A leaked internal report reveals that there is “no doubt” that the Unite union recruited members to Labour in Falkirk in an effort to “manipulate” the party’s selection of a parliamentary candidate; in the same week two established Tory MPs in rock-solid seats in Suffolk (Tim Yeo) and North Yorkshire (Anne McIntosh) are controversially deselected by their local parties. These cases, like the seats, are all very different, of course; but they all raise the same questions about our democracy.
The selection of a Labour, Conservative or, rarely, Liberal Democrat candidate in a “safe” seat is effectively the act of electing a member of parliament for said constituency. All the leafleting, canvassing and mud-slinging from that point to the declaration of the result by the red-eyed returning officer at the civic centre is just so much ritual.
That is why these wrangles matter: it is because a clique can “deliver” a potential job for life in parliament – or take one away – on the whim of a few dozen party activists. It’s nothing new, admittedly. The “entryism” and deselection of long-standing MPs by Militant in decayed local Labour parties during the Bennite terror of the late 1970s and early 1980s was a more serious affair than these contemporary squalls. Margaret Thatcher, it is said, was helped into Finchley by a local chair using his “discretion”. The routine “parachuting in” of party wonks is something that has served many members of both front benches well. That some officials abuse rules to sign up new members who might only have the vaguest realisation of what is going on should surprise no one.
But that does not mean that we should put up with a system so prone to abuse. The way to open things up is to allow voters in a constituency to choose between candidates from the different parties. This can be via open primaries – which have performed well in the few cases they have been attempted in Britain – or through the ballot paper on general election day. It would also counter the disengagement that Russell Brand and others have complained about. To adapt one of Ed Miliband’s phrases, Falkirk – and every other seat – deserves better.