Mandatory reselection: lessons from Labour’s past

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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. Continue reading