Carla Roberts reviews: David Osland’s ‘How to select or reselect your MP’, Spokesman Books, 2016, pp16, £4 (first published in the Weekly Worker)
In these times of great political fluidity and civil war in the Labour Party, a publication on how to deselect a sitting MP is, of course, highly pertinent. Jeremy Corbyn and his allies might have instructed Momentum branches to keep silent about the issue in order to continue on their misguided path of ‘party unity’. But for those who genuinely seek a positive transformation of Labour this is a vital issue.
Socialist Worker warns that “deselection is a long-winded process. It can easily consume the whole of an activist’s efforts and push aside a focus on battles outside the party”.1 But, of course, in the real world, amongst Labour Party members up and down the country, the issue is very much being discussed, albeit perhaps not (yet) within the official Labour Party structures.
Unfortunately, comrade Osland’s offering disappoints. With 16 pages (or 10 and a half pages, if you discount the blurb at the front), it is a surprisingly slim and quick read. ‘Surprisingly’ for many reasons, not least the price: £4 – or 40p per page. Surprisingly also, because the author works, as I understand it, as a journalist, yet the pamphlet is quite lazily put together (I recognised whole unreferenced chunks from Wikipedia and other sources) and contains little more than the actual rules, which can easily be looked up online.
And, where the author does go beyond the rules, you wish he hadn’t, as he is surprisingly conservative in his political outlook. You would have thought that somebody publishing a pamphlet on this issue at this crucial moment in time would take a clear side in the civil war raging in the party. But, although Osland describes himself as “a strong – not uncritical – supporter of the current leadership”, he is keen to stress that the pamphlet is for everybody: “The playing field is absolutely level for unreconstructed Blairites, soft lefties and rampant Corbynistas alike. All strands of Labour’s broad church will hopefully find these guidelines of use” (p4).
On which planet is there a “level playing field” between Corbyn and his supporters and the combined might of the pro-Blairite Parliamentary Labour Party, the party bureaucracy and the bourgeois media? The fact that the current rules are stacked against any challengers is pretty obvious too. It is, to say the least, rather difficult to get rid of a sitting MP.
Before dealing with the current rules, Osland gives a rather patronising lecture on what he calls “the obligatory health warning”. Selecting a new candidate “shouldn’t be taken lightly” and he instructs his readers “to think long and hard about the political consequences”. Because, you see – and this is my favourite part of the pamphlet – “It is by all means within a CLP’s gift to take into account an MP’s political leanings when making its choice, but they should never be the sole criteria.”
Well, yes, we need also to take into account whether the MP is competent, obviously. But surely their “political leanings” are what really matters? For example, their political history and whether, say, they have supported workers’ struggles in the past. Were they an active member of their union? But not according to Osland.
I wrote a big “OMG!” next to this paragraph:
“For a start, Labour does need to increase the Westminster representation of women, black and minority ethnic groups, and the LGBT+ community. Then there is popularity. Some MPs do have a sizable ‘personal vote’. Opting for an unknown, instead, might hurt Labour’s prospects to such a degree that the seat is lost to another party” (p5).
Oh no, we don’t want a candidate with principled socialist politics, if some rightwinger might be more popular with the local media, the local petty bourgeoisie or just because, well, they’ve always been there. Unless of course, the candidate is a woman or black or maybe both. Then it doesn’t matter if they’re a socialist. For comrade Osland politics do not really matter, it seems: it is all about what you are, rather than what you fight for. Identity politics, but on a really low level.
Later on, he makes his view even more explicit: “The top priority for the labour movement right now is to secure the election of more Labour MPs at the next general election. We have to avoid infighting where it can at all be avoided. If, and only if, you and many others in your CLP are certain that a change of candidate will help bring that about, read on” (p9).
He steps into the same trap as many former self-declared Marxists who previously hailed the so-called “parties of recomposition” (or decomposition, as we called them) like Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista or the German Die Linke as the answer. From dismissing the Labour Party as a purely bourgeois party, they jumped onto the popular bandwagon, did 180-degree political turns and have often ended up amongst the most uncritical of Labour activists.
For such comrades, winning elections is everything. But they are wrong for a number of reasons. Firstly, they fail to confront the political reality of the civil war raging in the party – for them there is no need to take on the plotters and rightwingers. They almost seem to believe that once Corbyn the Messiah is re-elected, he will sort things out for everybody, like a benevolent, all-powerful king (Have you been to any Corbyn rallies recently? It is quite scary how he is treated as some kind of superhero).
We have, however, seen that since his first election last year nothing much has actually changed. Corbyn has shied away from taking on the right in an open and principled manner. Even if he had tried to deal with the bureaucratic machinery and structure of the Labour Party, he would not have been able to get very far. This is where the pro-Corbyn membership comes in. Rather than “avoid infighting” they must organise to fight and get rid of the pro-capitalist right at every level. It is illusionary – if not outright stupid – to expect a Labour election victory under current conditions, where the PLP is lobbying and briefing against the party leader in the wide-open and eager channels of the bourgeois media. That remains the case whether or not the left actually puts up a fight.
At all costs?
But let us just assume for argument’s sake that Labour Party members follow comrade Osland’s and Momentum’s advice and go all out to canvass for rightwing, back-stabbing MPs because they have a better chance of winning the seat than a principled socialist. And let us further assume that they are successful and the Labour Party wins the next general election. Jeremy Corbyn, now prime minister, presides over a PLP that… what, suddenly agrees with him that Trident should be decommissioned, the railways nationalised and tuition fees and the House of Lords abolished?
Come off it. He would be a prime minister almost bereft of power, as the right inside and outside parliament would continue to organise against him, with the active help of big business and the entire capitalist class. I would recommend to everybody a quick reread of Chris Mullin’s highly entertaining novel A very British coup for the kind of things he could expect – and then some.
Communists do not oppose the formation of a leftwing Labour government. But forming such a government without having built a genuinely powerful movement for socialism and working class power merely opens the way for the next, rightwing, government.
There are many things that can be done without holding governmental office. I am not just talking about demonstrations, strikes, etc, but also building up our organisation on the ground and arguing for our politics. In fact, these tasks are necessary for any election victory that does not depend on the support of the advertising-funded media. However, as a principled opposition party you can often achieve more than in government. You can, for example, campaign to successfully oppose government cuts without having to work out how to ‘balance the books’ yourself – leave it to the bourgeoisie to try and manage their own decaying system. Otherwise, you are bound to end up betraying your working class constituency (witness the parties of recomposition our author once liked so much – they have been severely punished for their attempts to impose cutbacks when in office).
Keir Hardie told the 1910 conference of the Independent Labour Party that ILP members should be in the House of Commons “not to keep governments in office or to turn them out, but to organise the working class into a great, independent political power to fight for the coming of socialism”.2
Organising Labour Party members to fight for the party to become a useful tool in the struggle for socialism is a crucial part of what Hardie describes above. Let us look then at Osland’s ideas on how to transform the organisation when it comes to selecting MPs.
He says he “favours a return to mandatory reselection” and “is delighted” that at its conference in July Unite voted to “support mandatory reselection of Labour MPs in each parliament” (full motion below). “That makes for a real possibility that this issue will move up the left’s agenda and could even be in place in the next year or two”, writes comrade Osland.
But “that’s for the future. Mandatory reselection is not the stated position of Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the Labour Representation Committee or Team Corbyn itself. I am not going to be making the case for it here” (p5). Well, without anybody fighting for it (openly), how on earth is it going to be “in place in the next year or two”?
In an interview on the Daily politics show he further explained that he was “not advocating” the deselection of MPs, but there “may be instances where an MP beats his wife and it’s possible this CLP may not favour his return, where Labour MPs cross picket lines or repeatedly say they are thinking of resigning the Labour whip”.3 What about somebody who supports coup attempts against a democratically elected leader; briefs against and attacks him in the media, clearly against the wishes of the majority of the membership; supports the current purges of thousands of members simply because they may be Corbyn supporters? That kind of MP is in our view a pretty good target for deselection.
By not openly fighting the right, we are also bound to create deep disillusionment amongst Labour Party members and waste all the energy that the new and newly inspired Labour Party members are bringing to the party. There is a real danger that many will not return to their branch and CLP meetings if they cannot see the ‘Corbyn effect’ trickling down to those meetings. We have a real chance of transforming the Labour Party, but the Labour left needs to inspire the membership to actively fight for the necessary changes.
Maybe comrade Osland was thinking about Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the launch of his leadership campaign on July 21, when he seemed to hint that because of the forthcoming changes to parliamentary boundaries (the review is published next week) he might try and sneak in mandatory reselection through the back door.
It has been widely reported that up to 30 ‘safe’ Labour constituencies could be abolished altogether and overall “200 Labour seats – more than 85% of the party’s total – could be affected” by the review.4 Corbyn promised during that speech: “There will be a full and open selection process for every Labour constituency party”5 and added that, while Labour Party MPs would “have an opportunity to put their name forward”, it “would be up to local members to then decide”.6
Even assuming Corbyn meant what he said, this clearly would not have gone far enough, as it would only affect one general election. What about the one after that? Did he think that the Parliamentary Labour Party at that stage might be leftwing enough to allow the party to revert to the old rules that allow MPs pretty much a job for life?
In any case, a spokesperson for Corbyn quickly put a damper on this, when he told the Huffington Post that “Corbyn had simply been restating current party rules”. Apparently, according to the spokesperson, “Jeremy does not support mandatory reselection of MPs.” Those constituencies not heavily affected by boundary changes “will go through the normal trigger ballot process”, he said. “There will be a selection process where constituencies have been abolished, but 40% of that [new] constituency is claimed by two different MPs”.7 So, in a worst-case scenario, we might simply see two sitting MPs battling it out against each other.
It is unclear if other candidates would be allowed to join the shortlist – it all depends on the selection rules that the national executive agrees. Despite the Grassroots Alliance’s success in the NEC elections, they occupy only six out of 33 seats – and include within their ranks such dodgy ‘leftwingers’ as Ann Black, who proudly voted for the disenfranchisement of 130,000 new members.8 It is far from certain that the new NEC, to be announced at the September 24-28 Labour Party conference, will have a clear leftwing majority. Dennis Skinner, for example, has resigned as PLP representative on the committee and will be replaced by rightwinger George Howarth.9 We clearly cannot rely on the official structures to sort things out.
In our view, mandatory reselection is a question of basic democracy. Labour Party councillors have to reapply for the job, and quite right too. It makes them – in theory – more accountable and more likely to act in the interest of those who select them. Or not select them, as it were. True, so far the change of membership has not resulted in the selection of more leftwing council candidates, but, unless Corbyn is booted out within the next 12 months or so, we should see a change in the political make-up of Labour councillors before long.
In the meantime, we can sit back and hope that Corbyn changes his view on the need to allow local party members to select their MP as a principle – or we can call on all party members to openly fight for this crucial democratic demand. We know which of these alternatives has more chance of developing and equipping members with the tools necessary to change society.
In this context, it is very encouraging to take a closer look at the recent YouGov poll on the leadership election, which famously put Corbyn at 62% and Owen Smith at 38%.10 The more interesting question is on page 6 of that report, which asks Labour members how MPs should be selected:
Answer A: “So long as an MP has done a reasonable job, they should be entitled to stand again for their political party at the following general election and defend their seat – only if an MP fails badly or is very unpopular with members should there be a full reselection.”
Answer B: “MPs should face a full reselection before every general election – local party members should have an opportunity to decide if they want to keep the sitting MP as their candidate or pick an alternative candidate.”
Answer A was presumably designed to sum up the current rules. It implies that an MP who “fails badly or is very unpopular with members” can easily be got rid of. This is far from the case. A much more honest formulation of the second part would have been: ‘only if a majority of affiliated Labour Party branches and affiliated unions and organisations cast their vote against an MP who fails badly or is very unpopular in a highly disproportional trigger ballot should there be full reselection’.
Does not sound quite as democratic, does it? In reality, both answers actually make a case for a change to the current rules.
It is quite incredible that despite the leading questions, 45% of full members supported the much more radical answer B, with 46% going for the perfectly democratic-sounding answer A. Amongst new members who joined since May, as can be expected, a majority support mandatory reselection (52% vs 36%), while amongst older members the reverse is the case (61% in favour of A, 31% in favour of B).
So, just like every other issue, the question on how to select an MP is highly contested in the Labour Party. Clearly, the left should be taking a lead on this question, not trailing behind the democratic aspirations of the ‘normal’ members.
But comrade Osland is supporting the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’s extremely tame amendment to conference, which wants to “democratise the trigger ballot” (see box below). It merely wants to allow party branches and affiliated organisations to “interview candidates” and “make nominations” to the list of candidates in a full selection process. But this list will only be drawn up if the sitting MP actually loses the trigger ballot – see below. Which is very rare indeed.
This motion is particularly disappointing, when one considers the role the CLPD has played in pushing through mandatory reselection in the past. The relevant rules have gone through various changes in the last 40 years, clearly reflecting the struggle between the left and the right within the Labour Party.
This is where comrade Osland actually produces something worthwhile and it is those two and a half pages right at the end of the pamphlet that stop me from describing it as a waste of money (did I mention that we are being charged 40p per page?).
Osland describes how the CLPD, founded in 1973, made the fight for mandatory reselection a key plank of its programme. After a few tortuous years of having its motion voted down, ruled out of order or hollowed out by the NEC, and so on, mandatory reselection finally made it into the party rulebook in 1980. According to the new rule, all MPs were “subject to the reselection process once in the life of every parliament”. That crucial vote was to be taken not by the whole membership (as is the case today), but by the general management committee of each CLP. GMCs are the forerunners of today’s general committee (GC) and were comprised of delegates from ward level branches and affiliated unions, socialist societies and the Cooperative Party.
After Neil Kinnock replaced Michael Foot as leader of the party in 1993, he “in effect built his entire internal strategy on rolling back Bennism, not least in the field of parliamentary selections”, says Osland. Kinnock first proposed a change of the rules in 1984, lost by 900,000 conference votes, then had to wait three years before he could present another proposal. This is how the electoral college model was introduced in 1989: GMCs retained the right to nominate and shortlist candidates, but at the voting stage members “got at least 60% of the say, on a ‘one member, one vote’ (Omov) basis”, says Osland. This was clearly designed to curb the power of the unions.
In 1990 then, the ‘trigger ballot’ mechanism was introduced, which “was promoted by the right at the time as still effectively mandatory reselection by any other name. Ironically, that’s exactly the opposite of how their political successors describe it today, of course.”
Initially, a sitting MP had to receive the support of two thirds of the total number of party branches and affiliates to avoid a full selection process. Under Tony Blair, this was reduced to the 50% required today. John Smith abolished the electoral college in favour of Omov, which was another way to reduce the influence of the unions.
It is a shame that Osland does not expand on this or other issues further. For example, it would have been worthwhile to look at the brief period when the Labour Party actually operated mandatory reselection, between 1980 and 1990. How often did a sitting MP lose his seat? How many leftwingers got through? What role did Militant play? How can the fight for mandatory reselection become part of the fight to change the whole Labour Party into a united front of all working class organisations?
Sadly, this pamphlet does not deal with any of these issues.
1. Socialist Worker September 3 2016.
2. 1910 ILP annual conference report, p59.
4. The Guardian August 28 2016.
6. Huffington Post July 21 2016.