Is too much being read into the Labour’s very careful choice of candidates as endless pairs of safe hands, all marching to a single Starmer drumbeat?
Political journalists like Katy Balls in the Spectator and Michael Crick for Unherd have all claimed that there is a ruthless, Stalinist operation as local favourite sons or daughters are excluded.
Yet the evidence and history suggests that all that is happening is that Labour Party rank and file members have decided that the Corbyn/Momentum experiment 2015-2020 has not worked. It therefore makes more sense to select as candidates women and men who are more likely to win elections after the four elections Labour lost in 2010, 2015, 2017, and 2019.
I first stood for the Commons in 1974 in Solihull. I have watched over the years the cycle of Labour candidates being chosen on the basis of Left-wing ideas and then, when Labour stays in opposition, candidates being chosen on the basis of being more attractive to voters.
In the 1970s and 1980s it was hard to be chosen as a new candidate other than on a Leftist ticket. Tony Blair was selected in Sedgefield in 1983 wearing a CND badge and his election posters said a vote for Labour meant leaving the European Community.
After 2015 there were activist majorities in many constituencies to select candidates who ticked the right ideological boxes. They chanted the mantra “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” — as if pronouncing the name of Islington’s kindly home of lost causes was sufficient to magic up a majority.
For good or ill, that did not work and Labour lost in 2017 and 2019. So now the cycle has moved back to more centrist, sellable and electable candidates. That’s politics. The Labour Party and its regional offices have always paid close attention to the choice of candidates.
The huge difference today is that the past of anyone seeking to win a nomination can no longer be easily buried or forgotten. Prominent local Labour councillors who were favourites to be selected as candidates, but asked by regional Labour officials to stand down after a search through Twitter or FaceBook. Sadly for their ambitions, social media comments made years ago without much thought have surfaced and would be guaranteed to produce hostile pages in the Daily Mail, Times, Telegraph, Sun, or Daily Express and then relayed by local papers.
The latest “victim” is a popular Newcastle Labour councillor and regional mayor who assumed he would be nominated to be Mayor in the city-region. Alas, he has shown more enthusiasm for the film-maker Ken Loach, now 86, than for his party leader. Loach is a film director of genius but obsessed with Israel, which he calls an “apartheid state”.
The problem with apartheid states is that they are not allowed to exist, at least as internationally recognised entities. That happened to South Africa when it was booted out of the UN. The US led the sanctions and disinvestment campaign. The West supported the independent black trade unions in the 1980s whose strikes and workplace occupations finally called time on the racist regime.
Calling Israel an apartheid state is tantamount to saying that it cannot exist. There are plenty of other criticisms to be made of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians before using the lazy cliché of “apartheid state”, which denies Israel and the Jewish people the right to independent sovereign statehood.
Mr Loach has allowed his films on poverty in Britain to be shown in Israel, despite condemning musicians who perform there. A play based on his prize-winning film “I, Daniel Blake” has just opened in Newcastle and understandably attracted support from the city’s Left.
However, Mr Loach left Labour three years ago during the purge of those who had defiled the party by a witch-hunt against Jewish MPs and anyone who refused to support an extremist position against the right of Jews in the Middle East to have a tiny state of their own.
In the past the enthusiasms and more ideological positions many on the Left take in the days of youthful engagement were just forgotten, as would-be politicians grow up and move on. But now that luxury of blessed oblivion for past Leftist statements or positions is over. Candidates who once would have slipped through are now blocked.
What the political scientist Professor Tim Bale calls “the Conservative Party in the media” now routinely trawls though all social media posts of anyone who emerges as a Labour candidate to find out if they have ever said anything that can be defined as extremist in the past.
In the past trade unions and left-controlled constituencies blocked or drove out would be candidates or even sitting MPs who supported social democratic reformism, the European Union or the nuclear deterrent. In the same way, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is not accepting candidates who can be portrayed (unfairly or not) as being associated with anyone accused of denying Jews the right to live in their own state.
This can be seen as harsh by some, or a prudent protection by others, against endorsing a Labour candidate who is later revealed by Tories and their friends in the press to have held or still hold views which will generate negative publicity, put off voters, and leave seats in Tory hands.
However we should handle carefully the assumption that Starmer-endorsed candidates will be nodding dogs or boot-licking supporters of anything No 10 does or wants if Labour does form the next government. Once elected, an MP no longer has to fear the party machine.
Indeed, the problem Labour may face when in government is that Labour MPs will be far more attentive to constituency needs on issues like mass house building, local crime, the disappearance of GPs and dentists, clean streets, or anti-car policies. With a small or no majority, a Labour Prime Minister will find that his MPs are looking more to please their constituents than blindly do as they are told by the party machine. Right now any ambitious Labour politician has to look over his or her shoulder not to fall foul of the ultra-disciplined selection process.
In the past the same controlling groups kept any reformist, pro-European, pro-defence Labour would-be MP from being selected as a candidate. Tony Blair himself obeyed those rules to be selected in 1983. He dropped them as soon as he was selected and helped move Labour into being an electable party.
If a Labour government cannot quickly deliver the new investment in health, local economies, fair wages for teachers, and health care staff, repairing broken economic links with Europe, Labour MPs and mayors will no longer be fearful of the Labour machine currently controlling selections.
Denis MacShane was Labour MP for Rotherham 1994-2012. His latest book is Must Labour Always Lose? (Claret Press).
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