On the eve of the 2010 general election, the Fabian Review profiled the incoming generation of Labour MPs. There was a sense of optimism that these new Labourites could put both the scandal of expenses and the interminable divisions of the Blair/Brown era behind the party.
The optimism has proved to be justified. Many high profile shadow cabinet members were in the 2010 intake and Labour’s campaign has been, in the main, free of the civil wars that came to characterise the New Labour government.
Since then Labour’s selection processes have come under considerable scrutiny, following the furore over the Falkirk selection and the ensuing Collins Review. How the party does selections has changed and is likely to change further as it grapples with declining levels of support for established political parties. So who are the next generation of Labour MPs? We’ve examined the backgrounds of candidates in Labour’s top fifty target seats to see whether the country is aptly reflected.
One of the most pernicious allegations levelled at modern politicians is that of professionalism. All three main party leaders are, to a greater or lesser extent, ‘boot room’ candidates – advisers, turned MPs, turned ministers, turned leaders – and this, combined with the practice of parachuting favoured candidates into safe seats, has contributed to public unease about politicians’ real life experience.
However, there is little evidence of this in Labour’s top fifty candidates. Just a handful are ex-political advisers, and they have often had ‘real jobs’ too, as journalists, or in business. The third sector represent a decent proportion of candidates, though, with 11 from the charitable or voluntary sector. These candidates present an ambiguity for Labour. In the negative column, they feed a perception of a revolving door between Whitehall, Westminster and ‘charity street’. On the other hand, selecting proven campaigners with a record of advocacy for marginalised people will increase the party’s depth and knowledge base. Campaigners like Kate Green and Sarah Champion have been quiet but effective Westminster operatives; the latter went from running a children’s hospice to campaign impressively on behalf of victims of sexual exploitation in Rotherham without any previous experience of Westminster.
The revived strength of Labour’s localism is evident in the number of councillors-turned-candidates. Of Labour’s top fifty, 18 serve as councillors, mostly in the area they’re seeking to represent as parliamentarians, like Carlisle’s Lee Sheriff or Ipswich’s David Ellesmere. This is positive; polling for the Fabian Review revealed that voters are looking for candidates with a record of local action, who are willing to put political differences to one side to ‘get things done’.
At 11, there is a high proportion of re-nominees seeking re-election in their former constituency or nearby. It’s easy to understand the temptation to reselect an MP who comes ready made with a local reputation and a record of action, and of course many fine MPs lost their seats in 2010. But any public perception of an electoral merry-go-round could be dangerous.
How does this compare with candidates chosen for the Conservative’s 40:40 strategy, based on holding 40 marginal seats and winning 40 target seats? There are far fewer re-standing MPs (though of course there were far fewer losing Tory MPs in 2010; a number of candidates are standing once again in the same constituency), but councillors are similarly well represented amongst Tory ranks.
People with a background in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather better represented for the Tories. This is an area Labour could well improve in, especially considering its canny SME-friendly policies. It will be far harder to mistakenly characterise Labour as ‘anti-business’ if more shopkeepers and business people stand as candidates.
Restricted shortlists – black and minority ethnic (BME) and non-special adviser shortlists have been mooted to join the unquestionably successful but hardly uncontroversial all-women shortlists in the tools available to the NEC. Such shortlists do have their place, as Labour’s growing female representation in the PLP demonstrates. There may well be a case for BME shortlists as still not enough target candidates are from a minority ethnic background. But more fundamental still is the need to change further the culture of party selections. The Future Candidates Programme has been a qualified success, bringing forward new kinds of candidates , but potential outsiders are still daunted by the party’s arcane rules and ‘who-you-know’ culture. Labour could do more to attract candidates with ‘real life’ experience by strengthening recruitment and training, impose stricter spending limits on selection contests and increase transparency.
The numbers for 2015 bear testament to a party committed to changing its approach to selections. Labour has a wealth of candidates who have earned their stripes in the council chambers and campaign groups across the country, who elected or not will be a credit to the party. But whatever the election result, Labour must continue to open up and broaden out its candidate base. The political times demand it.
Anya Pearson is assistant editor at the Fabian Society.
Richard Speight is media and communications manager at the Fabian Society.