Behind the manufactured “mandatory reselection” panic

By Martin Thomas

The Guardian on 6 September tried to stir up panic by claiming that “Jon Lansman, a Corbyn supporter who acts as the spokesman for the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), is planning to table a motion at the party conference calling for the reintroduction of… mandatory reselection of MPs”, as a plan for “weeding out MPs opposed to the hard left”.

The facts are as follows. In 1979 Labour conference changed the rules so that Labour MPs, once elected, did not automatically remain Labour candidates in their constituencies for life. They could be chosen election after election, but only through renewed selection process.

It was nothing more than the usual procedure for labour movement representatives – union general secretaries or branch secretaries, constituency Labour Party secretaries, etc. – all of whom are elected for terms of office (maybe renewable), not for life.

In 1990, however, Neil Kinnock’s leadership pushed through a change. At the time they said they were keeping mandatory reselection, only rationalising it.

Since 1990 no new selection contest is held unless a majority in a “trigger ballot” votes not to endorse the sitting MP. In practice this has made selection contests difficult to get.

Rule changes cannot be proposed off the cuff at Labour Party conference by individuals. The National Executive (NEC) can propose rule changes at short notice, and has abused that privilege.

Unions and CLPs can submit rule changes, but must do so a year in advance. The rule changes coming to Labour Party conference this year, 2015, are those which were submitted in 2014.

The Conference Arrangements Committee has already ruled out nine of the 12 rule-change proposals submitted in 2014. It argues (untenably) that the issues raised in those rule changes were somehow covered by NEC documents in previous years.

One of those nine rule-change proposals, from Birmingham Ladywood CLP, would replace the “trigger ballot” with asking every constituency to open nominations for parliamentary candidate, and confirming the existing MP without a contest only if she or he gets an “overwhelming” majority of nominations.

The CLP’s delegate (not Jon Lansman!) may ask conference to overturn the CAC’s ruling-out. She or he will have every democratic right to do that.

In fact many Labour MPs will face new selection contests before 2020 just because constituences will have been redefined.There will be a periodic review of constituency boundaries. Since the scheduled 2013 review was cancelled, and the boundaries have not been altered since 2007, large changes are likely.

The “purging” actually under way has been not of helpless but harmless MPs, but of Labour Party members’ right to decide or even discuss.

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