Representation in the Labour Party: An Open Goal Missed?

As the Labour Party selects candidates for the next generals election, Laurie Wilcockson proposes how the party can ensure that a more diverse set of candidates is chosen. 

In December 2005, David Cameron announced as part of his plan to modernise the Conservative Party, the creation of his ‘Conservative A-List’. It was a deliberate attempt to bring attention to and provide support for strong potential parliamentary candidates, with a special focus on candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. At the time, this included women: across the 1997, 2001, and 2005 elections, only fourteen female conservative MPs had been elected, compared to hundreds of males. The A-List however, which contained over one hundred candidates, was majority women. A large number also came from minority backgrounds. 

Put simply, it was a great success. Not only did it achieve a great influx diversity, but it proved Cameron genuinely believed in his promises of changing the party; his were not empty words. It also spawned the political careers of now-major political figures, amongst them the likes of Liz Truss, Zac Goldsmith, Andrea Leadsom, Priti Patel, Amber Rudd, Anna Soubry, and Baroness Warsi, as well as a whole host of recent and current ministers. 

Now, a serially unelectable major party being radically transformed into a modernised, palatable one with the abandoning of fringe policies and concessions to progressivism and the centre ground might be familiar to the reader, it is after all what the Starmer Project is all about. And indeed, if Cameron could be successful, so too could be Starmer: he most certainly faces much weaker opposition in today’s Conservatives. 

We are right now in the midst of swathes of CLPs deciding on their candidates for the next election. As of time of writing, there have been twenty-six selections, with more undoubtedly coming out by time of publication. Of these, Michael Crick’s tally counts only three from ethnic minorities, and only five who haven’t previously been councillors. A considerable amount of these, too, come directly from London. This latter aspect I am more forgiving of; experience and competency should be at the forefront of our selections, and a considerable amount of these are people local in origin, but who moved to the city for work. Where we are undoubtedly falling short, however, is our failure to promote representation. 

It is hopefully self-evident to the reader that diversity is no sacrifice for competency; the two are entirely unrelated. There are certainly candidates out there from non-white or working class backgrounds who would do just as good a job, if not better, compared to the more typical candidates. They just have not been met with the support that Cameron’s 2010 candidates were. What Labour should have done before selections even started, and what is entirely capable of pursuing still for remaining seats, is draw up its own A-List. It should include professionals, especially from outside of traditional political routes, who would make good members of a government. The focus of Starmer’s Labour Party after all, should of course be on creating a parliamentary party filled with future ministers, not perennial backbenchers. It goes without saying that this list should encourage candidates from diverse backgrounds, and that they should have a genuine, strong local connection to the seats they intend to contest. This has been made all the more important in wake of the Forde Report, and there should be some sensitivity and acknowledgement from the central party that there have been failures towards minorities of a number of backgrounds on both a central and CLP level, and perhaps as a result, certain potential candidates may still be put off nominating themselves for selection. These very candidates, however, are exactly to whom the Party owes it to grant assurances and seek to re-earn the trust of, for Labour to be able to move forward.

The current means of selection in seats without an incumbent Labour MP is as thus: candidates nominate themselves and are put onto a longlist by the central party, which is then sent to the local selection committee, from where a shortlist, normally three or four candidates long, is returned to CLP members for final selection by means of a party vote. 

In the interest of coherency between the central party and local grassroots, I could not in good conscience suggest that this process should be overridden. However, it should be a deliberate move on behalf of the party to have at least one candidate from this A List make the shortlist, if not two. In practice, this should be the selection of strong, charismatic, and experienced characters by the central party, as we saw in the Wakefield shortlist with Kate Dearden and Simon Lightwood, who then nominate themselves, and are fast-tracked onto the shortlist. There should also, without doubt, be at least one proposed local candidate so that CLPs are not alienated by the process, as was also the case in Wakefield. In theory, a considerable number of these ‘A listers’ should as a result find themselves on the ballot in 2024. 

Of course, there is some truth to the eternal criticism that diversity occurs naturally, and many may feel that the dabbling of the party in local selections is very much a hallmark of Conservative tokenism the Labour Party should dissociate itself from. However, evidently, the party has failed to keep up with the rest of the country, and indeed as the diversity of the Conservative leadership has proven, we have a long way to go even in relation to other political parties. I, for one, believe an A List could only benefit Labour, as it did for Cameron and the Tories in 2010, when they won an election for the first time in thirteen years. 

Laurie Wilcockson is a History student at the University of Cambridge. He was formerly Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Cambridge Student, and is an occasional contributor to East Anglia Bylines. He grew up in rural Norfolk, and discovered a passion for political journalism when he found himself at the wrong end of the 2020 A Level Algorithm Fiasco, and had to fight for his place at university. He tweets at @LaurieWilcocks1.

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