For the past three months, the very word “reselection” has been unmentionable in Labour left circles, for fear that even talking about it would represent an unwarranted provocation of the Labour right.
But as recent events clearly underline, it’s time to break the taboo. At the very least, Corbyn supporters now have to — how can I put this gently? — engage in measured debate on how we approach the next round of trigger ballots for sitting MPs.
Jeremy famously won’t push the nuke button, but do we want to drop the D-bomb? And if we do, how should we best go about it?
I am, of course, going to be misrepresented on this, whatever I write. So let me stress from the get-go that this is not a call for comrades to “go out there and decapitate the bastards now”. I’m not speaking for Momentum, to which I have no connection beyond being on its mailing list. Nor am I speaking for the Labour Representation Committee, despite being on its national committee, nor for Labour Briefing, despite being on its editorial board. This is purely a personal opinion.
But as Dan Hodges put it in the Telegraph [recently], the Syria debate and the impending Oldham West by-election mean that, in his words, confrontation cannot now be avoided. Hey, let’s not kid anybody. This is “Game On”, right?
And let’s be clear, moral responsibility for hostilities lies with the provocateurs of the right, who have been looking for a scrap ever since 12 September. The irony is that since taking office, Corbyn has been Mr Nice Guy, persistently seeking to balance a new leader’s natural desire to promote her or his own agenda with a determination to be as inclusive as possible.
Yes, he has insisted on key appointments such as McDonnell, Fisher and Milne. Yes, he has stuck with some of the policy positions that we all knew he had, but were the basis on which he was elected. But hasn’t acted against the expulsions of socialists.
Apart from those, despite all the lurid talk of “purges”, there simply haven’t been any. Corbyn has even explicitly spoken out against mandatory reselection, a stance that many of us old Bennites regard as an article of the faith.
His reward has been an unrelenting and clearly co-ordinated barrage of hostility and attempts to undermine him. [Until recently] I would have appealed to the Labour right’s ostensible commitment to the best interests of the party to urge them “just don’t go there”, as the vernacular expression has it. Too late; they clearly want to go there.
As I know from various Labour left email discussion lists, committee meetings and private conversations, not all comrades are content to roll with the punches. While we have abided by the rules of omerta in public, there have obviously been strategic deliberations. The Labour rulebook as it stands contains a mechanism — the so-called “trigger ballot” — that provides a means by which MPs who have lost the confidence of their constituency party can be given the boot. That process will unfold in two or three years.
In addition, boundary changes will mean that many sitting MPs will effectively be forced into a competitive selection anyway. The underlying principle here is accountability, which comes from enabling party members to exercise the right to choose candidates, as they do for local councils and other offices before each election. That is hardly draconian or “Stalinist”; such provisions would be a prerequisite for a well-run stamp philately club.
Nor would reselection leave us the wrong side of public opinion. Many donkey-with-a-red-rosette voters would be happier if MPs who have perhaps not been entirely assiduous in their constituency work made way for those with a better community base. Reselection isn’t even intrinsically leftwing. Many countries have a right of recall for elected politicians, and all three main parties are theoretically committed to the idea.
There are plenty politicians on the British right — not least Tory London mayor hopeful Zac Goldsmith — that argue persuasively for the proposition. Ultimately, the decision will be one for local Labour Party activists, and affiliated union branches.
Will they continue to have faith in MPs who have wickedly engaged in sabotage of a leader currently backed by two-thirds of the membership? But that doesn’t preclude the national organisations of the Labour left taking a position on the question of reselection in principle. And to my mind, you can never have too much democracy, can you?
• First published on the Left Futures blog, 28 November 2015.