Having local MPs has always been entrenched in parliament, with the first-past-the-post system ensuring a constituency link for MPs. But have major parties lost sight of this? Ryan Batty reports on how locality may not be as important to Labour anymore.
“I’ve got news – and it isn’t good news, unfortunately. I’m not on the shortlist.”
My hands froze. For the last two hours, I had been stuffing letters into envelopes on behalf of a candidate who I wholeheartedly believed in. The two papercuts acquired over the morning were suddenly the least of my worries.
Mike Buckley was Sheffield Central Labour’s campaign coordinator and had a contact list longer than the Party’s constitution. He had been an aid worker for 12 years during the Iraq War, led the post-Brexit UK-EU relations commission, and had been a party advisor.
He had decided to throw his hat into the ring to replace Sheffield Central’s MP Paul Blomfield, and had the backing of several trade unions, countless party members and even Neil Kinnock, who led the party in the Thatcher years.
Mike, who I had supported, campaigned for and whose ‘post-shortlist’ plans had been finalised not 24 hours earlier – was now eliminated from the competition entirely.
“I was disappointed not to be shortlisted, and, given the work that I put into the campaign and the nominations that I had and the fact that I’m an active member of the constituency party. I had expected to be on the shortlist,” he says.
Such is the reality of selecting a parliamentary candidate. For the Labour Party, at least. Candidates, up until the final selection meeting, are at the mercy of an independently selected shortlist committee of less than ten people.
There was no explanation for Mike’s elimination. He was local. He was a passionate campaigner. He had dedicated the last six months to this cause. But the shortlist committee had ruled him to be less qualified than a comedian to be Sheffield Central’s next MP.
The competition had been seen as Eddie Izzard’s race to lose by much of the mainstream media, but the reality on the ground in Sheffield couldn’t have been more different.
Izzard was seen by many on the doorstep to be an opportunist, with local councillors-turned-candidates such as Abtisam Mohamed and Rizwana Lana being favoured by Sheffielders.
But Izzard, who donated £10,000 to the Party for the 2001 election and over £31,000 in 2012, was placed on the shortlist despite not living in Sheffield, with her only real link to the city being the fact she studied Accounting at the University of Sheffield.
So, does Labour have it right?
With the last two general elections coming as snap elections, Labour has come under scrutiny for imposing candidates via the National Executive Committee – enabling the leadership to handpick and parachute candidates into constituencies without the traditional democratic process of longlisting and shortlisting – a process that can take up to two months.
For example, Ilford South selected Sam Tarry as their parliamentary candidate in 2019 – though the result was disputed as his rival for the nomination, Jas Athwal, was suspended the evening before the members’ vote due to allegations of sexual harassment. Tarry was selected and went on to be elected in the subsequent election.
Ahead of the 2024 election, Athwal was cleared of any wrongdoing and has since won a selection battle with Tarry in arguably a more democratic selection this time around.
With the next general election looming, seats are being fought with a greater sense of democracy. In Exeter, Ben Bradshaw’s announcement of his retirement from parliament meant a competitive battle to replace him as Labour’s candidate in one of their only south-west seats.
Charlie Howell was an advisor for Steve Race’s successful campaign in Exeter, and though Steve isn’t from Exeter, he believes locality and knowing the area is key in seats such as his.
He said: “I think because we are isolated or isolated in the sense of the nearest major city, Bristol or Plymouth, about an hour away in either direction.”
“We’re also isolated because the only Labour seat in Devon, apart from a singular one in Plymouth, and because of that, a candidate has to understand the area and really get to grips with it.”
Parachuting candidates into areas of the country where perhaps their interests are not tied and grounded to the constituency which they seek to represent has always been viewed with suspicion within the Labour Party – and in many cases the constituency itself.
Things have improved under Keir Starmer’s leadership – mostly. The Hartlepool by-election in 2021 was seen as Starmer’s first real test of his leadership, and the Party brought in Paul Williams to contest the Labour-held seat. Williams had been MP for Stockton South, just half an hour down the road, between 2017 and 2019, but the choice for him to fight in Hartlepool puzzled a few.
For one thing, Williams had been a major advocate for the Remain campaign in the EU Referendum five years prior, in a town that overwhelmingly voted to Leave. For another, Williams had been the only candidate on Labour’s shortlist in Hartlepool, and so party members in the area were forced to campaign for a man who had few local ties to the constituency.
Should it be this way? Would the UK’s political apathy be fixed if candidates were required to be local? Certainly, the first-past-the-post electoral system means that MPs have a constituency link, but if they are not from the region where their constituency is, do they have the same rooted and vested interest?
Mark believes Labour has had an increasing focus on locality for parliamentary candidates in recent years.
He says, “One thing about the elections is that over time it seems that Labour Party members have become more bothered about whether somebody is a local candidate or not.
“Not all the selections this year have gone to the local candidate, but I think a majority have, and that’s either a local candidate who actually lives there or it’s somebody who grew up there and is then able to go back and say, ‘I am from here and I want to represent’.”
Other UK parties have it different. The Conservative Party’s selections are based on a panel interview and a central assessment of a candidate’s competency levels, and upon passing that test, candidates can apply for seats. For Labour, the interview process comes just before the shortlisting process.
Locality is not as important – in 2015, for example, just 35% of Conservative MPs elected were considered local, and only 17% of MPs were local for the Conservatives’ top 100 safest seats, according to a London School of Economics study.
Mike believes that while the Conservatives’ process could be seen as more streamlined, it may not always lead to well-vetted candidates.
“It does seem that the Conservative Party members are less bothered whether somebody is local or not, for good or ill.
“The Conservative system is in some ways more streamlined in the sense that I think once you’re through that panel, you can then go and present yourself.
“The flip side is that in the Labour Party, viable candidates do have to demonstrate a commitment to that place over a long period of time, or just by running a great campaign over a period of a period of months in the run-up to the selection,” Mike said.
Boris Johnson, perhaps the most influential Tory politician of the last decade, grew up 180 miles away from his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat, in the small village of Winsford, Somerset.
In 2005, the Conservatives’ internal rebrand under David Cameron was solidified with their ‘A-list’ of candidates, a list of priority candidates intended to diversify the parliamentary party with a greater focus on ethnic minorities and women.
Cameron’s plan was a great success for the party, with their 2010 intake containing future cabinet ministers such as Priti Patel, Karen Bradley and perhaps most infamously, the short-lived Prime Minister Liz Truss.
Local politics with truly local ideas may solve political apathy – and though reform doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, perhaps a greater focus on locality for Labour will lead them to the kindling of political passion for left-behind voters – and campaigners like Mike and Charlie are hoping that comes in the form of electoral success.