By-elections, particularly those just before general elections, have for years been national rather than local political events, and the cost of failure is immense. The defeats for Labour in Bermondsey in 1983 and Greenwich in 1987 dealt savage blows to the party's morale throughout the country and severely damaged its credibility with the voters.
No one in the Labour Party wants anything like those defeats to happen again, and it is reasonable for Labour nationally to do what it can to minimise the risk of by-election embarrassment. Regrettably, but unavoidably given the vulnerability to hostile media coverage of Labour candidates, that includes the national party intervening in the local selection procedure to ensure that candidates can withstand the inevitable heat during the campaign – even in seats in which the proverbial donkey wearing a Labour rosette would have no difficulty in a general election. Hemsworth might be one of the safest Labour seats in the country, but then so were Glasgow Govan and Bermondsey.
That does not, however, excuse the heavy-handed way in which the National Executive Committee panel dealt last week with the selection for the November 7 by-election in Hemsworth in Yorkshire. Ken Capstick, the vice-chair of the National Union of Mineworkers Yorkshire area, had been nominated by half the constituency's branches and most of its affiliated unions. Hemsworth is a mining constituency and Mr Capstick is, from all accounts, a decent man and a popular local figure. He is on the left and perhaps a little unenthusiastic about certain elements of current Labour policy; but he is by no means a wild-eyed Trotskyist, and it is no crime to have views at variance with party policy – just about everyone does on something or other. It is difficult to see how his selection could possibly have prejudiced Labour's chances in either Hemsworth or Langbaurgh, the Tory-held marginal which also has a by-election on November 7 and which Ashok Kumar should win for Labour.
In short, on almost any grounds Mr Capstick would seem to be an acceptable candidate. Yet the NEC panel decided to remove his name from the shortlist and, when the constituency party refused to make a selection from a shortlist that did not include him, simply imposed Derek Enright as the Labour candidate.
The Hemsworth party is up in arms, and it has good reason to be, although not because the NEC committee decision has somehow deprived the NUM of a god-given right to choose whomsoever it wants to sit for Hemsworth. One of the main advantages of an electoral system based on single-member constituencies is supposed to be that MPs are first and foremost representatives of a local community rather than mere parliamentary lobby fodder. For this reason, local parties should have the major say in selecting parliamentary candidates. In Hemsworth that did not happen.
Mr Enright is a good candidate and will no doubt get full support from the Hemsworth party as soon as the campaign gets into swing; he will undoubtedly retain the seat for Labour. But Mr Capstick was the members' choice. At very least, the members deserve an explanation of why he was deemed unsuitable: the criteria used by the NEC panel in judging by-election candidates should immediately be made public. In the longer term, the Hemsworth selection debacle should force Labour into a serious reconsideration of its procedures for by-election candidate selections.