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Rage against the machine

The selection of candidates for the next election has been more tightly controlled than ever by the party hierarchies. Thomas Rainsborough looks at how the Labour Party's fixers have been imposing their will

May 7, 2010
8 min read

So much for the ‘new politics’ and grandiloquent media predictions of an end to the ‘rotten Parliament’, with a record number of new MPs replacing the old. Not if the leaderships of all three main parties can help it! After Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have had their way, the new Commons will be more heavily stacked with hand-picked, carpet-bagging careerists than any parliament since before the 19th-century Reform Acts.

When it comes to professional fixing of candidates and all round skulduggery, New Labour still takes some beating. Nothing is being left to chance as polls suggest a possible hung parliament. The nightmare scenario for the Brownite fixers is that there might be enough left-wing MPs to hold the balance of power – conveniently ignoring the fact that Brown’s problems have not come from the left, but from a Blairite rump.

Here, then, is how Gordon Brown and his cohorts are fixing candidate selections in ‘safe’ Labour seats, in utter determination that all future New Labour candidates sing from the same Brownite song-sheet. Since early in the new year, replacement candidates in the seats of late-retiring MPs have been chosen centrally, with local constituency parties having no say in the short-listing.

Would-be candidates are invited to email their CVs to Labour’s special selections panel, which comprises the chief whip, Nick Brown MP, and other worthies from the national executive committee such as Tom Watson MP.

Most needn’t waste their time, as the frontrunner in each constituency will already have been decided at 10 Downing Street well in advance of the selection process even beginning. It falls to the Downing Street political adviser Joe Irvin to switch on the shredding machine and inform Labour’s general secretary, Ray Collins, who Gordon wants parachuted in and where. Loyalists on the special selections panel are then told who No 10 wants.

The trick that follows is to present local party members with a shortlist of four or six ‘approved’ candidates, preferably with at least a couple of local councillors on the ballot paper, who are likely to split the vote. All candidates bar the favourite are chosen on the exacting criteria of being no hopers. Since the ballot is conducted on preferences, non-local favourites can be expected to pull together enough second, third or fourth preferences to rise to the top of the pile.

To improve ‘efficiency’, the selection votes are cast in a postal ballot of constituency members, and for reasons of ‘security’ the votes from south-east selections are sent off and counted at Labour’s London HQ. These are the same offices where, last year, a ballot box containing votes for the bitterly contested selection of a Labour candidate in Erith was broken into and the ballot papers ripped up. The interference on that occasion was so blatant that the party machine could not prevent left-leaning Teresa Pearce from emerging as the victor, but elsewhere the gains for the left have been sparse.

Former Honchurch MP John Cryer managed to pull through in Leyton and Wanstead, after Jack Dromey’s withdrawal from the selection left the party machine with insufficient time to organise for a favoured son – a wealthy party donor. Elsewhere, former miners’ leader Ian Lavery won overwhelmingly in Wansbeck, Northumberland (see box, right), despite some staggering dirty tricks from his opponents, which saw his name dragged through the mud in the Times and Daily Mail.

In other winnable seats, Katy Clark is the candidate in North Ayrshire and Nia Griffith has been selected in Llanelli. For the most part, however, all-women shortlists have become a device for blocking male candidates who don’t toe the line and pushing forward women who do. The party machine is busy pushing the likes of the former Young Labourite, turned friend of James Purnell, Johnny Reynolds, in Purnell’s Stalybridge and Hyde constituency. In Ashfield it is backing the GMTV reporter Gloria De Piera, and in the ultra-safe Barnsley East, the hard right-wing fixer and special adviser, Michael Dugher.

If anything, the control of candidate selections is even tighter than it was under Tony Blair – and since the Labour Party is now such a reduced force on the ground there is little opposition to the impositions. Like the Tories, New Labour has become a franchising operation for the small group who control the machine. And while some of the trade union leaders like to believe that they have an effective ‘deal’ not to put up candidates in some areas, in return for some union candidates being allowed to go through, very few actually have.

Despite all this, no amount of fixing can dictate what the new breed of MPs will actually do in any given circumstances. There are some seasoned local councillors who are likely to find themselves elected, at least bringing a degree of experience with them. And if the election does produce a hung parliament, the left and other dissenting Labour MPs could very well still hold the whip hand.

Ian Lavery: from pits to parliament?

According to the Daily Mail he is a ‘hardline union baron’ who said he wouldn’t be sorry if Margaret Thatcher didn’t come out hospital when she fell ill last year. So far so good, then, for Ian Lavery, president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who is standing for the Labour party in its safe seat of Wansbeck in Northumberland in the forthcoming general election.

Lavery is a product of a mining community. As such he may not sit easy on the Commons benches in a Parliamentary Labour Party likely still to be dominated by Blairites and their spin-offs.

Not that he’s dismissive of the Labour governments of the past 13 years. ‘I firmly believe Labour has got some tremendous MPs, some very committed MPs,’ he says. ‘And they have made a huge difference to ordinary people – working tax credits, family tax credits, pensions tax credits, SureStart – things like that, that give ordinary people a boost in life.’

He praises the minimum wage, though he criticised its original low level. One of his aims in parliament is to see it drastically increased. He also wants to see more working people in parliament – people like himself, from the shop-floor, preferably who have represented their fellow workers.

As an MP he says he will press for huge government investment in the coal industry and clean coal technology. He points out that Britain is already in the early stages of an energy crisis, which has seen increased use of coal. Unfortunately for the NUM, it is Russian, Polish, Australian and Colombian coal.

He will be looking for new political alignments – maybe, despite the obvious difficulties, with the green lobby. But most importantly he says he wants to see a new union representing all energy sector workers. Its potential would be huge – miners, power station workers, gas and oil workers, tanker drivers, the nuclear power industry, united in a single union.

No wonder the Daily Mail is hostile.

Pete Lazenby

Unison: Labour can’t take us for granted

With 90,000 members, and their families and friends, Unison’s Northern region could be a serious electoral force.

The union’s regional organisation will not be playing the traditional role that unions play at election times of getting out the Labour vote. It is working with the Northern TUC to build a campaign for alternative economic policies, to defend and improve public services.

This will be discussed in branches and be the basis of discussions with candidates – and not just Labour candidates. Just as important, it will be the basis of alliances with community groups after the election to defend public services and press for alternative policies.

‘The election is not the be-all and end-all,’ says Kenny Bell, the Northern region’s deputy convenor. ‘It’s helped us sharpen our policies, which show there is an economic alternative and help us face up to whoever is in government.’

Labour cannot by any means take it for granted in the way it used to.

Hilary Wainwright

‘Speaking up for Public Services’: www.tuc.org.uk/northern

Million Voices campaign: www.unison.org.uk/million

Liverpool Wavertree: maybe not so safe

After Labour PPC Luciana Berger was selected for the safe seat of Liverpool Wavertree, admitting to the local paper that she’d never heard of Bill Shankly wasn’t the smartest move.

It certainly highlighted the fact that Berger – director of Labour Friends of Israel and still in her twenties – doesn’t exactly have much in common with the lives of the people she hopes to represent.

If successful, she would join current Labour MP Louise Ellman and candidate Stephen Twigg (selected for the ultra-safe Liverpool West Derby seat after veteran Campaign Group MP Bob Wareing’s deselection), as part of a triumvirate of firmly pro-Israel right wingers.

Now media reports suggest that comedy actor Ricky Tomlinson – who was famously one half of the ‘Shrewsbury 2’, imprisoned in the 1970s as part of the Tory government’s attempts to criminalise mass pickets – might contest the election on behalf of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party.

Jokes aside, this could become a major challenge to New Labour in the party’s old heartland. It could even begin to reinvigorate a class politics on Merseyside that Labour leaders from Kinnock onwards have tried to close down.

Michael Calderbank

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