Jo Rust

The weakness of the Democracy Review

Jo Rust
The weakness of the Democracy Review
Jo Rust.jpg

GOOD THOUGH IT MIGHT BE, the Democracy Review doesn’t include the way that parliamentary candidates are selected and, having recently come out of such a process, I think its omission is a serious oversight. This isn’t sour grapes from someone who didn’t make the shortlist – but the way in which the process was conducted left many people feeling angry, bitter and ignored.

I was first approached to stand for Norwich North in 2012. I had far less experience then, but I was one of two who were shortlisted. I came a close second, losing out to one who had a well-oiled machine operating in support.

Fast forward five years and I have had two parliamentary elections under my belt, standing both times in North West Norfolk, both of which increased the Labour vote by thousands in a true blue Tory stronghold. I’m an active member of the National Policy Forum for Health and Care and was recently elected onto the Eastern regional board. I continue as the CLP secretary for North West Norfolk, presiding over a massive increase in our membership. Ok, well, I’ll share that success with Jeremy, but some of it was me, honest!

I’m a high profile campaigner, arranging local marches and demonstrations, organising coaches to centrally held events, knocking on doors, having streets stalls and engaging with thousands of people. My trade union activism is well respected.

So you’d think that in any all women shortlist, which has to have a minimum of three candidates shortlisted, I should have been a sure thing, especially with the backing and support of Momentum, an organisation I’m not a member of, but have worked to support.

I try again for the Norwich North nomination. First thing to do is contact branches and ask to attend a branch meeting to try to secure its nomination. After all, if I can achieve 50% of branch nominations, I’m automatically on the shortlist. The stumbling block was the incredibly tight timescale. Many of the branches had already held their monthly branch meetings. There was little over two weeks between the long-list opening and the nominations closing.

I contacted each branch and four agreed to hold nomination meetings. Two of the branches chose only to nominate me. One of the branches that wanted to hold a nomination meeting faced barrier after barrier until it was too late. But anyway, I got four nominations. But no, two of the nominating branches were told their meetings couldn’t count as nomination meetings and they could only endorse. This was robustly challenged by one of the branches, but to no avail.

What about the trade unions? They can nominate. But despite getting two of the three trade union affiliate nominations and having support from many others who hadn’t affiliated, that didn’t get me on the shortlist.

I had hoped my references would be excellent. One was, but the other, well, that’s another sticking point in the whole process.

A shadow minister provided one and my CLP chair the other. The chair’s reference was verbal and he was given no opportunity to check what had been relayed to the rest of the selection panel by the procedure secretary and the treasurer. This verbal reference was considered so poor that the NEC rep advised the panel that I was shown to be a poor judge of character to have named this person as a referee and the reference was to be ruled out and not used. I was given no chance to provide another referee or to dispute it. But, although the reference was ruled out, the information supposedly contained within it was used to formulate some questions.

These questions are meant to be designed to put candidates at ease and to show them at their best. My experience was somewhat different. Once my presentation was completed (I got good feedback for that) the questioning took a hostile tone and didn’t allow me to feel at ease or to present myself at my best. Much of the focus was around the fact that I don’t use contact creator and I’ve been unable to get it up and running in the CLP. I was asked about funding from trade unions and around my alleged failure to win as many votes as I should have in the two elections in which I was a candidate.

And so I didn’t make the shortlist. Local campaigners, both Momentum members and not, felt very strongly that it was the wrong decision and they took steps to address the injustice, writing a public letter and making formal complaints. I wrote to appeal against the outcome, based on their strength of feeling. We then learned that two of the selection panel had also written a threepage letter of factual complaints about the way in which the selection was conducted. But it counted for nothing.

The judgement of the NEC rep, who claimed it was above board, was all that was needed.

A local Democracy Review meeting was held to enable members to give feedback into the national process. The following evening an all members meeting was held at which the person who had acted as the procedure secretary made available printout sheets of the feedback I had been given about my interview performance. This feedback was confidential. I had not been asked, nor had I given, permission to release it.

The procedure secretary then told those present that my verbal reference was “poor” - so further breaching my right to confidentiality. Throughout this I was not present to refute, mitigate, defend or oppose. But others, who tried to do so on my behalf, were shouted down and intimidated.

So a few months on I still question why parliamentary selections aren’t part of the debate. Why aren’t we looking to reform a system which is open to manipulation? Why can’t a shortlist, that many members believe to be flawed, be sent back to them for changes or additions? If a candidate like myself, committed, hard working and experienced (well, apart from in contact creator, hands up to that one!), can be so easily omitted, then I’m not confident the review will have the outcomes many would hope for.

is Constituency Labour Party Secretary for North West Norfolk