How I was kippered by my party
Voters want MPs who know their own minds. New Labour doesn'tMark Seddon
Wednesday March 16, 2005
Someone, somewhere - perhaps in Downing Street, the Labour whips office, around Gordon Brown or in the parliamentary party - will have done the sums. The tipping point for Tony Blair and possibly for the New Labour project will be decided by the size of any majority in the forthcoming general election. Much under 60 and Tony Blair's nightmare becomes a reality: for his majority will then be made up of the leftwing Campaign Group MPs, aggrieved former ministers and the awkward squad. The prime minister's promised "unremittingly New Labour" programme will suffer the attrition of a hundred compromises, retreats and defeats. In truth, this is what a powerful cross-section of the Labour movement is secretly hoping for. For it may be the last chance to save the Labour party for social democracy and from remorseless internal collapse.
But here is the rub, and it goes to the core of the malaise that has afflicted Labour for the best part of 10 years. It was made very plain to Roy Hattersley by two Blairite MPs who recently informed him: "We have worked very hard to get the right people." What they meant was that, by fair means or foul, they have managed to get as many parliamentary candidates of their persuasion in place as possible. Due process and fair play take second place when the task of the party apparatus is to deliver a parliamentary party in the image of its leader and so save him the embarrassment of having to argue and negotiate.
The prospect of a reduced majority has exercised the minds of the apparatus for some time. But it has only intensified a process that began with the blocking of the leftwing lawyer Liz Davies as a Labour candidate in the mid-90s, moved on to the mass clearout of off-message members of the European parliament, and continued with the blocking of Ken Livingstone and Rhodri Morgan. It continues now with the parachuting of a new generation of desiccated calculating machines into a dozen safe Labour seats miraculously vacated by MPs in recent weeks. Labour's national executive committee (NEC) late retirements panel will soon draw up shortlists of candidates for local party members to vote for and, I confidently predict, the favoured few will have been handed the crucial membership lists well in advance of anyone else.
Does it matter that today's Labour candidates are unlikely to be working class, female, or from ethnic minorities - let alone confident enough to describe themselves as independent-minded or of the left and actually mean it? Voters seem to think it does. They complain that politicians look and sound the same. They say they respect MPs who speak their mind - and appear to recognise the few who still do.
What the voters - and, I suspect, many in the Labour party - don't know are the extraordinary efforts that have gone into keeping these very people off the Labour benches. "The level of partiality is unprecedented," says the veteran Labour democracy campaigner Pete Willsman. "Officials who get results are rewarded, while those who play by the party rulebook are relegated. The question is, has Gordon Brown, or whoever succeeds Tony Blair, got the bottle to stop the rot?"
I declare an interest. I have been blocked more times than I care to remember: unsuccessfully, as it has turned out, for election to Labour's NEC - but well and truly kippered when seeking seats. In the run-up to the Ogmore byelection three years ago, the then party chairman, Charles Clarke, told me that I wouldn't be blocked as a potential candidate, and then presided over a star chamber NEC selection panel meeting in order to do just that. I recently discovered that he had even ordered an assistant general secretary of the party to compile a dossier on me. So it didn't come as much of a surprise when Clarke's first move as home secretary was to attempt to bring in detention without trial.
I can look after myself. The Kafkaesque absurdity of an NEC member being blocked by an NEC panel even appeals to my sense of humour. But what has happened to others who could allow Labour to claim to be a broad church? Would a young John Prescott, or even a Roy Hattersley, have navigated a Blairite NEC selection panel, or be worthy enough to be surreptitiously handed a local party membership list weeks, or months, before the less favoured got a look-in? On the evidence of the past decade, the answer is an emphatic no.
My NEC colleague Christine Shawcroft regularly comes near the top of the biennial one-member one-vote elections for what is supposedly Labour's ruling body. But she is not even deemed acceptable as a candidate for Tower Hamlets council, never mind parliament. "You might disagree with Labour group policy in the future," she was curtly told. Or what of the moderate Helen Seaman, kept out of Chesterfield before the last election, or Tyrone O'Sullivan, a genuine modern Welsh hero - the union leader who saved Tower colliery from closure? He was blocked from standing for the Welsh assembly.
Just as no one should presume a parliamentary seat is theirs by right, neither should anyone forget that the old Labour machine could be just as casually brutal in the past. Roy Hattersley experienced 17 draining selection contests before he finally landed in Birmingham Sparkbrook. Back in the 50s, Herbert Morrison said in the Commons: "You see, the problems always come from the As, the Ms and the Zs," pointing to the independent Leo Abse, Ian Mikardo and Konni Zilliacus, opening himself to the charge of anti-semitism to boot.
But back then, the high command never dared tell constituency Labour parties who they could select as their candidates. New Labour's decade-long purge of those whose faces didn't fit is the mirror image of what the Militant Tendency tried to do in Liverpool in the early 80s, as the off message were replaced by the on message. "The traducing of Labour's rulebook would never have been allowed by previous Labour general secretaries, Ron Hayward, Jim Mortimer and Larry Whitty," Willsman comments.
So who will stop the rot? If the unions managed to get their act together, they could. If the diminished constituency parties threatened UDI, they could too. If party officers were disciplined instead of promoted when they broke the rules, that might have an effect as well.
There is an object lesson in what becomes of a party that ceases to be a broad church - the Conservative party. Even today it still struggles to free itself from the baleful influence of the woman who remade it in her image: Margaret Thatcher.
· Mark Seddon is a member of Labour's national executive committee