Labour faces a “fratricidal” summer of internal feuding which could see dozens of moderate MPs stripped of the right to defend their seats at at the next election, party insiders have warned.
For the first time, the party is operating under new rules for choosing election candidates in Labour-held seats which many believe is designed to remove critics of leader Jeremy Corbyn.
After a change agreed at last year’s annual conference, the threshold for a “trigger ballot” requiring a sitting MP to fight a reselection contest has been cut from half to one-third of local branches and affiliated unions.
The process kicks off on Monday, when sitting MPs are required to inform the party whether they wish to stand as candidates in the general election which many believe could come as early as the autumn.
Some well-placed insiders estimate that as many as 70 MPs – almost a third of the parliamentary party – could be “triggered”, with half of them going on to lose their battle for reselection.
A meeting last week of the Future Britain Group of Labour moderates saw around 30 MPs discuss strategies for seeing off the deselection threat and concerns about bullying and intimidation within local parties. Further meetings are planned.
Tom Watson, the deputy leader, who set the group up following the defection of a number of MPs to the Independent Group earlier this year, is understood to have sought clarification about the process from party officials.
Labour moved last week to assure Lewisham West and Penge MP, Ellie Reeves, that her reselection process will be delayed to ensure she is not forced to battle for her position while pregnant.
But other MPs are braced for what one insider forecast would be a “fratricidal summer” at a time when they believe they should be concentrating their attack on the new Conservative prime minister.
Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP, Neil Coyle, told The Independent: “The prospect of an election should be focusing the energy and time of all parts of the party on making sure we are battle-ready and instead we are going to see Labour people fighting among themselves.
“The spectacle of division and internal fighting when we have a government wreaking such damage on people’s lives and on the country is distinctly unattractive to voters.”
Mr Coyle, who has been a persistent critic of the Corbyn leadership, said he hopes to fend off a trigger ballot, and believes he can win a reselection battle if required to fight for his position.
But he said it would mean activists’ time and resources being “locked down in the constituency” rather than taking the battle to target seats.
“It’s pathetic, it’s avoidable and it doesn’t help Labour win elections,” he said. “It sends a signal to ordinary people that there are some around Jeremy who don’t care about winning, they just care about internal discipline and control.”
Ilford North MP Wes Streeting – who recently suggested Mr Corbyn should consider his position in the wake of a poll putting Labour in fourth place on 18 per cent – said that the “messy and unpredictable” process could backfire on the party’s left wing.
“It won’t just be Corbyn critics at risk but some of his own supporters too, because people are ambitious and have agendas other than factional politics,” he said.
“I don’t think the leadership have properly thought through the risk of a running commentary in the media on MPs scrabbling to clear the trigger ballot process.
“It is going to soak the life and energy out of so many people when we should be concentrating on winning seats from Conservatives. Labour MPs and local parties will be caught up in a time-consuming battle against other Labour people. It is not a pretty picture.”
Mr Corbyn faces the risk that deselected MPs could continue to sit in the Commons as independents until the next election, which may not come until 2022, potentially forming a large centre-left faction on the opposition benches.
And others who fight off deselection attempts will be able to claim a personal mandate on the basis of platforms which deviate from official policy on issues like Brexit.
Amid growing demands among activists for the party to throw its full weight behind a Final Say referendum and a Remain vote, under-threat MPs are likely to use a strong anti-Brexit stance to win support among members in their constituencies.
No timetable has yet been released for the completion of the reselection process, but it is thought likely it will conclude by the autumn in readiness for a possible early election around the time of the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU in October. Some in the party speculate that the leadership may wish to avoid September’s annual conference in Brighton being overshadowed by a bitter battle over the potential deselection of local MP and Corbyn critic Peter Kyle.
A Labour Party spokesperson said: “Ahead of a possible general election, Labour will begin a reselection process of MPs. We are preparing for a general election whenever it comes.
“Under long-standing Labour Party rules, reselection processes are held within every Labour-held constituency between each general election.”
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