Mandatory reselection: lessons from Labour’s past


At the Labour Party conference in September, a union-backed compromise led to changes in the way parliamentary candidates are selected by their constituencies. Eric Shaw explains how the debate is reminiscent of the internal party struggles of the 1980s, and how the current struggles over this issue differ from the discord of the past.

At the recent Labour Party conference two issues appeared to provoke the most heated debate: Brexit and the issue of the ‘mandatory reselection’ of MPs. The former was predictable and understandable. But mandatory reselection? It is an issue about which the vast majority of the population knows little and cares even less, a matter so arcane and abstruse that even the small number who follow party conferences could be forgiven for feeling baffled.

Yet selection rules do matter. In recent years the capacity of the rank and file in political parties to directly influence policy, always rather restricted, has tended to shrink further with influence over candidate selection surviving as one of the few effective ways in which members can assert some measure of control over their party. Because many seats do not change hands, those who select candidates within a party are often in effect choosing their constituency’s MPs, hence influencing the composition and ideological direction of the governing elite. Many years ago, Eric Schattschneider, a notable American scholar, contended that ‘The nature of the nominating procedure determines the nature of the party; he who can make the nominations is the owner of the party. This is therefore one of the best points at which to observe the distribution of power within the party’. Candidate selection is about power.

It is for this reason that clashes over selection rules have been, at least since the 1970s, a flashpoint of controversy within the Labour Party. In 1973 the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) was established to press for the introduction of what was called mandatory reselection, the principle that before each election an MP must seek and gain the nomination of his or her constituency party. Why was this deemed so important?

Events during both the 1964–70 and the 1974–79 Labour government had shown that, whatever the formal position, in practice party members who lacked a seat in parliament or a role in the government lacked any effective mechanism by which it could compel a Labour cabinet to implement a manifesto on which it had campaigned and been elected. No means existed by which the PLP could be held collectively responsible to the wider party but, if a procedure for ‘mandatory reselection’ was instituted MPs could be made individually answerable to their local parties. If an MP had to compete before each election for the right to stand as the party’s candidate, they would have to be more receptive to constituency opinion or risk losing their seat.

Mandatory reselection was bitterly resisted by the leadership and most MPs but was narrowly pushed through at Labour’s tempestuous 1981 conference. Henceforth rather than being more or less automatically readopted as a Labour candidate, sitting MPs would have to fight off competitors. It ignited furious opposition and its passage was a key factor in precipitating the formation of the Social Democratic Party, an event which, in turn, gravely reduced any prospect Labour might have had of winning the next election. Neither the large majority of Labour MPs nor the new party leader, Neil Kinnock (elected in 1983) were reconciled to the new system and Kinnock made a series of attempts to replace or at least dilute its effects through a series of compromise measures, not all of which were implemented. Those that were satisfied few. More than a decade elapsed before an entirely new selection procedure was introduced during John Smith’s leadership.

Mandatory reselection operated for just over a decade (1981–93). Did it justify either the hopes of its protagonists or the fears of its opponents? Its effects (as with any rule changes) were mediated by a range of factors, notably the constellation of power within the party, the pattern of internal party alignments and Labour’s political culture. The years after 1983 were marked by the reassertion of leadership which instigated a series of institutional reforms centralising power in the hands of the leader and his senior aides and advisers. This, in turn, was made possible by the reconfiguration of party alignments as the right recovered in strength and morale and the left split between two increasingly antagonistic wings, the so-called ‘hard left’ (led by Tony Benn and including the young Jeremy Corbyn) and the ‘soft left’ (including Robin Cook, David Blunkett and Bryan Gould). Under Kinnock’s leadership the centre-right and the ‘soft left’ coalesced to form a new leadership stratum which controlled the National Executive Committee and the frontbench, formed an overwhelming majority of the PLP and enjoyed considerable support in the constituencies and the unions. The hard left, which included CLPD, was marginalised and rendered politically impotent.

Further, Labour’s political culture discouraged efforts to eject sitting MPs. Most members were supportive of their MPs even when they disagreed with them, as long as they were diligent constituency MPs and maintained good personal relations with their local parties. Attempts to deselect MPs were seen as damaging and distracting, undermining party unity and jeopardising its electoral prospects: all consequences which, after the trauma of the party’s trouncing at the 1983 general election, members were determined to avoid.

As a result of these factors the impact of mandatory reselection were much more modest than both its advocates and opponents had anticipated. Nonetheless, in 1993 the newly-elected leader, John Smith, resolved to settle the matter once and for all. Labour’s conference that year voted – very narrowly – in favour of two major reforms. Firstly, Labour’s ‘selectorate’ was extended to include all party members on the assumption that the less engaged were politically more ‘moderate’ than the activists who had previously played the major role in the selection (and deselection) process. Secondly, mandatory reselection was abolished in favour of the so-called ‘trigger mechanism.’ This meant that Labour MPs would be re-adopted unless a majority of all party branches and affiliated organisations in the constituency (mainly trade union branches) voted in favour of triggering a new selection process. Because there were potentially far more affiliated trade union than party branches this effectively gave the unions a veto over whether or not a sitting MP would be challenged. Because the bulk of unions made it clear that they would only consider running a full deselection process in the most exceptional of circumstances this effectively meant that MPs once more enjoyed security of tenure, unless they committed any gross misdemeanours.

There the matter stood, until Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership in 2015. What I shall call the ‘Corbynista left’ (the old hard left) soon gained an astonishing mastery of the party, controlling the frontbench, the NEC and conference, with solid support from most unions and enthusiastic backing from the party’s rank and file. The only institution which had not succumbed to the Corbynistas, where, indeed support was minimal, was the PLP. Classically, the conflict over power and organisation in the Labour party has been between the parliamentary party and the leadership on the one hand and the party on the ground on the other. Now, for the first time ever, the leadership and the  wider party membership are in alliance against the PLP, which is home to many of Corbyn’s most forthright and high-profile critics and has already tried at least once to force him out.

The object, for many Corbynistas, was to solidify their control over the party by widening their support base in the PLP, including through facilitating changes in its composition. Reviving mandatory reselection seemed to be the most potent means of securing this, which meant scrapping the existing trigger mechanism that was, as we have seen, designed to discourage deselections. A campaign to achieve this (now repackaged as ‘open selection’) was launched by the powerful Corbynista organisation, Momentum – whose head, Jon Lansman, was involved in the earlier reselection battles.

The issue was debated at this year’s party conference and the outcome was a union-sponsored compromise, but one which gave the Corbynistas much of what they wanted. It stopped short of full mandatory reselection and the trigger mechanism was preserved, but the use of that mechanism was made considerably easier. They key elements were as follows:

  • A trigger (or affirmative) ballot must be carried out as a matter of routine business through party and affiliated branches for all incumbent MPs seeking readoption.
  • The new rules reduce the threshold for triggering a selection process from a majority of all branches (party or affiliated) to one third or more of either party branches, or affiliated organisations.
  • All branch votes for a selection need to be ‘quorate’ to be valid but, crucially, the NEC has reduced the quorum for all party branch meetings from 25% to just 5%, making it easier for a small and determined group to instigate the deselection process. At time of writing there is no provision for postal or electronic ballots.

The implications of all this were obvious: it will in future be considerably simpler to ease out sitting MPs and replace them with candidates more in line with constituency opinion. But will the new system have any greater impact than the full-blooded mandatory reselection procedure of the 1980s? The answer is that they may well do, because the political, institutional and cultural setting in which they will operate is radically different.

As we have noted, the Corbynista left is now able to coordinate and direct the work of all major party institutions, with the exception of the PLP. Momentum provides the leadership with a cohesive, well-disciplined group capable of mobilising masses of followers throughout the party. Because the NEC controls the party machine it is no longer available, as it has been in the past, to help beleaguered MPs. Further, the recent recruitment of thousands of new members is inevitably affecting the traditional culture and ethos of the party. Though there is little more than anecdotal evidence so far it does appear that the temper of the party has become much more adversarial and combative, the tone of debate has become more pungent and rancorous, and people are less disposed to compromise in the interests of party unity.

All this might give a strong impetus to campaigns to remove sitting MPs. Much will depend upon how the leadership and its followers choose to proceed. Here we can distinguish between two strands of thinking, which I shall call the majoritarian centralists and the conciliators. For the former the priority is to entrench Corbynista control of the party and, as they see it, the proper functioning of party democracy. This they construe in terms of the responsibility of all to abide by the will of the majority as expressed by conference resolutions; and to exhibit loyalty to a popularly elected leadership. Deselection or, at least, its threat, is seen as the appropriate response to those disloyal and troublesome MPs who refuse to conform to the democratic will of the party.

The conciliators, in contrast, fear that such an approach would be disruptive and divisive. Their priority is to avoid any action that may damage Labour’s prospects at the next election. Rather than insisting upon the enforcement of the collective will they urge a more consensus-building approach, one that stresses the importance of compromise, mutual accommodation, and the overriding importance of party unity. From this perspective any systematic and determined effort to force the deselection of MPs deemed unduly critical of the leadership would deepen the fractures within the party and poison an already toxic atmosphere. Most worrying of all, by threatening MPs with the loss of their seats it may precipitate defections or the formation of a new party. Discussions are already occurring among some Labour MPs, though the SDP’s failure to break through will probably deter most from embarking on what would be a very risky enterprise.

Both strands of opinion can be found on the Corbynista left and it is unclear at the moment which will prevail. Joan Ryan, Chris Leslie and Frank Field have all experienced a vote of no confidence from their local members, and there are rumours of attempts to unseat others. Certainly, there is widespread anxiety in the PLP. Further, if parliamentary boundaries are redrawn, as planned by the government, far more MPs will find themselves exposed to the risk of deselection. So there are many uncertainties, and much is at stake. As Austin Ranney wrote, ‘the most vital and hotly contested factional disputes in any party are the struggles that take place over the choice of its candidates; for what is at stake in such a struggle, as the opposing sides well know, is nothing less than control of the core of what the party stands for and does’ (emphasis added).

About the author

Eric Shaw is Honorary Research Fellow at Division of History and Politics, University of Stirling.