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Frank “Houdini” Field leads the fight against MP deselection

October 30th, 2015

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But Donald Brind wonders if this is a battle Labour should be having now?

Labour’s veteran maverick Frank Field has put himself in the vanguard of MPs getting ready to fight deselection. There could be no better leader for those fearful about the perceived threat from Corbynistas in their constituencies. In his 36 years as MP for Birkenhead he has survived three attempts to oust him.

The most serious was in 1989, a battle I covered for the BBC. We had ourselves an exclusive. We were pretty sure that Paul Davies, a Transport and General Workers’ Union shop steward representing low paid workers at Arrowe Park hospital was set to beat Field. But I had been told by a senior Labour official that Neil Kinnock had made it clear he wanted deselection blocked. That’s what we reported — and so it turned out. Davies won at the local meeting but his victory was overturned by the National Executive.

Jeremy Corbyn is no Neil Kinnock. He has rejected the idea of mandatory reselections but it is inconceivable he would intervene to overturn a decision by a local party. And the transformation of the Corbyn leadership campaign into Momentum , led by long term advocate of mandatory reselection, Jon Lansman has got a lot of Corbosceptic MPs worried. Frank “Houdini” Field told the New Statesman

“..If candidates are picked off they will stand as independent Labour, cause a by-election immediately and a whole pile of us will go down there to campaign for them. They can’t expel 60 of us. Momentum ought to know that they’re not the only pair of wide eyes in the business. We’re not powerless…

..Those of us who are not going to let Momentum win have a trump card on our side, which is that we would probably win the by-election.”

It sounds like a perfect example of the conjugation “we organise, they conspire”. Those who have spoken out like Field, Mike Gapes and Emma Reynolds are best seen as getting their retaliation in first. My guess is that their fears are exaggerated.

I believe Denis Healey’s judgement that an MP who works hard and is trusted as a human being “by active members of his local party can normally rely on personal loyalty to override differences on policy” still holds good. Healey is quoted in Andrew Adonis’s 1991 book Parliament Today which notes that even after the introduction of mandatory re-selection in 1981 only a handful of MPs were forced to step down. And anxious MPs should be largely reassured by the granular assessment of Momentum by the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush.

“In some parts of the country, there are undoubtedly organised leftwing factions attempting to infiltrate Labour. But, says Bush, “they are hugely outnumbered by new members with a much broader range of opinions.”

Richard Angell of Progress, another lobbying organisation within the party, takes a measured view of Momentum, suggesting it remove worries about its role by being more open and transparent.

My key point is that this is not a battle the party should be having now.

The raft of new selections cased by boundary revisions are unlikely before 2018. MPs who didn’t back Corbyn have plenty of time to earn the “personal loyalty” that Healey talked about. So too does George Osborne have time to recover. But his arrogance and tactical ineptitude have given Labour the opportunity to show it can be an effective force at Westminster.  The campaign against the cut in tax credits was spearheaded by Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allie, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, a model of calm and reasonableness.

I particularly enjoyed three contributions to that victory . McDonald’s number two Seema Malhotra presented the case against the tax credit cut in the Commons last Thursday. She was subjected to a series of interruptions from Tory MPs but she had a handy put down — the exact number of their constituents who would be hit by the cut. Who, she asked, were they speaking for — their constituents or their party?
And in the Lords on Monday Baroness Hollis and Baroness Smith of Basildon the Labour leader in the upper house were simply magnificent.

Frank Field is set to play an influential role in the future of welfare policy as chair of the social security select committee. My hope is that he and others will shut up about deselection and concentrate on the day job of holding to account a Tory government that is weaker than it looks. That will be good for Jeremy Corbyn’s credibility as leader but also for their own reputations in their constituencies.

Donald Brind