Michael Crick is at work on one of the most vital, and neglected, topics in politics: the selection of parliamentary candidates in winnable seats.
“These are effectively Britain’s hidden elections,” he says in this interview. “These are the equivalent of the primaries.”
The Conservatives have barely begun to select, so Crick has so far concentrated on the 100 Labour selections which have taken place, publishing his findings day by day and hour by hour on Twitter on @Tomorrow’sMPs.
Some of these prospective MPs will probably within a few years be running the country, yet almost no attention has been devoted to how they are chosen.
Crick describes the “purge” of Labour candidates which is being conducted by the party’s National Executive Committee: “the Labour Left has been utterly annihilated,” and so too has “anybody with a strong trade union background”, but the powers that be “don’t do it in a very professional manner in my view”.
The purge, he warns, has gone so far that Angela Rayner, Robin Cook and Neil Kinnock would not now be able to gain selection as Labour candidates.
And he is “very, very worried” by another problem, which is not confined to Labour: “Localism reduces choice.” The insistence by activists on the selection of local candidates makes it harder to choose prospective MPs with the capacity to serve as successful Cabinet ministers.
Crick brings to his researches enormous brio, encyclopaedic knowledge and the willingness, where necessary, to offend. He might himself have become an MP: he joined the Labour Party in 1973 at the age of 15 and in 1990 was asked whether he was interested in becoming the Labour candidate in Bootle, then the party’s safest seat.
As he remarks here, gaining selection for a winnable seat is “crucial. In most political careers this is the key moment.”
But he himself decided he would far rather continue his career as a television journalist, and 25 years ago resigned from the Labour Party.
The interview was punctuated by frequent laughter, and anecdotes, not all of which could be accommodated here.
It was conducted in Crick’s house in Clapham, in the dignified sitting-room on the ground floor, but he agreed to the taking of a photograph of himself in his attic, against the less austere and orderly background which is seen when he appears on Zoom.
He has written books on, among others, Nigel Farage, David Butler, Michael Howard, Michael Heseltine and Jeffrey Archer.
ConHome: “Why are you doing this project?”
Crick: “I keep saying, these are effectively Britain’s hidden elections. These are the equivalent of the primaries.
“Why don’t they get more coverage? In the old days, they used to get a bit more coverage. They used to get an inch in The Guardian or The Times saying so-and-so has been chosen as the prospective candidate, and local press used to cover them a lot.
“When I wrote my book on Heseltine, Heseltine got chosen for Tavistock before the ’66 election, and then there was a big outcry in the local party because somebody had spotted, you could just discern a nipple, a lady’s nipple, on page 66 of Town magazine, which Heseltine published.
“And so they had an emergency meeting of the Tavistock Conservative Association to decide whether Heseltine should be ousted and overturned because he was a pornographer.
“And this was covered in minute detail, every speech was covered in The Tavistock Times over about three pages. A wonderful source for a biographer.
“But there’s very little of that happens now. And of course there’s a bit on social media, not much. ConservativeHome have always been the best. Labour List is pretty hopeless on it.
“For years I was saying what I want to do is set up a university unit. You’d have a website and you’d study all these things in great detail, the minutiae of what happens in each one, and in the fallow period, after each general election, you’d then go back and interview people about how they were selected.
“It’s crucial. In most political careers this is the key moment.”
ConHome: “It’s also crucial for the country, because these are the people from whom ministers will be chosen.”
Crick: “Yes, exactly, and one of the problems we have now is too many party activists don’t think of it in those terms.”
ConHome: “The core of your case is this is hugely democratically important and hugely undercovered.”
Crick: “Yes, and I think we have not just a right to cover it but a duty to cover it. And the other thing I think is that if there were a bit more scrutiny of these people some of them might not get chosen, some of the duds.
“For instance, Jared O’Mara [who as Labour candidate in Sheffield Hallam defeated Nick Clegg in 2017, and is now in prison for fraud].
“When he started getting into trouble, which was within a matter of days of his election, I started saying, ‘Well how was he chosen?’ and I delved into this.
“And I discovered that what happened in 2017 was Labour thought they had no hope of picking up any new seats, it was purely defensive in the early days, so they did all the retirement seats properly, and it was only two years after the previous election so there weren’t that many retirement seats.
“But in terms of gaining seats it was purely a system of NEC [National Executive Committee] panels, each region had a panel, and spent one day picking all the candidates in non-held seats in that region, purely on the basis of three people sitting round a table with a member of staff going through the CVs and applications and saying ‘Right, he’ll do for this. Ring him up and tell him.’
“No interviews, no questions, no meetings, no meeting the members. And that’s how O’Mara got chosen.
“There were 24 Labour gains in 2017, and they were all done by this process, and a lot of it was informed by ‘we need more women, more black people, more disabled people’.
“O’Mara qualified on the disabled. The woman in Peterborough who also went to jail, Fiona Onasanya, qualified on two grounds.
“So many fiddles go on. So many accidents go on.”
ConHome: “We’ll come to the Conservative ones later, because most of them have not selected yet. What is all this telling us about Labour? What are we finding out about the kind of candidates Labour are selecting?”
Crick: “First point to make, the Left has been utterly annihilated. Only one candidate, you could say, is solidly left-wing, Faiza Shaheen in Chingford and Woodford Green.
“Actually she’s very good in my view, she’s an economist, I interviewed her at the last election because she stood there last time.
“And the high command put up quite a fight to stop her, and failed. It was quite early on, it was number ten, and they’re up to 99 tomorrow [Tuesday] night.
“Since then the Left have been weeded out, and so has anybody with a strong trade union background.
“It’s partly that the unions are a lot less interested than they used to be. Sharon Graham [General Secretary of Unite the Union] is not really interested in getting involved in Labour in the way that Len McCluskey [her predecessor] was. She wants to concentrate on industrial disputes and winning them.
“The Left and the unions have pretty much given up actually. Again and again individuals have put a hell of a lot of work in, and what happens is, the Labour process has two parts.
“Part one involves an NEC panel, so you have somebody from the NEC and somebody from the Region, and nobody from the local constituency.
“And then you go through the applications and draw up a long list, and it’s at that stage that any potential troublemakers are weeded out.”
ConHome: “Who’s chosen that process?”
Crick: “Well there’s a group of people on the NEC who none of us will have heard of. Well you’ll have heard of one of them, Luke Akehurst, he does a lot of them.
“The key figures in the Labour Party are, there are two people called Matt, Matt Faulding and Matt Pound, plus Morgan McSweeney [Campaign Director].
“Also you have certain Regional Directors who are very partisan.
“All of these figures were very heavily involved in the right-wing, Blairite’s not really the right word, things like Labour First.
“They weed out anybody, but they don’t do it in a very professional manner in my view. They send you a questionnaire, I’ve got a copy of it upstairs actually, they send you a questionnaire and it says ‘what are all the social media accounts you’ve ever had’, and so you have to declare them.
“And then they go through them, and anything that suggests you don’t like, you know, the Government of Israel, or you like something that somebody else has said – I find myself liking things by mistake.
“There’s a woman called Louise Atkinson who’s a councillor in Carlisle, she’s President of the National Education Union, she’s black, now she might not be your kind of candidate, but in Labour terms, I’ve spoken to her, she’s bright and articulate and good.
“And she was excluded from the long list for Carlisle.”
ConHome: “Do they ever say we need someone intelligent or capable?”
Crick: “That is not a primary requirement.”
ConHome: “Is it important at all?”
Crick: “No it is actually. There is a large element of thinking from the high command, the people I’ve mentioned, about who is capable of being ministers.
“And it’s the same tension in the other parties, between who are capable of being ministers, and the local pressures, we want a good MP.
“The pressure from voters and from activists. Tim Bale said the other day, is it right to call it a mania, he said it on Twitter, and I said yes I think it is.
“It’s become a mania, certainly in the Labour Party, certainly in the Lib Dems, and I think also it’s going that way in your party.”
ConHome: “So the situation is Starmer has got control of the NEC, so he has got control of the process by which candidate selection is decided.”
Crick: “And certain Regional Offices are more partisan in this than others. East Midlands, for instance, a lot of fixing’s been going on there. London, especially.
“In other areas it’s less obvious. There are also tensions between Scotland and England. So it’s not a simple picture. Left-wingers don’t always get excluded from the long list.
“But you generally have a long list of six names, and often people are excluded because they’re left-wing or trade unionists.
“Sometimes, and this is an old trick in all parties, they’re excluded in order not to wreck the chances of the favourite person.
“And essentially in every seat there are one or two people who the high command would like. They have this heir and a spare policy, just in case something happens to the heir.
“Because of this emphasis on being local they say to the candidates, ‘Where are you from?’
“There’s a lot of cases of people who are councillors in London, generally in inner-London boroughs, going back to the place where they’re from, and of course that creates a tension, because people say ‘But you’re not really from round here’ – ‘I was born here!’ – ‘Yeah, but you haven’t lived here.'”
ConHome: “What do you think of the quality of the Labour candidates?”
Crick: “The quality’s not bad, but it’s dull, and I think they’ve taken the political purging far too far, to the extent that it lacks for political variety.
“People like Robin Cook and Angela Rayner and Neil Kinnock would never have got chosen in this round of selections, essentially.”
ConHome: “It’s not a class thing?”
Crick: “Oh it’s totally middle-class. It’s not because they’ve chosen on those grounds. Working-class people in the old days were promoted by the unions. A lot of people can’t afford the whole process of spending weeks in a seat, or months there in some cases.
“There are a lot of able people. There are very few stars, or people who are going to make a name for themselves, as far as I can see.
“They’ve deliberately put an emphasis on people who’ve worked for foreign policy think tanks, quite a lot of emphasis on people with a defence background.”
ConHome: “To correct what’s seen as a Labour weakness. It would be like the Tories selecting a lot of nurses.”
Crick: “Then you’ve got Hamish Falconer [chosen in December as candidate for Lincoln], who’s got a Foreign Office background, he’s in my view the number one Labour star, son of Charlie, went to Westminster, he’ll be Foreign Secretary or Defence Secretary five years into the next Labour Government.”
ConHome: “Why is it that so few people – between six and 20 for the target seats – are applying to be Labour candidates?”
Crick: “Partly it’s this localism thing. Localism reduces choice. Both in the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, it was almost like a circus, there’d be 20 talented people, all of whom later became ministers, who’d go round the country, and one of them gets whichever seat they’re fighting and the other 19 move on to the next place.
“Now, the number of options a person has is very few [because of the insistence on local candidates], so therefore the number of applications is very few.
“Also the work involved, the expense involved. And I also think people aren’t as confident about a Labour victory as the polls might suggest.
“In Scotland they’ve really struggled. They’ve got this strange system in Scotland of dual selections, whereby they combine two adjacent seats and say we’re going to choose one man and one woman.
“Now all the members in both seats can vote for the man they like the most and the woman they like the most, and then the person who wins most votes gets to choose which seat.
“And in all five cases of these dual selections the seat’s gone to the man.
“For example, in the seats of East Lothian and Midlothian, where Douglas Alexander got East Lothian, and Kirsty McNeill, former Gordon Brown adviser, got Midlothian, in the male vote the turnout was 39 people – a significant number, about 20 per cent – more than in the female vote.
“So clearly what had happened was that Douglas Alexander’s supporters had decided tactically not to vote in the female ballot in order to ensure that Kirsty McNeill didn’t win it as well as he had.
“That’s what happens if you bring in a ridiculous system like that. It was a way of getting round the all-women shortlist rules, because Labour isn’t allowed to do all-women shortlists, because they’ve got more women MPs now than men.”
ConHome: “Why is there so little interest in Labour selections? There’s quite a lot of interest in the Tory papers about what goes on in Tory selections – will Suella Braverman get this new seat?
“With Labour, it all seems to go below the radar. Given the importance of what’s going on, that seems incredible.”
Crick: “Well it’s partly because in the Suella Braverman case there’s somebody famous, against someone who’s moderately famous, whereas a lot of these [Labour] names are just meaningless names, nobody’s ever heard of them.
“But I was surprised that Douglas Alexander’s selection didn’t get more coverage, because he was moderately famous once, and there’s an interesting question of what happens to him if he gets back. That is Labour’s most winnable seat in Scotland.”
ConHome: “What’s it all doing to the quality of democracy, this shift towards local candidates?”
Crick: “I’m very, very worried by what Tim Bale calls this mania, and really it is a mania for candidates being local. The demand is from the voters as well, that’s the point.
“A lot of the things that people now expect MPs to do are the duties of a councillor, or the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.
“What it means is there is less choice, so you have lower quality. You need enough really clever and able people to serve in Cabinets, at a senior ministerial level.
“There’s not that many obvious future Cabinet ministers in the Labour candidates’ list.
“Now this may change. Labour’s got to choose about 200 people, and they’ve got up to 100 this week. They’ll have a lot more retirements, as indeed will the Conservatives.”