Could Labour deselections give Corbyn his own AOC to fight alongside in the next general election?

You can see why many in the parliamentary party are spooked at even a whisper that incumbent MPs might be under threat

Casper Hughes
Sunday 07 July 2019 17:32
Ocasio-Cortez beat Democrat grandee Joe Crowley to win the party nomination in 2018. Could a young Labour member emulate her success?
Ocasio-Cortez beat Democrat grandee Joe Crowley to win the party nomination in 2018. Could a young Labour member emulate her success?

In the four years since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, “deselection” has come to be seen as a dirty word. For a threatened party aristocracy it conjures up images of a rabble of ideologically pure Trotskyites who will stop at nothing to cleanse the party of Blairites and move the party so far to the left it will become unrecognisable.

The worry is overdone. The Labour’s membership may be passionate and left-wing, but in my experience they aren’t extreme. They use public services, often work in the public sector themselves and have seen the devastating effects of austerity on modern Britain.

They should, therefore, be far more attuned to the mood of the country than the Tory membership, the mostly over-50, mostly southern, mostly relatively well-off cohort busy selecting our next prime minister. Cosseted in their golf clubs and tucked behind their picket fences, their political judgement can perhaps be summed up by the fact that they are about to elect Boris Johnson as prime minister.

The Labour membership, bolstered by a surge of new joiners, elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader in the face of mainstream derision, and then drove a 2017 election campaign which confounded expectations and staved off the centre-left decline that has plagued Europe’s social democratic parties.

Why shouldn’t they be given a direct say over the people who will stand on their behalf in the next general election? They can rightly be seen as the engine of the party’s much-needed renewal, and there is inspiration to be found from across the Atlantic.

The election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York against establishment Democrat Joe Crowley shows what happens when a party enables its grassroots to campaign freely against incumbent candidates.

Alongside Ilhan Omar and other democratic socialist challengers, AOC has taken the political stage by storm, freshening up the Democrats' image, while platforming exciting ideas like the "green new deal". They have been instrumental in exposing Trump’s horrors at the US-Mexico border, all the while broadening the party’s appeal and enlivening their base. This should be a lesson for Labour.

Of course, for every new AOC, there is a Joe Crowley who loses out. And so for any new working class, socialist who emerges to challenge an incumbent Labour MP, there will be an old guard politician who is potentially usurped.

You can see then why many in the parliamentary party are spooked at even the whisper of deselection. All it took last week was a leaked email from a member to their local party chair in Lewisham West and Penge, requesting information about how to start deselection proceedings against sitting MP Ellie Reeves.

The email was ill-advised Reeves is pregnant but the response from Labour MPs to a single email correspondence is a sign anxiety is high. What was an isolated enquiry that went nowhere (the member is no longer pursuing the motion of no confidence) became “a small group of members trying to bully another pregnant MP out of the party”, as Tom Watson wrote on Twitter. This is a party hierarchy terrified of being challenged from below.

Why does this matter now? With Boris Johnson soon to be prime minister and the Brexit date creeping up on us, so are the chances of a new election. Labour’s general secretary Jenny Formby has already asked MPs whether they intend to stand again. A handful of more senior MPs have chosen not to, but the vast majority will hope to fight the next general election on a Labour ticket. The worry for them is that the membership will have other ideas.

Luckily for the longstanding MPs who wish to keep their seats, Labour’s process for triggering a reselection contest is a difficult one to navigate for challengers. For a race to even be activated it must be voted for by a third of local Labour branches and trade union affiliates – down from half after a Momentum-backed motion was passed at last year’s party conference.

Although made easier by that rule change, a large, negative campaign against the sitting MP – which requires enough festering disappointment in the current candidate – is first required in order to trigger an open selection. Only then can a positive campaign begin where contenders are able to win over local members with a programme for change. These are difficult conditions for Labour to find its own AOC.

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Difficult, but not impossible. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley could not have been predicted. Labour members should ignore the alarm bells from sitting MPs and seek to challenge them if their records don’t stand up to scrutiny.

There does remain the question of motivation, and more specifically whether the process would have any impetus behind it if all Labour’s MPs were avowed supporters of Corbyn’s leadership. Probably not. Much of the agitation for deselection comes from a membership who are fed up of what they see as MPs ignoring Corbyn’s transformative programme and impeding a Labour government. Yet this is no reason for politicians of all stripes to not back even further democratisation, moving to so-called mandatory reselection, a trigger ballot-less process similar to the open selections practiced by the Democrats in the US.

In a decade’s time, when, perhaps, Corbynism has passed its sell-by-date, who is to say that those on the centre-left will not have the answers to the questions of the day, and provide the exciting insurgent candidates to challenge sitting MPs? Political patronage is bad whether on the left or the right – it is surely correct that there is a mechanism through which all incumbent MPs of whatever persuasion can be challenged.

As an election appears to draw inexorably nearer, it is the left who will now be searching for their best candidates to shake-up the party machinery and take the Labour message to the country. The Reeves no-confidence email was a false start. The battle for the soul of the party will soon have begun in earnest.

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