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Reselection of MPs:

Labour’s ranks must be vigilant

(May 1978)

From Militant, No. 406, 19 May 1978.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“Jim Callaghan last night won yet another battle against the Left in the Labour Party. The party’s organisation committee decided that in future Constituency Parties will not be allowed to throw out their MPs as was the case in Newham North East with Reg Prentice.”

Thus did the Express on May 9th sum up the effect of the amendments to rule proposed by the majority of the Working Party set up by the Labour Party NEC to examine the question of reselection of Members of Parliament.


However, three of us on the Working Party have refused to allow ourselves to be used by the right wing as a smokescreen for their back stage manoeuvring. The right wanted a so-called “compromise” which will not only frustrate the clearly expressed demand of the ranks for greater democratic control over MPs, but will in actual fact lead to a less democratic situation than exists now.

Jo Richardson MP, Bernard Kissen and myself have produced a minority report. This report takes up the arguments of the majority and submits alternative amendments to rule in line with the pledge made to conference by the NEC.

The majority proposes that not earlier than eighteen months and not later than thirty-six months after an MP is elected to Parliament a special General Committee meeting would be held, the date to be determined in consultation with the sitting Member. He or she would be invited to address that meeting and a resolution would be put to appoint the MP as prospective Parliamentary candidate.

If the resolution is not carried then the meeting will consider a second resolution, to set in motion procedure for a normal selection meeting. This could not be held, however, until the NEC had considered any appeal the sitting Member may make if the first resolution is defeated.

This in no way can be described as providing automatic reselection. In trying to make out a case for this proposal – which would be a rally in support of the sitting MP giving him or her two bites at the cherry – the majority have argued along three main lines in support of a two-stage procedure.

They also claim that it isn’t a two-stage procedure! There is no answer to that!

“It will avid unfavourable publicity and lessen dissension in the local Parties.” Well this will manifestly not be the case.

The Tory-controlled press will always come down in support of so-called ‘moderates’, a euphemism for right wingers, and with the willing help of these moderates will use their resources to smear any opposition there may be, whatever the selection procedure.

The two-stage procedure, which would drag on for months, will give them a field day. Divisions in the Party would be fostered and played upon with charge and counter-charge being made almost daily.

Career MPs in safe seats will be determined to hang on even if they wreck the local Party in the process and appeal after appeal will be made. They are not interested in new affiliations and new members.

They particularly fear the youth joining the Party. They feel threatened by a growing, thriving Party. They prefer a little coterie of supporters. We believe automatic reselection, and therefore more accountability by an MP, would lead to a growing, active and healthy Party.

The second argument of the majority is that a Constituency ought not have to go through the full procedure if it does not wish to do so. Why should a Party be afraid of an extension of democracy?

If they have confidence in their MP and he has widespread support, then he will be reselected, and by beating off any challenges at a normal selection conference will have his position strengthened. No MP, or Constituency that has confidence in him or her, need feel afraid of automatic reselection.

The rule change proposed in our Minority Report makes it mandatory for every Constituency to hold a Selection Conference, the sitting MP to be placed on the short list unless he or she wishes to retire. If this became part of the normal democratic process of the Party, without the need to pass a vote of no confidence first [because that is what the proposal of the majority would mean in practice] the press would be given less opportunity to intervene and stir the pot, MPs would be more cognisant of Party policy as decided by Conference, and local parties would be reinvigorated, leading to growth in membership and activity.

Trade Unions

The third argument of the majority is that a sponsoring organisation should be given the opportunity, if a General Committee decides to go forward with the selection procedure (and therefore casting some doubt on the sitting MP), to put forward a nomination for an alternative sponsored candidate.

We believe that no trade union or affiliated organisation should have a prescriptive right to a seat. However, if we examine the arguments behind the majority’s blatant attempt to get the trade union vote behind their proposals by suggesting they would lose representation in Parliament, we find that this would not be the case at all. The two-stage procedure, rather than helping to maintain trade union representation in Parliament, could lead to the opposite, and at the same time cause considerable harm to the trade union movement.

With the two-stage procedure, consider a union’s dilemma if a Constituency decides to go for a full selection meeting. They would have to decide whether to withdraw their sponsorship from the sitting MP and put forward an alternative candidate. This alone would cause dissension in the local branches.

If they decided to sponsor a new candidate, bearing in mind the sitting MP they had previously sponsored would automatically be on the short list, this would have repercussions throughout the sponsoring union, with some branches of the union supporting the sitting MP and others the new candidate. It could tear the union apart throughout the area, and probably ensure that neither one would get selected.

The unions should oppose this attempt to use them against the Constituencies. After all, we are all trade unionists with the same common interests.

Unions have no need to fear that there representation and influence in Parliament would be lessened by supporting automatic reselection. It is a common practice for a union to sponsor one of its members as an MP only after he or she has been elected to Parliament.

If the union lost a sponsored MP it would be perfectly easy for it to adopt another of its MPs not sponsored before. In the case of ASTMS, for example, there are nearly forty MPs who are members of that union but only a small fraction of them are sponsored.

Similarly with the Co-operative Party, who have a special arrangement with the Labour Party about the number of sponsored MPs they have. If they lost a sponsored MP they would be able to maintain their strength from the large number of MPs who are members of the Co-operative Party by adopting one of them. Presumably they have some arrangement to do this anyway in the event of one of their sponsored MPs losing a seat in an election.

Reg Prentice

The principal points of the automatic procedure proposed by the majority are: there will be less likelihood of hostile and unnecessary press publicity if all MPs undergo the same process; and the wishes of Party members to ensure their MPs are accountable would be genuinely provided for.

We consider it vital that together with a procedure for automatic reselection, paragraph (B) of section 7 of the Party constitution should be retained as a final safeguard. The majority of the Working Party, using the argument that a large number of resolutions called for its deletion, have recommended that before a General Committee may consider a vote of no confidence in the sitting member, it must obtain the permission of the NEC.

This takes away an existing right and gives a new power of veto to the NEC.

On what basis will the NEC grant permission? “Changed circumstances” – whatever they will interpret that to mean. In practice it will mean for example that Prentice, the Tory, would still be subverting the Party from within, disguised as a Labour MP. It is possible that they would not have given permission in any one of the cases where paragraph (B) has been used to date.

My Constituency, Brighton Kemp Town, has been accused of placing too much emphasis on the rights given to us in paragraph (B). At last year’s Party Conference I moved composite 29, which as well as calling for automatic reselection, in the final paragraph called for Constituencies to have the right to call the sitting MP to account at any time.

This, said its opponents would mean a selection meeting every week. Well those who say that are in a different Party from me! It is absurd to believe that would be the case.

I made it clear from the rostrum that we wanted to retain paragraph (B). This gives a General Committee the right to move a vote of no confidence at any time, and so far it hasn’t been used every week, has it?

We were afraid that the Parliamentary Party, with their considerable influence, would use a heaven-sent opportunity to remove this sword of Damocles hanging over their heads all the time. The right wing have always been nervous that if they go too far to the right the sword may fall.

We were absolutely right! Our worst fears have been confirmed. They have taken away the sword offered to them and given us a hat pin in exchange.

In short, the right to move a vote of no confidence at any time of our choosing is to be exchanged for the paltry right to move a vote of no confidence just once at a time to be pre-arranged to suit the sitting MP. Having got through a procedure heavily weighted in his or her favour, the MP would be safe to do what he liked in Parliament for up to seven years without the membership being able to do anything about it.

This is the time for maximum possible unity in action of every Party member and trade unionist interested in Party democracy. All is not yet lost if we unite around the Minority Report.

  • No to a two-stage procedure!
  • Yes to mandatory automatic reselection!
  • Not to a new power of veto to the NEC!
  • Yes to the retention of paragraph (B)!
  • Support the Minority Report!


Ray Apps was a member of Brighton Kemptown Labour Party and a member of the NEC Working Party on the reselection of MPs.

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Last updated: 3 June 2016