In the tumult and exhaustion last night after a long day and a debate against a background of high member emotion, the picture painted by members of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) who spoke to the SKWAWKBOX last night was far from disastrous – but it was worse than the real outcome.
Here’s the definitive situation – as far as one exists until the final version is agreed by the NEC on Saturday – and it’s better than many thought.
Putting power in the hands of members
Under current ‘trigger ballot’ rules, an incumbent MP can only be made to undergo a selection process if more than fifty percent of all branches in the CLP vote for it. The ‘all’ includes both the CLP’s own ward-based branches and the branches affiliated to the CLP by unions.
In the current system, every branch has equal voting weight – so two union branches of one member each could outvote a Labour branch of 400 people.
This meant unions could stack the process in favour of an incumbent by registering large numbers of branches – and this is exactly what some right-leaning unions were doing in many areas in the so-called ‘ghost branches’ phenomenon in clear preparation for protecting right-wing incumbent MPs.
Separation of powers
The proposed new rule separates CLP branches and affiliate branches into two separate categories – and each category on its own can cause a selection process. This removes the ability of any union to prevent a selection, because it can only affect the affiliate branch category
Starting a selection process
In order to have a full selection process, members of a CLP (constituency Labour party) will need to vote for one in a third of their branches. Union members can also cause one if a third of their branches – but, unlike the current situation, their vote has no impact on the democratic outcome in the CLP branches.
The branches’ decision will be by a simple majority in each branch – either a majority of the members who turn up to vote, or possibly including postal votes, depending what is agreed on Saturday.
If a third of branches vote for a selection, there is a selection.
The selection vote
Once a selection is called, the shortlisted candidates will be chosen on an OMOV (one member one vote) basis in an ‘exhaustive’ ballot – i.e. with members voting for candidates in order of preference, so that if no candidate wins more than fifty percent in round one the votes of the least-supported candidate are divided on the basis of second preferences and so on until one candidate wins.
What it isn’t
One of the main objections voiced among disappointed supporters of ‘open selection’ last night was that the new system will disadvantage ‘insurgent’ candidates and force them to canvas an unachievable level of support before a selection can be called.
This is inaccurate. Under the system above there doesn’t even need to be an alternative candidate before members can demand a selection, if enough of them are unhappy with the performance of their MP.
And the unvarnished truth is that if there is not enough support for a change of MP for activists to win a simple vote in just a third of their branches, they are highly unlikely to achieve the 50.001% OMOV their preferred candidate would need to defeat an incumbent.
This isn’t what advocates of ‘open selection’ want. It doesn’t make selections an automatic event every time there’s a parliamentary election. There are good arguments for that – and there are good arguments against it.
But it does set the bar for calling a selection much lower than it was – not just because of the reduction from 50% of branches to a third, but even more so because it separates affiliate branches into a separate category and frees Labour members to achieve a desired result independently.
The ‘open selection’ campaign has played a big role in the change. Right-leaning unions who would otherwise have fought tooth and nail to avoid the system now on the table are preparing to accommodate it, in large part because they fear they might get ‘open selection’ if they don’t.
But they might have been able to defeat that, too, given some of the dynamics and power-plays going on behind the scenes.
Some Momentum people will be unhappy about the new system, but Momentum sent out a pro-OS email a few days ago saying the Labour Party needs to get its house in order when Momentum itself has problems with its internal democracy.
The final details of the new system – such as exactly how it will be work in CLPs that don’t organise on a branch basis – won’t be nailed down until the NEC votes on its final proposal on Saturday.
But the bar in the new proposal is set so low that if members can’t organise to reach it and demand a selection, they wouldn’t win the OMOV selection vote either.
In the end, democracy isn’t ‘whatever guarantees a left candidate can unseat an incumbent’. If enough CLP members want to keep an MP the rest of us don’t like, that’s their democratic choice too.
Members who want to be able to change their MP aren’t getting everything in their wishlist, but it’s not as far off as some are telling them. Democracy requires effort and organisation and it doesn’t come with guaranteed outcomes. But the organising is about to become hugely easier – and the outcome a lot harder to rig.
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