Since 2015, the Left has won victory after victory within the Labour Party. The leadership, the National Executive Committee and the general-secretaryship have all been won, leaving only one last bastion of resistance to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the Left project. The Parliamentary Labour Party has had a core of MPs prepared to fight the leadership over antisemitism and obfuscation on Brexit. In a hung parliament it has acted as a powerful bloc of votes and an alternative voice whose public face has been the deputy leader, Tom Watson.
Now Watson has gone. Last week he resigned his Parliamentary candidacy and the deputy leadership and in so doing gave the most notable example of a seismic shift in the party to come after the general election. While Labour may not be triumphant on 12 December, it is certain that the new PLP on 13 December will be wildly different. The battle is begin fought fought over selections to safe or marginal seats which will define the Parliamentary party for a generation to come.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
It is an axiom within Labour that whoever rules the party determines the mechanics of selection. Nepotism and control has always been the preserve of the dominant grouping and hated by those outside it.
For years the Left and major unions complained bitterly as they watched New Labour exercise it. Just before the 1983 general election a young London barrister was parachuted into the safe Labour seat of Sedgefield by order of the Leader’s office. Tony Blair was sent on his path to power by an act of patronage that he and Gordon Brown then used as a model for the next generation of politicians. A group of policy wonks, special advisers and media allies were all placed in seats as the princes and princesses of New Labour. The future cabinet ministers Yvette Cooper, Ruth Kelly and Ben Bradshaw in 1997; David Miliband, Andy Burnham and James Purnell in 2001; and Ed Balls and Ed Miliband in 2005.
In 2010, after Ed Miliband became Leader he loosened that rigid control. The Left with the major unions — Unite, the GMB and Unison — started to flex its muscle in local constituencies and back preferred candidates. The pool of new talent would now be much more likely to come from a trades union than a think tank or media background.
In the 2015 and 2017 general elections 100 new Labour MPs were elected. They acted as the backbone of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and became his shadow cabinet. Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon, Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner and Dawn Butler were all elected in 2015. In 2017, Dan Carden, aged 30, was elected from a safe seat in Liverpool. He represents the new royalty within the Labour movement. His father had been a shop steward in Liverpool during the dockers strike in the 1990s. He had worked for Len McCluskey, general-secretary of Unite, before being selected. After only two years in Parliament he is now the Labour front bench spokesman on overseas development.
Yet there was still a large bloc of older MPs on the backbenches whose support for the leadership was at best patchy. The Left, through Momentum, became focused on getting as many removed and replaced. Since the 1970s, it has been a mantra of the Left that all MPs should be subject to a reselection process every Parliament. The latest iteration of this was “triggering”. If a third of local members or union branches voted to trigger the process the constituency party could vote to retain or drop the sitting Labour MP. It was assumed that this mechanism would lead to wide a purge of older MPs who were not supportive of the leadership.
However, it has proved to be poor weapon. In those seats where it has been undertaken, only six Labour MPs have been triggered. Of those, two non-Corbynistas — Margaret Hodge and Diana Johnson — were reselected by their local membership, three were automatically reselected as the election was called and one has been dropped. This was hardly an activists’ revolution.
Luckily vacancies have appeared all on their own. In the past few months at least 40 safe seats have opened up. This has partially been due to defections — Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes and Chris Leslie among them — and partially to retirements. There have also been a smattering of suspension for MPs for accusations of misconduct (mainly sexual harassment) or, in the case of Chris Williamson, fanaticism to the cause of the ultra-Left and defence of antisemitism which even Labour’s NEC could not stomach.
Given this flood of vacancies the real battleground became candidate selection. The trick was to wait for as long as possible until the election was called because under Labour party rules the NEC could take control under ‘‘emergency selection processes” so that it had the sole power to endorse candidates.
This process was begun on 29 October: every constituency that wanted an open selection process with voting by local members lost its power. The NEC, controlled by the Left, now could impose or remove candidates at will. Of course it is the same Left that for 45 years has preached the virtues of internal democracy and membership power within the Labour Party. This seems to have been temporarily forgotten in the exercise of power.
The NEC meeting on 6 November saw that power being enacted. Panels of three — a representative of the NEC, the regional board and local party — would now take the decisions. The very seats that had MPs from the centre of the party who defected or retired because they couldn’t stand the new regime, have now been replaced by candidates who most represent that regime. The profile and politics of the new PLP would be much more aligned to the membership of the party since 2015 — more radical, more diverse, much younger and mainly supporters of Momentum.
Local constituencies are now powerless. Take Bassetlaw. This was a seat vacated by the outspoken Corbyn critic John Mann. His successor was the anti-Brexit campaigner and London councillor Sally Gimson, who was selected by the local party and supported by Keir Starmer, Harriet Harman and Jess Phillips. An NEC panel comprising two union representatives and Momentum’s Jon Lansman overturned this selection and ordered a new candidate to be found. Last week Keith Morrison, a Unite-backed candidate of the left who had the support of John McDonnell was imposed on the constituency.
Momentum plays a significant role in backing candidates in safe seats. From its ruling body Sam Tarry of the union TSSA is standing in Ilford South, replacing the defector Mike Gapes, and in Poplar and Limehouse the retiring Jim Fitzpatrick by Apsana Begum. Candidates in their twenties are poised to take seats. In Nottingham East 23-year-old Nadia Whittone is replacing the defector Chris Leslie. In Warrington North, Charlotte Nichols — a GMB officer activist and former Young Labour woman’s officer is replacing Helen Jones, the local MP for 22 years, who has retired.
In Luton South Rachel Hopkins will take on Gavin Shuker, who defected to Change UK and now sits as an independent. She will keep up the family interest in Parliament: her father is Kelvin Hopkins, who after being suspended has just retired as MP for Luton North. He has been replaced by Sarah Owen, who will be the first Labour MP of east Asian origin and is a member of the NEC and the GMB.
In Coventry’s two rock solid Labour seats, Geoffrey Robinson and Jim Cunningham — two white male MPs born in 1938 and 1941 respectively — have been replaced by Taiwo Owateni and Zarah Sultana — both female, BAME candidates who are likely to be in the House of Commons for decades to come. Sultana, who is 26, has already got into trouble over tweets when she was a student in 2015 declaring her desire to celebrate the deaths of Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu. Sultana’s tweets have put her under pressure but she survives. Every day there are stories emanating from social media that in earlier times would have ended careers. But loyalty to the leadership is now enough to put you in place and keep you there.
In the highly marginal seat of the two Cities in London, the fight will be intense. The original Labour candidate, Stephen Saxby, was suspended for alleged sexual harassment and replaced by Gordon Nardell QC. Nardell is a long-time legal adviser to the Left, and the inaugural general counsel to the party. In 2018 he set up both its in-house legal operation and ran its response to antisemitism. In that role he was highly criticised by the Jewish Labour movement. He is up against Chuka Umunna for the Lib Dems. A figure of the left, against a notable defector in a seat where the sitting Conservative MP, Mark Fields, stood down after grabbing a climate protester at a dinner. It is going to be one to watch.
So what will this mean for the future of the Labour Party? If it gets into power, the leadership will have a much more solid core of support within Parliament that will reflect the far greater desire of its activists for radical change. If it fails and the current veteran leadership of Corbyn and McDonnell stands down, the PLP will be a critical element in deciding the new leadership and the next generation of policies. It is certain that the Left project will continue to dominate the Labour party supported by the new parliamentary forces allied to the activists in constituencies.
The 2019 general election is going to be a generational shift, and for the first time there will be no restraints.