When Stephen Twigg announced his intention to retire as the member of parliament for Liverpool West Derby, as a member of that constituency’s Labour Party, I took more than a passing interest. In my time, I have observed many selections of parliamentary candidates, officiating at a fair few, and participating in one as a candidate myself. It seems as if little has really changed down the years to make the whole process more transparent to the average party member, or to free that process of nomination and selection from the traditional back room deals so often detested by the party’s rank and file.
Most of their concerns have centred on what they see as “fixing” of matters by their local party establishment, and, particularly, trade unions (or rather, their officials). Sadly, too many Labour Party members remain ignorant as to how candidates succeed in being selected, often imputing to the successful, every political fiddle under the sun. There is nothing new in this, nor is it necessarily true in many cases. However, it is as well for the novice to recognise that there are always networks of narrow interest at play in selections, sometimes successful and sometimes not.
The most obvious are the fraternal deals done between trade unions to ensure that their man or woman is selected. This partiality towards the favoured trade union nominee is as old as the Labour Party itself, originally designed to ensure that the interests of a given union were represented in parliament. Historically, the National Union of Mineworkers decided who would represent Labour wherever there was a pit. It has evolved into something far removed from the original good intentions on behalf of the wider membership and local community, generally having little to do with ordinary trade union members. Nowadays, it is often more about the personal ambition of union nominees, or about the very narrow – and personal – interests of trade union bosses. It will be a surprise to many that Frank Field was originally listed as a docker with the old TGWU (now Unite), or that lawyer John Smith, former leader of the Labour Party, was registered as a boilermaker with the GMB.
Yet there are always other, less obvious networks at play in parliamentary selections, sometimes ideological, sometimes religious, sometimes cultural, and sometimes downright venal. These can have a huge impact in a parliamentary selection. Let us look at West Derby as just one example. In that constituency, there is a tightly knit group of influential councillors spread across two wards, Norris Green and Croxteth. There is nothing wrong or even unusual in that; but it is well worth looking at what binds them and how that can influence a selection.
The councillors concerned are George Knibb, Anthony Lavelle, Sharon Ross, Joann Kushner, and the latter’s husband, Barry Kushner. The sixth councillor, Peter Mitchell, appears to be somewhat apart from the others. The glue which binds the first five is the ubiquitous Alt Valley Partnership (AVP), which is described as a community initiative. All five are, in one way or another, connected to this body. It is run by Phil Knibb, and Barry Kushner is a paid consultant for it. Sharon Ross works for it, and Councillors Lavelle and Joann Kushner are strong supporters of the AVP. That is understandable, I suppose, given the high profile of the AVP in the area.
Councillor Knibb, brother of AVP boss Phil, is a paid consultant for the North Liverpool Regeneration Company (NLRC) as is Councillor Barry Kushner. This organisation was George Knibb’s “baby” until he decided on a return to the council. It is interesting to look at the directors of the NLRC past and present, and at the fourteen companies associated with brother Phil. It is a roll call of formerly expelled Liverpool councillors and their political supporters of yesteryear, including Tony Jennings, Dominic Brady and Tony Rimmer, now rehabilitated in the New Model Labour Party. Many are now potential votes in a West Derby selection.
Local scuttlebutt suggests that Barry Kushner is pushing – and being pushed – to succeed Stephen Twigg. He is perfectly entitled to do so, but he may find that his ownership of multiple rental properties will not go down too well in West Derby. It may seem fanciful to those both inside and outside of the constituency, but they should not be surprised if there is a concerted effort by the AVP in aid of Cllr Kushner, or someone else equally acceptable to them, for what is arguably a safe Labour seat.
Naturally, there is a process to be followed, however flawed that process might be, beginning with a shortlist of potential candidates. Yet it is as well to be aware of the influence which these powerful lobbies can bring to bear, especially in safe Labour seats. There is a long way to go in achieving true Labour Party democracy.