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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out


2