During the Labour leadership race in 2020, Keir Starmer tweeted that candidate selections need to be “more democratic”, and that the party “should end NEC impositions”. As well as committing to a progressive policy agenda, Starmer repeatedly promised that the party would be more accountable. The age of parliamentary candidates being parachuted into constituencies, which reached its climax during the Blair years, would never return.
Like many of his other promises, this one withered on the vine. Ahead of the Wakefield by-election, the party hierarchy reduced the candidate long list (which immediately became the shortlist) to just two individuals, neither of whom were from the constituency. In the process, it excluded three local councillors – including the council’s deputy leader – while failing to uphold the selection process agreed at last year’s party conference. The entire constituency party executive resigned in protest.
History is now repeating itself. This week the Labour machine offered members in Stroud, which the party gained in 2017 and lost once more in 2019, just two people to choose from for their next parliamentary candidate. One is Clare Moody, a former MEP and senior strategic director for the lobbyist Grayling (part of private healthcare company Huntsworth) who doesn’t live in the constituency. The other is Simon Opher, a local GP – a popular figure, but whose candidacy is nonetheless puzzling. “Simon is really admired”, one local Labour member tells me. “But this looks like an effort to get one person in who won’t have time to build an effective campaign”.
Yet it is the exclusion of Doina Cornell, a district councillor and leader of Stroud council, which has come as a real shock to local Labour members. Cornell won endorsements from seven trade unions locally, including Unite, the GMB, the CWU and USDAW. In a bizarre turn of events, however, the national GMB leadership backed Moody last week.
The phrase ‘all politics is local’ may be cliché, but it certainly applies to Stroud. The Sunday Times praised the town’s “independent spirit” in 2021, while its nearest professional football club is Forest Green Rovers – the world’s most environmentally conscious team. The constituency embraces its idiosyncrasies, meaning voters are especially hostile to parliamentary candidates who are perceived as outsiders. “Stroudies really respond to local people,” one member tells me. “They won’t take anything thrust on them by anyone.” The Labour leadership appears to think differently.
Cornell, for many, was the obvious choice not just for being local, but for her ability to draw cross-party support. While electoral reform and a ‘progressive alliance’ are topics of conversation at a national level, Cornell – who supports electoral reform – has led a council including both Greens and Liberal Democrats for almost five years. “She’s a consensus-builder”, Robin Layfield, the Labour group’s deputy leader, explains. “She’s the outstanding candidate with a record nobody else comes near, really”. Indeed, cross-party popularity could prove vital in a general election in a constituency with strong support for the Greens (who currently have 13 district councillors to Labour’s 15).
Within the local party, too, Cornell is far from a polarising figure. “Doina has a massive amount of support at a local level, and right across the spectrum in our CLP”, one activist insists. Councillor Wendy Thomas agrees, expressing her shock at Cornell’s absence: “I think it’s incredible she’s now not able to make her case to the membership.”
Fixing shortlists necessarily requires excluding party members from the selection process. In Stroud, that meant scrapping branch nomination meetings – something the party claimed was unnecessary as there were only two candidates (although this, of course, was by design). As one member put it, “a ‘Labour to Win’ cabal has hijacked the whole process”, adding that the lack of meetings will only hinder Opher’s chances. That Moody is chair of Labour’s regional executive has further raised suspicions of foul play.
For now, many in the CLP are calling on Starmer to reverse the decision, while a number of MPs are allegedly asking the leadership to review the shortlist. If this doesn’t happen, local members say there is “every possibility” the CLP will collapse as an effective force locally. “People who have been members for 50 years are saying they will leave [the party],” one activist told me – adding that a third of the membership had already left under Starmer’s tenure.
The reality of a strong Green vote in Stroud appears lost on the Labour leadership. Indeed, if Labour stops those already working alongside other parties in local government from becoming MPs, it’s hard to imagine it’ll embrace cross-party collaboration in Westminster. Democratic reform, particularly regarding the electoral system, looks at odds with the machine politics defining Starmer’s leadership.
When I spoke to Layfield, he sounded bereft. “We’ve put years into building Labour in Stroud. David Drew [the former MP] started that – and it’s taken a lot of work”, he explained, and described the situation as “distressing” for local members. “People are questioning why they even bother campaigning. What’s the point of being a committed local activist if you have no say about the decisions that matter?” As usual, for the leadership in London, the little people of local politics don’t appear to count.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.