Why I spoiled my Labour Euro-selections ballot paper

This article was first published by Labour Uncut on 6th June 2013

Electoral Reform Services will have received my ballot paper by now.

I had thought of writing rude messages on it, or tearing it into small pieces and dropping them into the envelope as a mark of my disdain, but on the balance I plumped for a classic piece of English fudge/moderation: a big X scrawled across the page and a little message offering my unsolicited opinion on the Labour Party’s approach to democracy.

This is the first time I have ever treated a ballot paper in such a way. I used to approach them with a form of reverence, taking voting as a privilege and a pleasure.

Then I joined the Labour Party.

These latest selections for European Parliament candidates are just the latest example of an approach to democracy within Labour that Erich Honecker would have recognised and admired (and which I like to call ‘Institutionalised Fixing').

Let’s put aside the ceaseless cascade of emails that have been filling members’ inboxes with blandities, platitudes and waffle (though any more talk of “campaigning”, “a fairer Europe” or “Labour values” and I might run for the hills).

Instead, let’s talk about choice.

As a Londoner, I am faced with no choice in whether I wish to re-select Mary Honeyball and Claude Moraes, despite them having a track record for which they can be held accountable. They will automatically come top of the ballot.

Then I am given a clutch of six other candidates whose views seem to be almost interchangeable (unless you can see beyond the double-speak which hides their more interesting and contentious views). The most high-profile of the six is Lucy Anderson, who has got backing from Ken Livingstone and Owen Jones among others. She says: “We need a co-ordinated Labour effort to challenge Euro-scepticism and austerity.” Most other candidates make similar statements, focusing on promoting ‘Europe’ (not the EU) and fighting austerity.

These candidates all seem to be ardently (or unquestioningly) pro-EU, with hardly a shred of scepticism between them.

Where is the diversity here? (And I don’t mean the skin-deep version, which is well-provided-for: I mean real choice in politics). Where are Labour’s Euro-sceptics? We know they are out there, but are they not allowed near European elections? Would it not be good to give the electorate a bit of choice? 

So how did the successful candidates get on to the paper?

Regular readers of Labour Uncut will know part of the answer to this question: it was a fix.

Perhaps the most startling example of this was the exclusion of Anne Fairweather, who attracted the most votes from London Labour members last time they had the chance to select new MEP candidates. As was written here on 15th April, “Her crime seems to have been to work in business and not be one of the chosen candidates of the unions and the left.” She was not even given an interview.

Diversity? What diversity?

The source of Fairweather’s exclusion was a seven-strong selection panel from which five “are either serving officials in the unions or have been backed by Labour Briefing – a hard left publication committed to establishing the most left-wing policy platform for the party since 1983”.

The only successful London candidate not to profess a union background is the rather interesting Andrea Biondi, a professor of European law (though his agenda is much the same as the others).

But there is much more to be concerned about with this process. As Jon Worth has written, “You had to be an insider to even know this European Parliament selection process was even happening”.

Worth has also detailed on his blog how we have had a selection panel in East Midlands Region selecting one of its own panel members as a candidate: Nicki Brooks, apparently as part of a need to secure gender balance because they didn’t have enough female applicants (something which itself raises serious questions of process).

Achieving gender balance is also the justification for the process of ‘zipping’ which is practised in these European selections as a form of legitimised fixing. Zipping is not quite up there with stuffing ballot boxes but does offer another two fingers to members by pre-empting their votes to ensure equal ‘representation’ of women and men. So it doesn’t matter if your three male candidates are rubbish and female ones good or vice versa: you will get what you are given.

Since fixing is woven into our rule book through a whole miasma of bureaucratic preferences and favouritisms like this, can it really come as a surprise that those in positions of power practise it themselves?

As Unite’s leader Len McCluskey has said, the practice of centralised capture and control is not new, and not restricted to the big unions: Tony Blair and New Labour practised it ruthlessly to exercise control over the party.

Peter Watt, the Blairite former general secretary, has explained it openly on Labour Uncut: “There was an understanding that controlling process meant controlling the party.  Conferences, policy making and of course selections were all ruthlessly managed.”

Watt has changed his mind on fixing. But as McCluskey has it, the unions are just getting their own back with the European selections.

“Because we're having some success, suddenly these people are crying foul. Well I’m delighted to read it. I’m delighted when Tony Blair and everyone else intervenes because it demonstrates that we are having an impact and an influence and we’ll continue to do so.”

I think a lot of the people with real power in and around the party need to do some reflecting on what these practices say about Labour’s real ‘values’: let alone, God forbid, ‘One Nation Labour’. For values to mean anything, they need to be practised, especially in situations where they are not altogether convenient to self- and group-interest.

Since I joined Labour in 2010, I’ve seen precious little sign of this.  


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