Thoughts on Labour Conference by Ron Beadle, The Journal 'View from the North'

September 22, 2008 10:28 PM

'Should I stay or should I go?' is not just a question for Gordon Brown. So here is a prediction. The current trickle of Labour MPs announcing their retirements is about to turn into a flood.

Across Labour's parliamentary party, one in ten MPs have already announced their retirement at the next General Election. They include all three Labour MPs in Sunderland and Easington's John Cummings. I suspect far more will have been weighing up their options in Manchester this week. Happy to have stood when victory was certain how many of them will want to defend this government's record next time? How many of them will want to swap government for opposition? How many of them will want to risk losing their own seats rather than leaving the field undefeated?

Their decisions will matter for at least three reasons.

First, political commentators will be spilling a lot of ink this week second guessing Gordon Brown's future. Part of their calculation concerns the judgments of Labour MPs about the prospects for their seats under different leaders. What matters just as much is the judgment of Labour MPs who are secure in the knowledge that their future comprises a long and happy retirement in the House of Lords.

Second, the loss of a sitting MP has an effect on voters. If MPs have done their jobs properly, attended to case work, developed good relationships with their communities and taken up issues that matter on the ground, then they will have developed a personal following. This does not automatically transfer to new candidates. Most polls suggest that the local candidate affects the voting intentions of about one in ten voters and those one in ten voters might be the difference between victory and defeat in around a third of the seats in the North East.

Third, who will replace these MPs? Labour is committed to selecting half of its candidates in winnable seats through all women shortlists but this will cause problems in the North East. In Northumberland this May all women shortlists prompted a number of their former councillors to stand against Labour. The Easington Labour Party was suspended over its failure to implement the rule.

What do all women shortlists say to Labour's own people? To their members they say - we don't trust you not to discriminate against women; to Labour women they say - we don't believe you can win if a man stands against you; and for Labour men they say - you are in no man's land. To their constituents they say that the most important requirement for being a Labour MP is neither their integrity nor their experience but their sex.

Two weeks ago a Labour blogger in Northumberland wrote 'It's sometimes very hard, in the Labour Party, to distinguish between those who support all women shortlists because they think it is a principle, and those who support all women shortlists because it represents their best chance of getting selected.' We can expect much much more like this over the next few months.

But not in my party. The North East Liberal Democrats are led by women who won their elections in open contests: Fiona Hall, our Member in the European Parliament and our Regional Chairman, Councillor Eileen Blakey. Redressing the balance of the sexes in politics does not require ballot rigging. Women who have been chosen to be candidates by Liberal Democrat members receive additional support from the party but no-one in the Liberal Democrats is elected because of their sex and no-one is barred from standing.

Labour's North East MPs might do well to think through the consequences of all women shortlists as they choose whether to retire over the next few months. Another round of Labour blood-letting is hardly what they need. But if they insist upon all women short-lists it is what they will get. Liberal Democrats believe that Labour voters deserve the best candidate available to them, not just the best woman. Why doesn't Labour agree?