Yesterday, members of the Rotherham constituency Labour party were given two names to choose between to be their next parliamentary candidate. A very short short-list.
The short-list had not been drawn up by a selection committee as is standard procedure, but by the party’s national executive committee (NEC).
Members were reported to be infuriated by the fact that no local candidate appeared on the short-list. Mahroof Hussein, a prominent local councillor, has been reported to be a candidate members wanted included.
At the selection meeting this evening, a large number of members walked out in protest at the procedure. The number reported has ranged from 114 to 140.
The meeting went ahead nonetheless and selected Sarah Champion, chief executive of a children’s hospice. The defeated candidate was Sophy Gardner, a former RAF wing commander.
The procedure has nonetheless sparked anger not only in Rotherham, but among party activists nationwide. On Twitter, activists such as NPF member Emma Burnell were keen to urge members to unite around the Labour candidate, but stressed the need to reform our selection procedures.
Sarah Champion will live up to her name I am sure. None of the mess is her fault, she’s a great candidate. But selections must be reformed.
— Emma Burnell (@Scarletstand) November 13, 2012
Alex Sobel, a councillor in Leeds, suggested that CLPs move a rule change to ensure this cannot be repeated.
The Rotherham debacle is nothing new. In the 1989 by-election in Vauxhall, the candidate with the most nominations from Labour party branches, Martha Osamor, was kept off the shortlist by the NEC. Kate Hoey was selected as the candidate and has been in place ever since.
Since the Refounding Labour shake-up, there has been no provision for branches to make substantive nominations in the selection procedure. This is a problem in itself. But when half the members of a selection meeting walk out, you get a pretty good idea that their preferred candidates had not been short-listed.
By-elections have a shorter time-scale than standard selections, and this is used as an excuse for the short-listing being the responsibility of the NEC. But the party also exploit this. Members have no choice but to rally round the chosen candidate.
One activist questioned the outcry at the Rotherham selection, saying that it is only in exceptional circumstances (a by-election) that such procedures come into force. So long as selections are democratic before general elections, what’s the problem?
— Lisa (@Lefty_Lisa) November 13, 2012
The problem is that once a Labour candidate has been selected, that constituency is stuck with them for the foreseeable future. If Labour MPs, like Labour councillors, had to be re-selected by local members before each election, Lisa might have a point.
The problem is not Sarah Champion, who could well make a great Labour MP. Nor is the point that the NEC should have included local candidates – although they should have done. The point is that all CLP selections – whether for general elections or by-elections – should be in the hands of CLP members.
Another excuse for NEC selection panels has been that they make negative publicity over the selection process less likely. That claim will now be a good deal harder to hold up.
We must work to make sure that Labour wins the Rotherham by-election. But we cannot let the injustice of the procedure be forgotten. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy may have an old-fashioned looking website, but it campaigns tirelessly for the right for local members to choose their own candidates.
Join tonight – and let’s make sure this never happens again.