Britain’s liberal establishment can be summed up in four words: “We don’t trust you”.
This is the reason why, despite the Liberal Democrats being in coalition with an apparently ‘moderate’ Conservative leader, we never saw electoral reform of any kind after 2010. The same applies to New Labour, and the absence of either proportional representation or an elected House of Lords after 13 years in power. It explains why even ‘progressives’ in the media, like James O’Brien and much of The Guardian, rallied against mandatory re-selection for Labour MPs, and why so many gleefully sought to overturn a referendum everyone had previously agreed would be the final word. Britain’s political centre doesn’t trust the public. Often, it’s downright scared of it. It’s not just undemocratic – it’s anti-democratic.
The latest example of this is in Wakefield, which is soon to see a by-election Labour should easily win, and where the national party is accused of a selection stitch-up.
When seeking the Labour leadership two years ago, Keir Starmer tweeted that selections for Labour candidates need to be “more democratic” and “we should end NEC impositions of candidates”, adding that “local party members should select their candidates for every election.” And yet last night, the entire executive of the Wakefield Labour party unanimously voted to resign after accusing him, and his team, of parachuting in its favoured candidates. No local candidate was shortlisted for the seat (three were overlooked, including the deputy leader of the council), while neither of the two candidates who did make the cut are from the area. Additionally, both were strong supporters of a ‘People’s Vote’ – something highlighted by several local activists as important given that 66% of Wakefield voted to leave the EU.
This is particularly galling for local activists given that Wakefield’s two previous Labour MPs were both parachuted into the constituency (under Kinnock and Blair). One, Mary Creagh, has since returned to Islington where she had been a councillor prior to representing the seat from 2005 to 2019. One local told me she was responsible for many lost votes in the constituency, stating that Creagh “had nothing but contempt for the labour movement and the people of Wakefield”. The favourite to replace her, Simon Lightwood, is alleged to have worked as Creagh’s advisor.
The process to select the party’s candidate in Wakefield has already contravened a rule change agreed at Labour conference just last year. The rules state that when there is inadequate time for a normal process, as with a by-election, three members of the local party should be on a shortlisting panel of five. These members should be chosen by the local party executive, and sit alongside a member of the party’s NEC and one representative from a regional executive committee. After the rule change was passed, the Labour leadership determined that it was “inexpertly drafted”. As a result, in Wakefield the local party had just one representative on the panel, while the national NEC had three. Forget whether Starmer broke lockdown rules – he can’t even keep to his own party’s.
In another tweet from 2020, Starmer said: “We need a transparency revolution. There should be no power without accountability, and true accountability requires transparency.” Yet he subsequently refused to declare who funded his campaign before members had voted, and the Forde Report remains to be published. In fact, when it comes to transparency, the Starmer leadership is little better than the government – the difference is that Boris Johnson doesn’t bleat on about his own integrity.
“Simon is a very establishment figure – the leader’s office will want him to represent them”, one Labour member in Wakefield told me. “Is that the same as representing constituents and members? I don’t think so”. What’s more, there’s a sense in Wakefield that the stitch-up shows an ignorance of how the party kept Batley and Spen last year. “I didn’t like the process, but because we had a local candidate (Kim Leadbetter), we won. Those kinds of connections are absolutely vital.”
The Labour leadership is playing by the late-Blair rulebook in Wakefield. Such control freakery and a disdain for the ‘little people’ of local politics led to the party’s collapse in Hartlepool last year. Given the Tories’ national performance, the same seems unlikely this time around. But it certainly confirms people’s worst fears about Keir Starmer: he’s a hypocrite who doesn’t trust ordinary people to run their own lives.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.