“IT’S not winning the seat that’s the hard part – it’s winning the selection contest,” a senior SNP adviser told me before the party’s landslide General Election victory in 2015. Back then, with the polls clearly pointing to Nationalist gains from Labour, local battles were underway between wannabe MPs.
As always, the SNP generally managed to hold these internal contests in a more conciliatory manner than the Labour Party ever could. Right now, Scottish Labour selection contests are underway – or about to start – for 20 target Westminster seats.
The General Election is most likely years away, but the wafer-thin majorities in these constituencies means it would be a brave pundit who would predict anything other than several Labour gains. SNP MPs defending double-digit majorities know they’re most likely on borrowed time.
So, unsurprisingly, the race to replace them is turning into a bloodbath.
The Campaign for Socialism, Momentum’s toxic equivalent in Scotland, wants candidates in place who are unwavering in their support for Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard’s leadership. Scottish Young Labour won’t formally endorse candidates unless they reveal who they voted for in the recent leadership elections – a barely-veiled threat that you won’t get their support unless you backed Richard and Jeremy (twice).
Some of those who stood in the 2017 General Election face missing out now that the process is in the hands of local members, not HQ. Last year, the party had the advantage of a snap election presenting a blank canvas from which to pick a diverse mix of candidates: candidates such as Pam Duncan-Glancy in Glasgow North.
Local democracy is vital, but it would be a travesty if Pam isn’t Labour’s candidate at the next election. An inspirational equalities campaigner, she has never let being in a wheelchair prevent her from making a difference for others. For the party of diversity and equality to ditch a candidate like Pam would be an unforgivable backwards move.
In Glasgow South West, where the SNP is defending a majority of just 60, there is an ugly fight after dozens of new members were barred from voting. The ‘freeze date’ which stipulates who can take part was moved by a fortnight, effectively disenfranchising new members who are from Asian backgrounds. Another fine moment for the party of equality and diversity.
To Richard Leonard’s credit, he has held firm on the contentious issue of All-Women Shortlists, meaning at least 15 of the 20 candidates will be women. Some in the party were opposed to that idea, but gender-balance is meaningless if women aren’t in winnable seats.
Yet the party still risks missing out on some great candidates.
The next General Election is scheduled for 2022 and the Fixed-Term Parliament Act is still in place.
Nobody in the Commons expects the Tories to back another snap General Election, even if the EU withdrawal process comes unstuck. Turkeys, Christmas etc. You’d also be hard-pressed to find any SNP or DUP MP ready to privately admit they want an election any time soon.
So the candidates currently being selected by Scottish Labour will, most likely, be in place for four years.
How do you think bosses in the private sector react when an employee asks if they can be a parliamentary candidate for four years, appearing in the local paper every week and repeatedly posting on social media about door-knocking?
Unpaid leave for a four-week election campaign – OK, fine. A highly-visible second job for four years as a party candidate when you work for an organisation which is politically neutral – no thanks.
As a result, Labour risks missing out on people from diverse backgrounds who could really shake-up politics.
Instead, people come forward from professions where political activism is encouraged: the trade union movement; and those already working in politics. It’s hardly a recipe for introducing more life experience to parliament.
Being a candidate for four years also puts you in the spotlight. It requires a lot of work: lost evenings and lost weekends. It isn’t a family-friendly job, particularly for anyone with young children or thinking of having a baby.
Is it really fair to ask people to make a life-changing decision as many as four years in advance?
But the restrictions that Scottish Labour is placing on the diversity of its candidates isn’t the only reason why the party is wrong to rush the selection process.
Politically, it could be disastrous.
One of the greatest advantages that opposition parties have is being able to target sitting MPs and MSPs.
Day in, day out, press officers push out attack lines on the actions of rival politicians to convince voters that their current MP or MSP is a wrong 'un and should be kicked out come the next election.
Your MSP voted for council cuts? Choose our party instead. Your MP backed Trident renewal? Choose our party instead.
But once you’ve got a candidate in place, they also become a target and the advantage of being in opposition is lost.
In the last General Election, the Tories trawled through Scottish Labour candidates’ social media feeds to uncover which ones had supported independence. There were several. It was the perfect ammo for the Tories – you can’t trust Labour on the Union.
Labour failed to gain several seats because so many voters switched to the Tories – a problem that could return whenever Nicola Sturgeon decides to reignite the debate around a second referendum.
The Tories did their research in four weeks: imagine what they could in four years.
And even the very best candidates, with nothing to hide, will find themselves in the firing line of spinners able to twist a tale.
Other parties are looking at Labour and rubbing their hands with glee. They know the decision to hold early selections is likely to backfire.
There’s also widespread bewilderment. The next election, barring an unexpected turn of events, is the Holyrood election. It’s as far away as 2021, so early selections for that contest would still be politically naïve, yet planning for a return to government in Scotland should surely take precedence over the General Election?
Instead, for many in Scottish Labour, Holyrood is now a secondary concern. What matters is how the party can help deliver Jeremy Corbyn to Downing Street. Anything else is largely an after-thought.
For a party which fought for so many years for autonomy, that’s a remarkable about-turn.