While Momentum and many CLPs (constituency Labour parties) have been raising awareness and backing for open selection, Labour insiders and activists feel that Chuka Umunna’s recent statements reflect an attempt by right-wingers to hold the membership to ransom with threats of a break-away party in a bid to stop Open Selection.
The existing method of challenging a sitting MP is the ‘trigger ballot’, a complicated and, many feel, easily stacked process in favour of the incumbent MPs, Based on a ‘vote per branch’ system, they represent a skewed version of democracy in which a branch of a handful of members has equal weight with one of hundreds. Incumbents need only gain fifty percent of branches, not fifty percent of the membership.
Open Selection, by contrast, allows for would-be candidates to campaign positively and seek election based on the wishes of members and ends the current relative unaccountability of MPs to the members who helped get them elected. However, some worry that it might lead to chaotic selection processes with large numbers of applicants – and unions would want to see motions amended to retain some form of nominations process in order to prevent this.
A Momentum petition for open selections currently has over 11,000 signatures and is expected to reach as many as 25,000 by the start of Labour’s conference.
The threat of a new centrist party has been talked up by the mainstream media, but has been greatly exaggerated. The numbers of MPs said to be considering such a split has already dwindled from an initial – and already paltry – ’12 to 20′ down to ‘4 to 10’ and centrist MPs such as Chuka Umunna have been vacillating, one day saying it’s not going to happen and the next claiming it’s up to Jeremy Corbyn (of course) to prevent it.
Ultimately, keeping MPs in the party who are likely to undermine its direction and agitate against the leadership and membership is a worse option, so the ‘threat’ of a split is a hollow one.
The key risk to open selections is therefore whether it reaches the floor of Labour’s conference for a vote. The measure is not part of the ‘democracy review’ package, but motions have been put forward by Momentum, Labour International and others. If a compromise trigger version – which Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is on record as believing is possible – gains traction on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and the NEC puts out a statement on it, it’s unlikely that those motions would progress further.
On the other hand, with unions making up fifty percent of the votes at Conference, if an open selection motion does reach the floor then the position of Unite, BFAWU, FBU and CWU will be crucial with the expected two-thirds left majority among CLP delegates almost certain to support it. Of those unions it is the position of Unite which seems key. Unite’s official policy is to support Mandatory (now being termed “Open”) Selection and reported comments from Unite’s senior team at the TUC conference endorse the view that this is simply about accountability.
Unite Assistant General Secretary Howard Beckett spoke at a Fringe at the TUC event titled “Politics for the Many”. The Telegraph online reported that he was asked about Unite’s policy in favour of ‘Open Selection’.
Beckett, talking in a personal capacity about electoral voting changes, was asked whether he felt Proportional Representation was the answer to ensuring better diversity amongst MPs. He responded:
No. People should not confuse making the voting system more democratic with Labour Party reforms. It will only be by way of an Open Selection that Party members will truly get diverse representation in Parliament.
Beckett was then asked whether this represented a ‘purge’ of MPs:
Absolutely not. It’s a natural – but also radical – progression of a true, membership-based party of the workers.
No one should fear standing on their record – it is only by having true accountability that we can ensure MPs truly represent their CLPs. And it is only by members knowing that MPs are accountable to them can we be sure to build on the revolutionary advances made by Jeremy. People should see Open Selection as continuing the process of engagement and empowerment of members, particularly young members, which will ultimately see us build our membership and see the numbers swell to closer to a million.
It seems clear that if the open selection motion makes it to the Conference floor then it will have the necessary union and CLP support to become party policy. The key, then, is to make sure that the party – and especially the members’ representatives on the NEC – are aware of the level of support for open selection and how badly the members want proper democratic influence over the selection of the candidates who represent them.
To help get the message across, sign and share the open selection petition here – and make sure your CLP delegates to conference are aware of the importance of the issue if and when it comes to a vote on the conference floor.
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