I watched last night’s programme from Andrew Neill with interest and would recommend it. The former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times newspaper looked at the increasingly narrow social spectrum from which our MPs are drawn. He exposed the similar route to parliament taken by David and Ed Miliband, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson, Ed Balls, Michael Gove, Yvette Cooper….the list goes on.
It’s a genuine problem. Andrew Neill seemed to be suggesting that we needed a return to Grammar Schools and went back to his old school which was now a comprehensive. Sadly the 6th formers he interviewed, despite being more articulate and worldly-wise than those interviewed from Eton, didn’t believe they had a chance to gate-crash the old school/University ties that had created this stasis. Neill’s right that it worsens Government, but he’s wrong about the remedy. There is nothing inherently essential about an Oxford PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) that is required for high office. Given the visible decline in the public standing of MPs, it could be argued that the opposite is true.
Frankly the onus is on the Labour Party to sort itself out. The Conservative Party has a tendency towards choosing its candidates from a certain privileged section and since it represents that class, I have no problem with them recruiting from it. Labour though does have a problem and it was sad to see Alan Johnson on the programme as the exception that proves the rule. However it seems somehow appropriate that he should have left office just before the programme was screened.
Andrew Neill focused in his programme on Labour’s parliamentary selection in Stoke in which the Constituency Secretary Gary Elsby was not shortlisted by Labour’s NEC to his eternal resentment. It needed to be clarified that the NEC plays no part in the vast majority of Labour Party selections. It’s only in by-elections and vacancies declared as the General Election is due it’s the NEC that decides the shortlist from which the local party chooses the final candidate. Technically (apart from the separate question of All Women Shortlists), the Labour Party allows local members a great deal of autonomy in the selection of candidates except in this small number of by-elections and late selections. However, interestingly (and Neill missed this), this minority of selections made on an NEC shortlist seem to have had a disproportionate impact at the top of the party.
Looking at the top of Labour’s current shadow cabinet it’s interesting to see how many came through the NEC shortlist:
|Ed Miliband||Leader||Normal Contested Selection|
By-Election – NEC shortlist
|Ed Balls||Shadow Chancellor||Normal Contested Selection|
|Yvette Cooper||Shadow Home Secretary||Late Vacancy NEC shortlist|
|Douglas Alexander||Shadow Foreign Secretary||
By-Election NEC Shortlist
|John Healy||Shadow Health Secretary||Normal Contested Selection|
|Andy Burnham||Shadow Education Secretary||Normal Contested Selection|
|Sadiq Khan||Shadow Justice Secretary||Normal Contested Selection|
|Liam Byrne||Shadow Work and Pensions||
By Election NEC Shortlist
Amongst those that did have normal selections, support from people at the top of the party played a part particularly for Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham. Ed Balls already had established his reputation before his selection.
It’s not that the party establishment overwhelmingly chooses all its MPs. It just seems that there’s a fast track to ministerial office that’s already in motion before the search to find a safe seat even begins. And if you’ve not established yourself onto that conveyor belt before you enter parliament, it’s going to me so much harder in parliament. That conveyor is a bit like the chute used on the Barclaycard adverts, it begins at Oxford PPE, weaves it way by ingratiating the chosen graduate into the world of a ministerial sugar daddy and then via a parachute into a seat ready to fight a quick election. No nursing of the seat wondering when the election is going to be called. No fighting unwinnable seats to cut your teeth and establish a reputation. Andrew Neill was partly right but he really missed the point that most Labour MPs still do it the hard way. And Blessed are the chosen few.
It’s not all bleak though, and I do think that the party is interfering less. Encouragingly both the Oldham-Saddleworth and Barnsley by-elections have been given strong shortlists to choose from. And my own experience in Stretford and Urmston was that once we’d got the decision on whether we were one of the seats designated as an All Women Shortlist, we received absolutely no interference from the national party in our choice. Labour is certainly more representative than it was. Unlike Sky Sports, the party is moving in the right direction. I want to see Ed Miliband look to the new intake for more of our shadow ministers; there’s absolutely enough talent there. Let’s move away from this transfixion with the old college network and make it a meritocracy within the Parliamentary Labour Party.