Looking at today’s Parliamentary Labour Party, it’s hard to imagine anyone being bowled over by the talent it contains. After decades of trade union decline, it’s now rare for workers to make it direct from the shop floor to the House of Commons. As a result, Labour’s parliamentary contingent has come to be dominated by the professional middle classes; the Labour Students to Westminster production line of the 1990s and 2000s epitomised the trend, with numerous right-wing student hacks installed as Commons lobby fodder.
At first glance, then, a lot of people might welcome Keir Starmer’s latest initiative, encouraging political newcomers to stand as Labour candidates. The party leadership has changed the rules of the Future Candidates Programme—first introduced by Ed Miliband—so that anyone is eligible to stand, regardless of how long they’ve been a Labour member. The process will be overseen by Morgan McSweeney, Starmer’s former chief of staff, and the first wave of potential candidates has until 16 August to apply.
Few would seriously dispute that there is a major disconnect between Westminster and the realities of everyday working-class life, or that the PLP is in dire need of a shake-up. (Centrist pundits spent years lamenting all the talent supposedly going to waste on Labour’s backbenches under Jeremy Corbyn, but now Starmer proposes to ship in relative novices to compensate for the lack of it, none of them bat an eyelid.) But when we look at Starmer’s general track record as leader—cynical and autocratic—we see cause for real concern.
No doubt the ideal candidate for the current Labour leadership would look a lot like Kim Leadbeater, recently elected as MP after a hard-fought by-election in Batley and Spen: energetic, well-known, and well-liked locally, but seemingly quite light on actual politics or ideology. The notion that Starmer really wants independent-minded, radical, working-class MPs simply doesn’t pass muster, as anyone who does display any independence of mind or radicalism is highly likely to find themselves rapidly sent to a backbench Siberia.
Starmer’s allies claim that opening up the Future Candidates Programme will make Labour ‘more representative and less obsessed with internal issues’. This is dishonest, as Starmer has shown himself to be as preoccupied with internal manoeuvring as anyone else in the party. The only time his leadership has looked at all sure of itself is when it’s been cracking down on the left: whenever it’s had to do anything else, it’s looked like a rabbit in the headlights. Its feeble opposition to the government’s Covid response is a case in point.
It’s difficult to escape the conclusion, therefore, that Starmer’s real intention by expanding the Future Candidates Programme is to fill the PLP with people who he thinks will be more pliable, and who owe their position to him personally. Certainly, there are few card-carrying Starmerites in the parliamentary party; Starmer is instead reliant on the Labour right for support – but they most likely see him as a placeholder they’ll be able to replace with someone more dynamic once it’s safe, and when the left has been shut out of contention.
Starmer’s allies have all but admitted as much themselves. One anonymous Labour source told the Times that there was a ‘need to address the talent deficit and get pro-Starmer people’ elected as MPs. The latter consideration surely ranks far higher in their minds than the former. The implication is that the PLP’s ‘talent deficit’ is the fault of Corbyn, but it long predates him. If anything, it demonstrates once again that the hesitant attempts to democratise the party under Corbyn didn’t go anywhere near far enough.
We only have to remember what happened when hundreds of thousands of ordinary people (which they overwhelmingly were, despite the lurid caricatures) flooded into the Labour Party with a view to making its elected representatives more responsive to working-class needs, and more accountable to their party rather than their media hangers-on. They were sneered at, misrepresented and systematically demonised, and now they’re being unceremoniously herded out of the Labour Party’s exit door by Starmer.
Indeed, Starmer’s hostility to party democracy and to grassroots politics in general has been probably the most consistent feature of his leadership, stamped right through it like a stick of Blackpool rock. The danger of the new-look Future Candidates Programme is that, despite the rhetoric, it further centralises control over candidate selection in the hands of the leadership, weakens the role of grassroots party members during the selection process, and makes it even harder for socialists to succeed in becoming Labour candidates.
If Starmer were serious about shaking up and diversifying the Parliamentary Labour Party, he’d introduce open selection. But the idea, when it was proposed under Corbyn, was generally greeted by shock, horror, and outrage among Labour’s elected representatives, and the right wing of the party fought tooth and nail against it in order to shield them from serious scrutiny and pressure. In the end, seemingly fearing a major split, Corbyn settled for modest tweaks to the trigger ballot system, but this left the PLP little changed from before.
The IPCC’s report on climate change, published this week, again underlined the urgency of the challenge facing the labour movement and humanity as a whole. To meet that challenge, we need climate activists, community organisers, trade unionists, and others with clear, robust socialist politics and the stomach for a hard fight. These are not the people Starmer will be looking to promote as MPs. Instead, his new scheme will at most add a pseudo-populist gloss to the same old Westminster patronage and string-pulling.