Choosing a Labour Candidate

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

Now that the Boundary Commission has reported, and the time of the postponed general election is but six months off, it may be of interest to learn how parliamentary constituencies in the UK get their candidates. As I can speak with personal knowledge only of the way in which Labour candidates are chosen, I will confine my remarks to them; though I believe that the procedure is only slightly different (and then in detail only) as regards the Conservative and Liberal Parties.

First it is necessary to know how the Labour Party is organised. Throughout the country, it is organised on the basis of Constituency Parties (CLP for short). These CLPs are federations of trade union branches and individual members of the Party. In urban areas, the individual members are organised into Ward parties, each Ward being some convenient unit for local government election purposes. In rural areas, the individual members of the CLP are organised into local parties, based on villages or townships. When a candidate is wanted for an election, each trade union branch and ward — or local party is invited by the Executive Committee of the CLP to nominate possible candidates.

It depends on the constituency what response will be forthcoming to this invitation to nominate possible candidates. In constituencies where there is little chance of a Labour candidate being elected, people are put forward who have Parliamentary ambitions but who want the experience of fighting an election in a ‘hopeless’ constituency before going on to a better one. If there is a certainty, or a virtual certainty, that the Labour candidate will be elected, then often a well-known figure in the trade union world or in local Labour Party circles will be nominated.

Once a candidate has been selected and elected to Parliament, he is a fixture in that constituency unless he chooses to go elsewhere.

Eventually the Executive Committee of the CLP will have received a number of nominations from its affiliated organisations (as the union branches and ward or local parties are called). On the Executive there will be representatives of the affiliated organisations. All the nominations will be discussed thoroughly; anyone who has personal knowledge of any of the nominees will be given particular attention when giving views on the suitability of that person for the constituency.

The Executive Committee will draw up, after its deliberations, a short list of nominated persons whom it wishes to interview for possible selection as the candidate. Usually, the short list will contain three names, sometimes four or five, but I have never known five to be exceeded or three to be fallen below. The short list of candidates will be interviewed not by the CLP Executive, but by the General Management Committee. The difference in these two bodies is that the Executive is much smaller. The GMC has representatives of every affiliated organisation, each organisation (especially the ward or local parties) having representation according to size. The Executive, however, draws a limited number of members from the GMC; whereas the GMC may have a membership of a hundred or more, the Executive will seldom exceed 20 in number.

All possible candidates on the short list are invited to attend a meeting of the GMC. At this meeting every member of the GMC will be given a brief biography of the persons to appear before it. These biographies give an outline of the people’s activities in the Labour and trade union movements; e.g., “GREGSON, Rex Michael, Age 25, Local Government Officer, Bachelor of Arts, Speaks 5 languages. Made first public speech at age 15 for Labour League of Youth and have since spoken for a variety of causes to audiences ranging from Labour Party branches to United States Air Force. Since joining the Party has held offices of Ward Secretary, Election Agent, CLP Social Secretary, delegate to Area Federation of CLP’s and member of CLP Executive. Was President of University Union and has written pamphlets on the Middle East and North Africa. Member of North Paddington CLP and National Union of Public Employees.”

The foregoing brief biography is of an imaginary person but is based on an actual biography which I saw in 1953.

The meeting at which the possible candidates are selected is known, naturally, as the Selection Conference. In my time I have attended a number.

Each Interviewee is called before the GMC, usually in alphabetical order and has 10 minutes to speak, on any subject he chooses. Usually, he chooses either why he wants this particular constituency, or why he wants a constituency at all, or a pet topic on which he is particularly fluent, or a quick résumé of his Socialist beliefs and an enlargement of his brief biography which everyone will have read.

After his short speech, he has 10 or 15 minutes in which to answer any questions, on whatever subject, which anyone present may care to ask. Often the choice of candidate depends on how he answers these questions. Often, too, the questions may have little or nothing to do with Parliamentary constituency; e.g., at one selection conference l was asked “If you are selected as candidate, would you support the mayor’s civic charities?” This was in a city over 120 miles from my home!

After each possible candidate has made his speech, and answered his questions, the GMC considers the performance of each. After discussion, which can go on a long time, they vote. Not by show of hands, but on ballot papers. The usual procedure is for everyone to vote for the person of his choice. The votes are counted. Failing a clear majority for any one candidate, a second vote is taken, this time leaving out of consideration the person who had fewest votes on the first ballot. If there are only three on the list, obviously only two ballots will be needed; more on the short list means more ballots. Finally, someone is declared to be the candidate with the most votes; and then the GMC formally votes that Mr So-and-so be the prospective candidate. This vote is usually unanimous. Mr So-and-so is then called into the room and told he is now the “prospective Parliamentary candidate for the X Division of Y-shire’, and the meeting is over.

Until the date of the Parliamentary election is announced, and the candidates are formally nominated and their deposits of £150 paid, they must legally be referred to as ‘prospective’ Parliamentary candidates only. A person does not become a ‘candidate’ pure and simple (legally speaking) until he has been nominated on the prescribed form and has paid his deposit as by law demanded.

The choice of candidate in any constituency is therefore made democratically, and every member of the CLP has at some stage in the proceedings the opportunity to express his opinion about the choice of a prospective candidate. It may be only at the ward party meeting where the original invitation from the CLP Executive Committee is received and dealt with. It may be, if the member is active, at GMC level; even as a member of the CLP Executive itself. But the choice is democratically made, and no-one who is unsuccessful at a Selection Conference has any ground for complaint that undemocratic methods have been employed.

Selection conferences do not always have just local people before them. A conference in Leicester two years ago considered three possibles: two from different parts of London, one from Birmingham. In Birmingham in 1953, the possibles comprised one man from London, one from Rugby, and one from a different part of Birmingham.

So local choice and local organisation are the keynotes of Labour Party methods in the UK. The only thing that the Party does insist upon is that all potential candidates shall be (in addition, of course, as one would expect, to being paid-up members of their own CLP) members of their appropriate trade union.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 25 November 2022

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