing the creation of a new party or breakaway faction and have consistently defied the party whip on Brexit – are also fuelling calls for mandatory reselection.
In the face of destructive disloyalty from multiple fringes of the party a push for mandatory reselection is a tempting prospect. Some allies of the Labour leadership, most notably Chris Williamson and the Momentum leadership, have been actively briefing in favour of it as a simple solution to the internal difficulties in the party.
The issue with mandatory reselection is the statement it sends to an already bitter parliamentary party. Introducing a mechanism that directly threatens certain MPs would be a destructive move at a time of particularly high tensions surrounding anti-Semitism allegations and Labour’s Brexit stance.
Controversial reselection proposals will alienate MPs already reportedly strongly considering leaving the party. For many Labour members, the thought of losing Chuka Umunna or Kate Hoey will bring a smile to their face, but the potential for disgruntled MPs to form a new political grouping is already incredibly high.
Any new centrist party would have almost no hope of leapfrogging Labour in the polls, but it wouldn’t have to. While Labour made a net gain of seats at the last election, many Labour majorities in key areas were slashed to razor-thin margins and any gains were mostly narrow victories.
The 2017 electoral map leaves the party very vulnerable to even a few percentage shifts in the polls. If Labour is to regain Mansfield (lost by 1,057 votes) or hold Kensington (won by only 20 votes) then it cannot afford to lose a single percentage point at the next general election. This means any Labour victory is going to require a unified and disciplined front.
Mandatory reselection is then a direct threat a Labour majority. Even if no direct party split did occur, mandatory reselection redirects the spotlight squarely on internal party politics at a time when it is vital national issues are raised. It hurts the whole party when the media focuses on internal political battles in Streatham or Vauxhall rather than the state of the NHS.
This is not to say there is no room for change in the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn stood on a platform of empowering members and reversing the top-down power structures of the party, he was right to do this and control over party representation is a key aspect of this.
This leads us to the compromise agreed by the NEC; which balances the need to be able to deselect MPs with unrepresentative views with the need to maintain enough party unity to avoid escalating internal disputes.
The compromise position does not trigger an automatic contest in all constituencies, but it significantly lowers the threshold of local organisations required to tigger a contest (from 50% to 33%). This means that most MPs will still be able to avoid open selection contests while also making it far easier to remove rogue MPs with significant local opposition to their views. In simpler terms, this is bad news for Kate Hoey but Chuka Umunna should just about make it through.
These changes primarily allow for the deselection of MPs in cases of extreme dissatisfaction, but will avoid angering many in the parliamentary party who (rightly or wrongly) fear automatic deselection. This compromise will be far less controversial within the party, perhaps even gathering wider support considering the negative implications for several of the widely-disliked rogue Labour Brexiteers.
In the long-term mandatory reselection is a principled aspiration for the Labour Party that encourages democracy and accountability. But Labour’s delicate path towards government means for now it is the right move at the wrong time.