Sunday 29 September 2019

Not Pulling the Trigger in Stoke Central

Choo choo! The Reselection Express is pulling into the station, but how do we reach our desired destination? The record so far is much more miss than hit. Diana Johnson in Hull, acting as if a minor royal has died, that Margaret Hodge was triggered by her CLP is on the hour every hour on BBC News. Luminaries like Harriet Harman, Tom Watson, and David Miliband have whinged and moaned about it. Tough. When you're one of the most consistently awful Labour MPs, you can expect years of scabbing on the membership might catch up with you. How she will manage in her first selection meeting for 25 years will be interesting, and one hopes the good members of Barking find Hodge wanting and choose someone else.

With far less fanfare and away from the media's gaze, Stoke Central Labour Party completed its trigger ballot process this last week. And as you can surmise by the absence of headlines, our MP Gareth Snell made it through the three branch meetings with barely a scratch. Many congratulations to Gareth. How he did, despite being a regular Brexit rebel and even abstaining on the vote to seize control of the order paper to, um, prevent a no deal Brexit, offers plenty of salutary lessons for MPs fretting about their own trigger ballots ... and Labour activists who'd like to see them face a full reselection meeting.

The first is something no sitting MP can find a fix for if they haven't done it: a hands-on and consistent approach to local campaigning. As noted previously, even for self-interested reasons it pays for MPs to not only take an active interest in their CLP, but position themselves as organisers of it. And this is what Gareth has done since his election at The Battle of Stoke Central. Unlike his predecessor, who did campaign but was fairly hands-off when it came to helping out councillors, Gareth regularly organises joint door knocking and leafleting sessions on a rotating ward-by-ward basis. And so the party's messaging is getting out, both MP and councillor are getting their faces known on the doorstep, casework is picked up and, unsurprisingly, quite a few people feel obliged and want to thank him for backing them. As one Corbyn-supporting comrade told me after our branch's trigger meeting, he felt voting for reselection would be like doing the dirty after the regular campaigning support he's provided. It's not exactly string theory, then. If you support your local party and its activist efforts, it in turn will support you. Wherever the MP doesn't show their face or is a bit of a Chris Leslie or a thwarted heir apparent, their distance will work against them and triggering reselection becomes much easier.

The second is organisation. MPs who organise properly will win, and those who don't won't. The same goes for the members who are pushing for reselection. Having sat and participated in many a selection meeting these last nine-and-a-bit years, it always tickles me how many members come out of the woodwork who are never seen from one selection meeting to the next. And that was true of my branch meeting. Lifts had been arranged and new faces emerged. Clearly there had been an effort put together to boost turn out, which of course is what you'd expect. Those who argued for reselection were not so organised - not even a Momentum email went out to its supporters living in the constituency. Therefore, if you want to win your reselection no one is going to do the organising for you. Two years on from the general election, the mass membership won't simply turn up to the meeting unless an effort is made to mobilise them. Additionally, some thought has to be given to how the reselection is approached. The guys, and they're mostly men, who kick up a stink in every constituency or branch meeting, have a tendency to make long-winded speeches and are what you might euphemistically describe as a "bit Marmite", these comrades should not be leading the charge. Indeed, a period of silence on their part would be most welcome. Instead, comrades without obvious axes to grind, have a bit of moral authority, or indeed tend not to speak too much in meetings, these are the best advocates of the reselection case. Not enough Labour people read a room before they speak, but if you're serious about winning people over you need to learn to.

On the arguments themselves, I can't say it was easy making the case for reselection in my branch meeting. I've spoken highly of Gareth in the past, have known him for yonks, and we shared an office for two-and-half-years working for the blessed Tristram. I was at his wedding, he was at my 40th. And so arguing for a vote where your friend might lose his job is never pleasant. Which is why reselection as a matter of course is more preferable than the hard job of arguing for a negative, and why our friends the Labour right cling to the trigger ballot process like a security blanket. In the three minutes allotted to members to debate the merits or otherwise of reselection, I made three points making the case for proceeding to a vote. The first was on the basic accountability of the process, that all of us have regular job appraisals and so MPs shouldn't be any different. The second, anticipating the most common argument likely to come up, was how the reselection process is not a distraction from the job at hand but part of tooling up the party prior to the imminent election. When members participate in selection meetings and have a hand in choosing their candidate, they can feel ownership, feel like the party has re-engaged them and be more likely to get involved in the campaign. This is reselection as necessary renewal, as a positive good for all seasons. And the last pertained to the politics of Gareth's approach to Brexit. While it is the case the constituency voted leave, like elsewhere the majority of Labour's voters did not. The problem of accepting any Brexit short of a no deal is this does not placate those ex-Labour supporters who haven't voted for the party for a decade or more, while running the risk of alienating remain voters who, at the very least, would life a soft landing and not the hard exit of Theresa May's miserable deal. In other words any Labour MP who does this in a marginal seat is running the risk of triangulating defeat. Other arguments put for reselection focused on specifics of casework, and the poor look of having a MP regularly at loggerheads with the party on the defining issue of the moment.

And the arguments against reselection? They were as you would expect, and have no doubt got aired and will be aired at every trigger ballot meeting wherever they take place. Gareth has a good local record. Gareth is very supportive. Gareth is a good campaigner. We haven't got time for a selection with an election due. Some comrades even said they agreed with all the points but, ah, "now is not the time." And these were not all on the party's right by any means. Such is the advantage of incumbency. Had the trigger meeting taken place a full 18 months before an election, the same argument would surely have cropped up then too. Having good lines and political positions argued persuasively stand more of a chance where the constituency party has a lively programme of policy development and political education, precisely because the distraction argument draws on uncertainties about the situation, the anxiety of who might be the candidate if the MP is deselected (will they be any good? Are they a decent campaigner?), and the rightful instinct of wanting to take the Tories on above all. This is politics working at the level of the doxa, the unthought, unarticulated, but very much felt. In my branch meeting, my attempt to get round this - a combination of talking up the positives to chase away the fears, coupled with political critique raising serious concerns with local strategy - wasn't enough to break inertia and loyalties. Depending on the MP though, other arguments that reach into the gut might work. For instance, bringing it back to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and asking assembled comrades if they think their MP is going to cooperate with/back him to become the next Prime Minister in the event of Labour winning the biggest party prize or getting a majority in the next parliament?

These then are the lessons from the Stoke Central trigger ballot experience. If you want to win, you need to organise, act persuasively, make a positive case for reselection where possible, think about how you're going to limit the efficacy of now-is-not-the-time, and arrange arguments appealing to the stomach and the heart as well as the head.

Saturday 28 September 2019

What I've Been Reading Recently

The world turns and a lot of politics happen, yet there are some constants. Boris Johnson scandals. Michael Barrymore comebacks. My nose in books. It's now time for our three-monthly pause to consider what has got read and discarded like so many used batteries.

Marx at the Arcade by Jamie Woodcock
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
Conspiracy Theories by Mark Fenster
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
The State in Capitalist Society by Ralph Miliband
Capitalist Democracy in Britain by Ralph Miliband
Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
Political Parties and the Concept of Power by Danny Rye
High-Rise by JG Ballard
Fever City by Tim Baker
The Making of the Indebted Man by Maurizio Lazzarato
Thatcher and Friends by John Ross
All the Truth Is Out by Matt Bai
The Accusation by Bandi
The Body edited by Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth, and Bryan S Turner
A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
Eclipse by John Banville
Political Parties in Britain, 1783-1867 by Eric J Evans
H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker
Antwerp by Roberto BolaƱo
Tories, Conservatives, and Unionists 1815-1914 by Duncan Watts
The Crow Road by Iain Banks
Gilles Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation by Dorothea Olkowski

Plenty to talk about, but it's late. But some very good stuff here. Three recommendations, if I may. Auster's 4 3 2 1 is as good as it is chunky. If you're a fan of his writer-writing-about-writers shtick, you'll lap it up. If you're not, then still give it a stab. His work tends to drift between the self-consciously arty and postmodern and the straightforwardly literary. This manages to be as accessible as The Brooklyn Follies but as complexly plotted as anything else he has done. In my opinion, the crowning achievement of his career. Jo Baker's A Country Road, A Tree is a studied and exquisitely written imagining of Samuel Beckett's life in Occupied France, his participation in resistance activities and the creeping sense of dread as his friends and acquaintances are swallowed up by the Gestapo. And lastly, I don't know why and I can't put my finger on it, but ever since reading Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea I've acquired a thing for novels set in mouldy old houses. For that reason alone John Banville's Eclipse gets the nod.

What have you been reading lately?

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Quarter Three By-Election Results 2019

Overall, 69,839 votes were cast over 44 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison you can view Quarter Two's results here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Q3 2018

* There were two by-elections in Scotland
** There were three by-elections in Wales
*** There were five Independent clashes
**** Others this quarter consisted of Brexit Party (111, 152, 153, 193), Communist Party of Britain (18), For Britain (166), Herefordshire It's Our County (304), Yorkshire Party (349), and the Women's Equality Party (90), Radcliffe First (824), and Scottish Libertarian (12), Putting Cumbria First (23), Liberal Party (293), End Austerity (138), Justice Party (5, 9).

It's one thing for the Liberal Democrats to top the poll in a month, but to manage it for a quarter? Credit where credit's due, a top performance from them. Though with how long is this going to persist for? I might suggest normal service will resume in the last quarter and one of the big two will resume numero uno. Yet what is "normal service" these days? Brexit's distorting everything, and the smart money is on an Autumn general election. Who knows what weirdies and nasties that may unleash, and then there's the resolution to this stage of Brexit too. Would no deal strap a Saturn 5 to the LibDem's chances? Is an extension about to power the Brexit Party to new heights?

Chances are we'll know by the next time I pause to write up the quarter's results.

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Friday 27 September 2019

Local Council By-Elections September 2019

This month saw 29,563 votes cast over 19 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Six council seats changed hands. For comparison with August's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Aug 18


* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** No Independent clashes this month
**** Others this month consisted of Putting Cumbria First (23), Brexit Party (193), Liberal Party (293), End Austerity (138), Justice Party (5, 9),

A very interesting month, which just happened to contain my favourite by-election phrase; "Lab gain from Con." There were two obvious things that catch in the eye. The first is the complete absence of UKIP. Perhaps my memory isn't what it used to be, but I don't recall a month in the last seven years of covering by-elections when they didn't (or couldn't) stand a candidate. No Brexit Party either, which meant effectively the Tories had the right wing field to themselves. And though they won the popular vote (not that it matters a great deal), they were hardly storming ahead the divided opposition.

Yes, the divided opposition. Back in June, the forecast went that the LibDem surge would slip back in time as the by-elections cause by multiple MEP wins in their areas would work through, and the excitement of the EU elections passes. Well, thanks to the multiple Brexit shenanigans and Jo Swinson's hard remain posturing (is she for a second referendum? Is she for revoking Article 50?), they are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were this time last year, and completely unrecognisable versus the shell of a party that stumbled from election to election in 2017. And yet, while they have topped Labour again in the by-election stakes the tendency is one of backsliding.

Also, for the multiple nth time, we should remember that older voters are always more likely to vote than younger cohorts of people, and this is doubly and triply so in second order elections and council by-elections in particular. The LibDem surge we have seen can be put down to two factors. Either older voters are breaking for them in a big way, and it's certainly true softer Cameroon-y pro-EU Tories are giving the yellows a punt in increasing numbers, or LibDem supporters feel especially motivated to go out and vote while the supporters of the other parties aren't particularly fussed. Whichever it is, there is supposed to be a general election soon and when it comes we might have answers to this question.

5th September
Coventry MBC, Wainbody, Con hold
Eden DC, Penrith South, Con gain from Ind
Kingston-Upon-Hull UA, St Andrews & Dockland, Lab hold

12th September
Rushmoor BC, St Marks, LDem hold
Rutland UA, Ryhall & Casterton, Con gain from Ind
Shropshire UA, Bishop’s Castle, LDem hold
South Northamptonshire DC, Middleton Cheney, LDem gain from Con
Wellingborough BC, Finedon, Con hold

19th September
Canterbury BC, Chestfield, Con hold
Hammersmith and Fulham BC,& Fulham Broadway, Lab hold
Liverpool MBC, Old Swan, Lab hold
North Lanarkshire UA, Thorniewood, Lab hold
Somerset West and Taunton DC, Vivary, LDem gain from Con
Wiltshire UA, Ethandune, Con hold

26th September
Crawley BC, Tilgate, Con hold
Ipswich BC, Alexandra, Lab hold
Luton UA, Icknield, Lab gain from Con
Rochford DC, Sweyne Park & Grange, Con gain from Ind
West Sussex CC, Three Bridges, Con hold