Talk of mandatory reselection strikes fear amongst many Labour MPs, evoking as it does memories of the 1980s. This fear has been heightened by the removal of Ann Black today as chair of the NEC's dispute panel and replacing her with Christine Shawcroft, a Momentum board member who was previously expelled from Labour for campaigning for disgraced, corrupt ex-Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman. Removing Black, who topped the ballot as part of Momentum's slate not even two years ago, is an extremely silly and counter-productive move. Not only is she is of the left and generally well-respected in the party, this completely distracts distracts attention from the NHS crisis and Carillon debacle at completely the wrong point. It's also led to fears of a wider purge of Labour MPs.
A Momentum source who was speaking to the Guardian discussed why Ann Black got removed from her role:
It’s not surprising that the unions, members of the shadow cabinet and three Momentum backed NEC reps chose Christine Shawcroft over Ann Black - as many ordinary members are deeply frustrated with her. In 2016 Ann voted to to exclude 130,000 new Labour members from the leadership election, forcing them to pay another £25 to participate. When you deny members the right to choose the leader of their own party, it does tend to create a certain amount of resentment.
Just like Michael Corleone might shoot somebody for some slight long-ago, or for insufficient loyalty, the removal of Ann Black is simply petty score-settling.
The removal of Ann Black, and the future direction of the NEC Disputes panel when dealing with issues like anti-semitism, could be more consequential than any talk of deselection. However, the dominaton of the NEC by hard-left members does not necessarily mean that there will be a mass deselection of Labour MPs. Here are a few reasons why that probably won't happen:
1. Even at the height of the reselection debates in the 1980s, only six MPs were in fact deselected (although a few more did stand down). That's hardly a mass purge.
2. There is little to no evidence so far that Momentum activists have an appetite to deselect candidates in local elections. In Birmingham, where we have local elections in May, I know of no cases where deselections of moderate councillors have taken place. The exception to this, Haringey, is a special case because of a local development vehicle which has deeply divded the local party. That's despite it being far easier to deselect a councillor compared to a Member of Parliament. In addition, there's little evidence that Corbyn's preferred candidates were selected in the by-elections in the first 18 months of his leadership.
3. Yes, there are occasional stories that circulate about deselection, and of heavy-handed idiots in Momentum wanting apologies from MPs. These get shared extensively by moderates in their own echo chambers, but there is nothing to suggest that mass deselections are happening now apart from paranoia.As Stephen Bush argues in the two pieces I've linked to above, it partly shows the durability and organisation of the pre-Corbyn Labour Party.
4. It also shows that, actually, most Momentum activists aren't interested in deselection. Based on the dozens of conversations I had with Momentum activists whilst involved with the General Election campaign, and on reports on their conferences, the impression I get is that most are idealistic and want a Labour government that is more left-wing than New Labour. This is hardly a radical view and is one shared by many, for instance, Ed Miliband and myself. It's just as reductionist to say that all Momentum members are Stalinist purge-lovers as it is to say that anyone who voted for Owen Smith is a right-wing Blairite.
5. It should not be surprising that local Momentum activists don't want to spend a lot of time and energy deselecting local councillors. After all, these activists and councillors spent a general election campaign working together. They attend ward meetings and go to the pub afterwards. On a local level, they are friends and comrades even if they disagree on national issues. It's this human interaction that is missing from the more febrile debates on social media, and why I think purges aren't very likely to happen at a local level.
6. Now I would go a little further and argue that similar logic could apply to Labour MPs. This George Eaton article is a succinct summary of who has been arguing for, as well as the wider politics of, mandatory reselection. It is not clear to me that there is appetite for mass deselection apart from agitating idiots like Chris Williamson and a few diehard activists, who would be outnumbered by the more sensible Momentum members as well as the older existing members. After all, South Tyneside Momentum can post a list of 49 MPs they'd like to see deselected to their 136 followers, but they can' deselect Chukka Umanna because they don't live in Streatham. Yet moderates will pick up on the post and argue that it shows that there is a massive deselection campaign going on when, frankly, there's little evidence of one.
It's very possible that I am wrong. Perhaps there is a secret hard-left plot to deselect dozens of Labour MPs that I don't know about. Maybe there is more appetite amongst Momentum members for deselection than I anticipate, or some seismic event leads to deselections, like rebellions over Corbyn's Brexit position. But in the absence of such evidence, I'm happy not to don the tinfoil hat and instead save my energy for campaigning in local elections, reminding Jeremy Corbyn that you can be in the single market if you're not in the EU, and ensuring we drive anti-semitism out of Labour.