The Reality of Reselection

Labour's reselection process has generated predictable outrage, but it's the least democratic accountability members should expect.

At the time of writing, Labour’s plans to reselect all of its MPs have begun in earnest. It is hoped, if not necessarily expected, that this process will end before any impending general election.

The party’s commitment to ensuring its parliamentary representatives face a democratic process has generated a predictable combination of snark and outrage from centrist commentators and the Labour right. In the build-up to an election, the argument goes, undergoing reselection processes is a luxury at best and a distraction at worst.  

Of course, this rationale is a transparently self-serving one that ignores the immense damage done to the party and its prospects by a number of reckless Labour MPs who have spent years undermining the efforts of party members in pursuit of their own political power. 

But what exactly are they afraid of? The most obvious answer to that question is the party membership itself. Though the reform package voted on at Labour’s 2018 conference fell short of full mandatory reselection, it still offers members a genuine opportunity to challenge incumbent MPs by securing support from a third or more of party branches  that express a preference. 

In practice, this means that substantial procedural barriers are removed to achieving full open selections. Despite these changes, MPs still have a lot of forces balanced in their favour. All have the power of incumbency, while many have a strong local profile, familiarity with rank-and-file party members and a network of supportive, experienced party members, and access to membership data. 

Although the screaming headlines of ‘deselections’ will be taken in by the more belligerent opponents of the left, Corbyn-sceptic MPs with a reasonable support base and who have done the work necessary at the local level will probably survive. They will have been quietly preparing for trigger ballots well in advance, identifying potential supporters in the hope of mobilising them during the ballot. 

In other instances, even if they lose the trigger ballot, MPs would still be in a strong position to win any subsequent full selections. While in some constituencies there are organised blocs of socialist members and prospective candidates with the political, technical, and presentational level of preparedness to compete and win selections—as we have seen in the recent victories for Mick Whitley and Navendu Mishra in Birkenhead and Stockport respectively—this level of work will take some years to develop in other places. The reality is that Corbynism has developed very unevenly across the country.

These factors mean that the reselection process is more likely to lead to a trickle of new MPs than a flood. They will have far more importance in the final analysis than any remaining procedural or psychological obstacles caused the trigger ballot process itself, as some on the left fear.

The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party—politically astute and, though not socialist, not committed to publicly undermining the left leadership—will be reselected. In reality, trigger ballots will serve to remove the most inept, the most divorced, and those widely perceived in the movement as having played a wrecking role. 

There is sadly no procedural silver bullet that can transform the Labour Party into a genuinely socialist party, and the left are likely to make more gains through MPs retiring or quitting than through deselections. However, this is not a reason to become despondent. It would be a mistake to ignore the trigger ballots, or to give all but the most egregiously hostile MPs an easy ride. 

Pushing for full open selections, even if they subsequently lead to the reselection of the incumbent, will establish the precedent of members demanding high levels of accountability from their elected representatives. This will have intangible but significant impacts for years to come on party culture, and—in combination with longer-term movement building and grassroots organising—can become one of the foundations of a Labour Party which is fully equipped to transform society.