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Should Labour MPs face reselection?

This article is over 5 years, 4 months old
Issue 2520
Labour MP Reg Prentice was deselected in 1976 - then joined the Tories
Labour MP Reg Prentice was deselected in 1976 – then joined the Tories
This article is part of an ongoing series

This article is part of an ongoing series:

Most supporters of Jeremy Corbyn know that the 172 Labour MPs who voted to oust him will not stay quiet after his likely re-election.

Some might split from the party. But most will probably remain—embittered, plotting, determined to destroy Corbyn next time round.

That’s why there is widespread support for reselection. This is a mechanism that would enable Labour members to vote and stop their present MP being the candidate at the next election.

They could be replaced by a candidate who better reflects the members’ views.

Delegates at the Unite union’s policy conference this summer supported a motion that called for mandatory reselection for Labour MPs.

It’s entirely right to push for MPs to be accountable. Indeed, socialists believe MPs should be democratically controlled and accountable at all times. Being an MP should not be regarded as a job for life.

Corbyn will never be able to work in a united way with those MPs who hate everything he stands for.

But organising for deselection is a long-winded process. It can easily consume the whole of an activist’s efforts and push aside a focus on battles outside the party.

In the late 1970s reselection was a central demand for the Labour left. Tony Benn MP said the issue was “of pressing importance within the Labour Party”. He added that it was fuelled by the fact that “Labour MPs and Labour governments often ignored policy agreed at conference.”

In 1979 Labour conference made it compulsory for MPs to stand for reselection ahead of an election. Candidates would now be chosen by General Management Committees (GMCs) in each constituency.

These were made up of delegates elected by their local party and trade union branches.

With much time and effort, left activists could work to get themselves elected to their GMC and take it over.


Benn wrote, “The MPs will just have to accept it. It means there are 635 vacancies for candidates in the next parliament. MPs will have to take notice of their GMCs.”

Unfortunately it wasn’t that straightforward.

The left did deselect a handful of MPs ahead of the 1983 and 1987 general elections. Fear of deselection motivated other right wing MPs to break away and form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981.

But the biggest factor that decided the outcome of the battle between right and left came from outside the party.

A downturn in industrial struggle, followed by years of attacks on workers by the 1974-9 Labour government, had sapped Labour’s support.

Labour only narrowly beat the SDP in the 1983 general election. Pressure grew on everyone inside the party to compete with the SDP for the “centre ground”.

The right emerged stronger. It had taken years of battling away inside Labour for the left to win all the constitutional changes it wanted, including mandatory reselection. It was all swept away.

With new leader Neil Kinnock installed, the party again changed the way it selected MPs. Candidates would no longer be chosen by activists in the GMCs, but by an “electoral college” of trade unions and party members.

Further changes in the 1990s made it harder to unseat MPs. A “trigger ballot” meant that MPs would face reselection only if local members returned a vote of two thirds in favour.

The changes were dressed up as an extension of democracy into the party branches. But they actually had the effect of taking power away from local activists, centralising power in the hands of the party leadership.

Today there is a drawn out system where reselection only happens if more than half of a constuituency’s branches and affiliates vote for one.

Then there is a further long process involving nominations, shortlisting and a ballot open to all members.

Right wingers who defy the members should go. But the lesson of the 1980s is that the strength of the left doesn’t fundamentally depend on the battles it wins inside Labour.

It’s whether workers can win the battles outside that really counts.

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