Unlike local councillors and those who sit on internal party committees, Labour MPs are not expected to renew their party mandate through regular candidate reselections. However, there is one means by which MPs are held democratically accountable to the party: the trigger mechanism.
Step 1: At some point in the run up to a general election the national executive committee (NEC) sets a timetable for re-selections. The NEC also sets the guidelines for this process, within the very broad parameters set out in the Labour rule book.
Step 2: If the sitting MP wishes to re-stand for election the ‘trigger ballot’ process begins. This is organised by a nominated officer of the constituency Labour party (CLP), normally the secretary, and overseen by the regional office (appointed staff members).
Step 3: All the constituency’s branches and its affiliates (trade unions, socialist societies, co-operative organisations) are entitled to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to re-selecting the sitting MP.
- Branches will meet in person to vote.
- Affiliates will decide their own process for deciding this matter.
Step 4: Each branch and affiliate is counted equally, irrespective of the number of members. If a majority of branches/affiliates vote ‘No’ then a full selection procedure takes place. The sitting MP has the right to appeal this decision to the NEC.
Step 5: In the event of a ‘No’ vote a selection procedure takes place. The sitting MP is eligible to stand in this selection and is guaranteed a space on the final shortlist.
The obstacles (and their solutions).
The process above is not simple, and any campaign to open a selection procedure in a constituency will face a series of obstacles.
Obstacle 1: The NEC has the right to set the guidelines for the trigger procedure. An NEC that is sympathetic to the need for greater accountability could set guidelines that empower party members. An NEC which is keen to minimise the risk of challenges to sitting MPs could set guidelines that make this difficult: for instance, a short timeframe close to the general election.
Solution: Be sure to elect to the NEC supporters of member-led party democracy.
Obstacle 2: Each constituency will have the trigger procedure managed by a CLP officer. Like the above point concerning the NEC, the person overseeing this process will have some discretion over how it is done. If this person is not sympathetic to reselections, it will be possible for them to make it difficult to call one.
Solution: Make sure CLP committees and officers are supporters of member-led party democracy.
Obstacle 3a: Branches are weighted equally, regardless of membership, so it is possible for a majority of members to support reselection but for a majority of branches to vote against it (the opposite is of course also possible).
Solution: Work hard to build an active membership across all branches. This will support the goal of reselection but more importantly will develop our party into an activist force that can transform society.
Obstacle 3b: Trade unions and other affiliates decide their own processes for the trigger ballot, and this might be decided nationally not locally.
Solution: Be active in your affiliate and trade union branches and submit motions for greater accountability for Labour MPs to their national decision-making bodies (conference or executive normally).
Obstacle 4: A deselected MP can appeal to the NEC.
Solution: Appeals to the NEC should only be on the grounds that the proper procedures were not carried out. It is important to elect NEC members who comply with this ruling, and do not use this power to their factional advantage.
Obstacle 5: The MP defects and stands against the official Labour candidate. Even where they have no hope of winning, this could split the Labour vote and allow another party to win the seat.
Solution: This might be the biggest obstacle. And the only solution is for the local party to be mobilised in support of the party’s decisions. If a defecting MP takes a large chunk of the local activists with them then that will hit the party’s organising capacity in a big way. But if an atmosphere of inclusivity and democracy is developed in the party then this will not be possible. This requires years of hard work in branches and constituencies across the country.
Should you deselect?
It is worth thinking long and hard about whether you want the sitting MP to be deselected (of course, you might argue that as a democratic principle there should be a selection ballot either way). In addition to considerations of the MP’s politics, their attitude towards party democracy and their demographic identity (are they from an underrepresented group?), it is also worth considering the following:
How popular is the MP?
If the MP has a big ‘personal vote’ in the electorate then deselection might have a big effect on Labour’s vote share and hand the seat to a rival party. It might also encourage the deselected MP to defect and stand against the party.
How long have they been there?
There is lots of data to suggest that first-term MPs find it much easier to win a re-election. Some suggest that this is because they are keen and work harder, but whatever it is, it’s an argument against deselecting a recently-elected MP.
How safe is the seat?
Deselecting a Labour MP in a Labour safe seat will likely end in the subsequent Labour candidate being elected. Deselecting a Labour MP in a marginal seat will likely end in the seat going to a rival party. This is more likely if the sitting MP has a personal vote, and more likely still if they then stand against the party.
If you decide to open a reselection procedure in your local party it is not enough to begin planning the week before. It requires years of work. You need to:
- Work to get pro-democracy candidates elected to the NEC. See here for more information about such candidates: http://grassrootslabour.net/
- Win the argument for democratic accountability and reselection in trade unions and affiliates. This means winning the arguments in branches across the country now so that they can be fed up to the national level.
- Develop local parties in every branch and constituency in the party that are a) committed to party member-led democracy and accountability, and b) able to campaign hard against not only other parties but also against a defecting MP, even if some members follow said MP. Again, this is hard work that needs to start right now: knocking on doors in our communities and winning arguments in our CLPs.
Photo: David McKelvey/Flickr