Selection season

In this month’s Paul on Politics, spring has sprung and with it minds are turning to the fresh potential Labour candidates for the next election…

Margaret Beckett is the latest Labour old stager to announce their retirement. Some aspirant Labour MP will bag her Derby South constituency (majority 6,019). Yes, it’s selections season, and no matter what the official timetable says, the starting pistol has been fired. Never have certain CLP secretaries and trade union political officers been so popular. Who we choose in the next few months will shape our party and our politics for years to come.

The golden ticket for those on the selections merry-go-round is a seat where the sitting Labour MP is retiring. Would-be MPs are discovering their deep roots in Doncaster or Derby, Stockton, or Southampton. The most sought-after prize must be Camberwell & Peckham in south London, where Harriet Harman’s majority is 33,780. Yes, I had to read that twice too.

Then there are the non-Labour seats where Labour stands a decent chance next time, mostly constituencies lost in the carnage of 2019: Blyth Valley (majority 712), Bolton North East (378), Bury North (105), Bury South (402), Delyn (865), Gedling (679), Heyward and Middleton (663), High Peak (590) and Kensington (150). These are the low-hanging fruit that Labour picks up without much of a stretch.

Labour should take another tranche of seats, with majorities under 5,000, on a good night. For example, Peterborough, which was Labour in 2017, won at the by-election in June 2019 after Fiona Onasanya was booted out by a recall petition, but lost to the Tories a few months later. There might be some masochistic MPs defeated in 2019 who return for more, but most additions to the PLP will be shiny and new.

It is vital for the party’s sustainability that the next wave of candidates is of the highest quality: energetic, empathetic, passionate, in-touch, and skilled at the political arts. It is up to local party members to choose candidates. However, the party’s leadership has a huge interest in there being Labour candidates with the right combination of qualities to win seats from the Tories, and then make an immediate contribution in parliament. It is quite right that the NEC will have a hand in longlisting and shortlisting the choices put before members.

For a start, we need Labour parliamentary candidates who believe in parliamentary democracy and support the Labour party, not some other entity. Then there’s the perennial debate about ‘real life’ versus political experience. Politics is a tricky trade. Yes, there should be former business owners, teachers, military personnel, factory workers and taxi drivers in the PLP. But there should also be former council leaders, MPs’ assistants, trade union political officers, and others for whom politics is a life-long passion and vocation, such as Ed Miliband or Andy Burnham. You need a blend.

Three-quarters of Labour’s membership is middle-class (or ABC1 in the jargon). We talk about the workers but shop in Waitrose. This middle-class dominance closes off the routes for talented working-class Labour candidates, especially when some use ‘working-class’ and ‘hard left’ as synonyms. When they call for ‘more working-class candidates’, they never mean the likes of Hazel Blears or Alan Johnson, or even Ernie Bevin. We need more candidates who know the price of a litre of petrol and the value of public services. That means active headhunting, mentoring, and practical support for those we value highly, just like the Tories do.

Candidates should be embedded in their constituency. That does not mean they must be born and bred there. It’s a bit of a myth that you must be born in the seat you fight, but you do need to live in the community you wish to serve. The days of Labour MPs living in London, visiting their constituency once a month and expecting a brass band and red carpet at the railway station, are long gone.

Selections are a full-time job. If you’re seeking selection, with several hundred members to impress, and win over, and a shortened number of weeks to do it, you will do nothing else. You win one vote at a time. It will seldom be because your policies align precisely with theirs. More, it will be whether they think you are personable, fair-minded, inclusive, and trustworthy, perhaps for decades to come. The leader of the council’s vote counts the same as Mrs Jones who never comes to meetings, so knock on her door and invite yourself in.

The ‘favoured son or daughter’ may not be as favoured as they think. ‘Local’ candidates have had longer to make enemies. Often outsiders win. I won’t name the candidate placed on the shortlist of two to stitch it up for the ‘favoured son’ in 2019 who went on to win and is currently doing a great job as MP.

It might come down to a single vote or two, or even coin toss. In 2011, Dan Jarvis won his selection in Barnsley Central after tying in the penultimate round of voting. Two pieces of paper were put in a hat – one saying ‘loser’ one saying ‘winner’. Jarvis won and went on to win in the final round against Richard Burgon. Dozens of current MPs have been selected by slim margins – proving the need to fight for every vote.

In our parliamentary system, the only meaningful measure of a party’s success is numbers of MPs in parliament. Not share of the vote. Not size of membership. Only winning over 300-odd seats puts Labour into government. Right now, with fewer than 200 Labour MPs out of 650, we are at the lowest point for 20 general elections. But it is not just a numbers game. We need the next intake of Labour MPs to be the best of their generation: bold thinkers, brilliant communicators, big personalities, and above all, winners.

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