December 2, 2022

For Lauren Townsend, becoming an MP was an obvious choice. Born in Milton Keynes to a working-class family, she has lived in the city all her life, working in a variety of jobs, including as a waitress for TGI Friday where she led a campaign for fair tips for restaurant staff. In 2019, Townsend was elected as a local councillor, and later became a council cabinet member. In October, she applied to be Labour candidate in the seat of Milton Keynes North — and that’s when her party career came to an abrupt end.

The opinion polls suggest Keir Starmer is heading for a majority at the next election, with a Labour victory in Milton Keynes North. Given the party only has 202 seats, securing a majority will require the biggest influx of new Labour MPs since 1945 — roughly 140 new MPs to get up to the 340 mark, which would entail a majority of about 30. Add to this the usual “retirements” — perhaps 40-50 existing MPs — and the current selection processes taking part across the country will determine not just the texture of Starmer’s forces in the Commons, but also the pool of MPs from whom his ministers would be appointed.

Starmer’s team knows this, and is quietly managing the process in minute detail. This battle is being overseen by Labour’s election campaign director Morgan McSweeney, who worked on Starmer’s leadership campaign and was briefly his chief-of-staff. McSweeney “doesn’t have room for compromise with the hard Left”, says his friend Nick Forbes, a former leader of Newcastle City Council. “He thinks they need to be eradicated from the party because they are so dangerous.” This ruthlessness now underscores every Labour selection process, as Lauren Townsend discovered last month.

Townsend was backed by six major trades unions, which would normally have guaranteed her a place on the long-list. But Labour’s National Executive Committee panel blocked her. Among the reasons given was that Townsend had “liked” a tweet by Nicola Sturgeon in 2021 in which the Scottish First Minister announced a Covid test she had taken was negative. Her offence, it seems, was “supporting other parties”. Townsend was also accused of being involved with the Green New Deal campaign, whose policies go further than Labour’s official Green New Deal. “I feel gutted,” Townsend said after she was blocked, “not just for me but for what this says to the wider membership of our party and especially to other young women and/or mothers who desperately want to get more involved in politics, but find it an impossible and somewhat intimidating prospect”.

Bigger names than Townsend have been purged too. Lisa Forbes, who was MP for Peterborough until she was unseated in 2019, was kept off the long-list this time round. Emma Dent-Coad, another prominent Left-winger who was MP for Kensington from 2017 to 2019, was also kept off the long-list for her old seat, despite building a formidable reputation for her response to the Grenfell fire tragedy in her constituency just after she was elected.

Meanwhile, Labour’s Candidates Team is busy working in the background, deciding seat-by-seat who they do want. They have to operate surreptitiously, as local parties guard their independence and do not like to be pushed around. Nor does it do a candidate any good to be known as the choice of the Leader of the Opposition’s Office — the LOTO contender. But in most selections, it doesn’t take much to work out who LOTO is backing.

There are, for instance, striking similarities about the preferred contenders’ campaign videos and websites, where they advised what to say and, more importantly, what not to say. Don’t mention that you went to Oxford or Cambridge — that looks elitist. If you are a London councillor, just say you’re a councillor, and people may think it’s for the seat you’re going for. Be very careful saying what job you do. Community activists, overseas development, charities, mental health — indeed, anything to do with the NHS — all are occupations to shout about. If you’re in banking, financial services, management consultancy, it’s best to keep schtum.

LOTO contenders will be advised about how to make the most of any local roots, and they’ll be introduced to key local Labour figures. The chosen ones may even be consulted by national Labour fixers on when the selection should ideally take place. Nor do Labour officials appear to care if a favoured candidate breaks the party’s tight spending rules for candidate campaigns. It’s amazing how much some candidates manage to do with their limited budgets.

But the most contentious issue is the highly prized list in each constituency of each party member and their contact details. Having spoken to a number of those involved in the selection process, anointed or LOTO contenders appear to have a remarkable ability to obtain membership lists before their ordinary rivals. They may have been leaked by local party officials, or by local councillors, or from someone on high in regional or national HQ — and any such lack almost certainly breaks data protection law. Contenders who stick to the rules are only sent local members’ details once the shortlist has been drawn up. This gives them about a fortnight to contact every voter, which is almost impossible to do individually given some parties have 2,000 members.

Then, when it comes to the selection meeting itself, there have been numerous complaints about supporters of unfavoured candidates being excluded unfairly. It’s also suspected that LOTO contenders sometimes get advance notice of the common questions which every contender is asked at the final selection meeting where the vote is taken. And full-time regional Labour officials sometimes make no secret of where their loyalties lie.

Perhaps the most egregious example is Pearleen Sangha, acting director of the London Labour party, who previously worked for Labour to Win, an umbrella group for organisations on the Labour Right. Half an hour before the selection in Camberwell and Peckham last month, Sangha publicly tweeted that the favourite, Miatta Fahnbulleh, was “a class act”. A few weeks earlier, when the shortlist was announced for Thurrock, just outside of London, Sangha publicly wished the favoured contender Jen Craft “good luck” on Twitter. Both Fahnbulleh and Craft went on to win.

More recently, a group of activists in Bolsover — Dennis Skinner’s old seat — wrote to the chair of the Labour NEC calling for an investigation into “corruption” and irregularities in the East Midlands regional office. These complaints concerned the exclusion of strong local applicants from the long list to favour another contender, and the alleged leaking of the membership list to the supposedly favoured contender. The anonymous complainants asked for the selection in Bolsover to be frozen pending such an investigation.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that, so far, the Labour Left has been trounced in this round of selections. Of almost 60 selections, only one has produced a candidate who is firmly on the Left — Faiza Shaheen, who was picked for Iain Duncan Smith’s seat, Chingford and Woodford Green, the constituency she contested in 2019. At the same time, there are only a handful of candidates who have any experience of working in manual or low-paid jobs. Around two thirds of Labour candidates for winnable seats so far are, or have been, councillors, with roughly a quarter serving as council leaders or deputy leaders.

There’s nothing wrong with councillors in parliament, but the parliamentary Labour Party is in danger of being over-run with them, at a time when it urgently needs experts on the economy, foreign policy and defence. Of course, the extremely tight manipulation of the candidate selection system may help prevent mishaps during the election campaign, and avoid having more dud MPs such as Jared O’Mara, accused of sexual misconduct and fraud, and Fiona Onasanya, who went to jail for perverting the course of justice. Luke Akehurst, a Labour First stalwart who sits on the Labour National Executive and chairs many of the NEC panels, says: “This is not about factional advantage or stitch-ups, it is about getting ready for power and being the professional organisation we should be.”

But while organising the selection process may help avoid internal rows within a Starmer government, it could still weaken the party and any government in the long run. The shared fate of the Johnson and Truss regimes show the perils of confining your ministerial team to a narrow range of loyalists. By contrast, the successful Labour administrations of Attlee, Wilson and even Blair all had significant representation from the Left — Nye Bevan, Dick Crossman, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Claire Short and John Prescott, to name a few.

There’s a more worrying issue too. What does this tell us about how a Starmer government will handle its critics? Labour’s selection processes appear to be deeply unjust, open to abuse, and verge on the corrupt. Left-wingers, passionate trades unionists, troublemakers and mavericks need not apply. The plan seems to be to wipe out the Left completely, to find the flimsiest excuse to block anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. It is not inconceivable that if Angela Rayner, John Prescott, Margaret Beckett, or Neil Kinnock now applied to be a candidate, they would be blocked at the first hurdle by an NEC panel.

Of course, bigwigs in all parties have long tried to fix certain parliamentary selections, and the Labour high command has probably interfered more than most. The Corbynites were ruthless in purging their opponents, often on seemingly trumped-up charges, but their efforts were never on this scale. The Starmer team looks fixated on achieving total control, intent on stamping out anything that might embarrass the party. Their tactics go way beyond the dark arts of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and New Labour, though it’s not clear how much Starmer knows about how the selection system is being rigged, and whether he — a former human rights lawyer — turns a blind eye to the abuses.

Yet regardless of how involved he is, it seems likely the key players in fixing these 200 selections will be rewarded with substantial jobs in Downing Street. One has to wonder whether, amid the pressures of office, a Starmer premiership would have much respect for dissent. For pluralism is the key to democratic politics — without it lies the road to incompetent government.