The ‘Battle for Birkenhead’ is peak Labour selection drama

Massive beasts of Labour’s previous descend on the North West because the “Battle for Birkenhead” continues in earnest. 

The choice contest, which pits two sitting MPs in Alison McGovern and Mick Whitley towards one another, is for the brand new enlarged seat of Birkenhead in Wirral, Merseyside, and comes amid the broader rejig of Britain’s electoral geography by the Boundary Fee. 

The Fee has redrawn the political map of the Wirral Peninsula, with the variety of seats within the space reduce from 4 to a few. McGovern’s current seat of Wirral South is misplaced to electoral historical past as her constituency is split between the brand new seats of Ellesmere Port and Bromborough (40.3 per cent of McGovern’s seat), Wirral West (38.9 per cent) and Birkenhead (20.8 per cent). 

McGovern has now launched a bid to be the brand new MP for Birkenhead, the place she is dealing with off towards Whitley, presently the MP for the seat of the identical title. The brand new Birkenhead constituency retains 100 per cent of Whitley’s territory with that 20.8 per cent slice of Wirral South appended. McGovern stresses that the ward of her constituency being hooked up to Whitley’s seat contains her hometown.


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McGovern’s Birkenhead bid comes after a earlier ruling that said MPs might solely stake a declare to a different seat that had 40 per cent or extra of their outdated constituency moved to a different one was modified by Labour’s Nationwide Government Committee (NEC). The up to date ruling signifies that an MP with any wards moved to a brand new constituency can select to problem considered one of their parliamentary Labour get together colleagues. One get together supply informed that this determination, made initially of this yr, was “not contentious in any respect” and was agreed with no seat in thoughts.

The method for managing a contest between two competing sitting Labour MPs can also be totally different to the get together’s customary choice course of after the NEC resolved at a gathering on twenty third Could to streamline such contests. Sometimes, basic election candidates are chosen following a hustings occasion with the in-the-room depend topped up with absent postal votes. However for a contest between two sitting Labour MPs, the voting will all be accomplished by submit, with hustings going down earlier within the course of. In Birkenhead, postal votes from the Constituency Labour Celebration (CLP) will have to be acquired by 14th June, after which the depend shall be held and the winner introduced on the sixteenth June.

The result’s a stand-off between two sitting Labour MPs, each of whom have official claims to the territory they search to signify and causes to really feel aggrieved by the method. 

The Wirral West query

In a current article for LabourList, wherein Whitley laid out his pitch to be the Labour candidate for Birkenhead, the MP says: “I’m stunned and dissatisfied that the NEC has allowed this contest to happen”. 

Whitley’s level is that the neighbouring MP in Wirral West, Margaret Greenwood, has introduced she is standing down — a improvement which, in principle, frees up the realm for the seatless McGovern. understands that Whitley allies on the NEC pushed for McGovern to run within the Wirral West constituency. Nonetheless, the Labour supply quoted above insists that the central get together can not decide and select the place a candidate seeks to run. And, in any case, Greenwood’s determination to face down in Wirral West can also be mentioned to have broadly taken Labour figures unexpectedly, coming only one hour earlier than Could twenty third NEC assembly.

In an open letter to her constituents on Could twenty second, McGovern had already indicated her intention to face “for the brand new constituency which merges elements of Wirral South and Birkenhead and which is able to embrace my house”. 

Birkenhead’s key battlegrounds 

Naturally, in a variety dispute between a frontbencher and backbencher the query of seniority is more likely to come up. Whitley is 71 and was the oldest MP to be elected for the primary time in 2019. However McGovern, whereas solely 42, has represented her Wirral South seat since 2010, serving on the frontbench in a wide range of capacities. Presently she is the shadow minister for employment, having been appointed to the submit by Keir Starmer in December 2021. 

There’s additionally no hiding the truth that Whitley and McGovern have solely disparate political profiles, coming from two separate wings of the get together. A former commerce union organiser and service provider sailor, Whitley is a member of the Socialist Marketing campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs and he backed Rebecca Lengthy-Bailey within the 2020 Labour management election.

McGovern, then again, supported Owen Smith in his failed bid to exchange Jeremy Corbyn within the 2016 Labour management election and backed Jess Phillips in 2020. She additionally beforehand chaired Progress, a assume tank broadly seen as on the precise of the get together and now rebranded as Progressive Britain following a merger.

Of the 2 candidates, it appears to be Whitley who’s most embracing the race’s ideological parts. On the marketing campaign, he has drawn consideration to his help for placing employees. He says: “Because the cost-of-living soared I made positive that placing employees knew they’d my help. I joined the picket traces. I imagine {that a} Labour MP ought to all the time stand within the entrance ranks”.

He provides: “I genuinely imagine socialist insurance policies can start to repair our damaged nation and convey again hope to Birkenhead”.

Dangerous blood in Birkenhead?

There’s additionally the query of how or whether or not the constituency’s sui generis current electoral historical past will impression the competition. 

Whitley gained Birkenhead seat with a 17,705 majority in 2019, changing and defeating Frank Area — now Lord Area of Birkenhead — the previous MP who in 2018 resigned the Labour whip after 40 years as the realm’s consultant. Area’s resignation, which he blamed on antisemitism and a “tradition of nastiness, bullying and intimidation” within the Labour get together, got here after he had misplaced a vote of no confidence by the native Birkenhead get together the earlier month. 

Whitley resoundingly gained the following choice course of. Backed by the marketing campaign group Momentum, Unite the Union in addition to shadow cupboard members together with John McDonnell, Rebecca Lengthy-Bailey and Dan Carden, he gained with 224 votes in comparison with his nearest challenger who accrued 116. On the time, Corbyn-sceptics cited the exclusion of Theresa Griffin, then MEP for the North West area and chair of the European Parliamentary Labour Celebration, from the choice shortlist. The choice was seen as being firmly factional. A Labour supply says there could also be some “resentment” of Whitley within the erstwhile Corbyn-sceptic nook of the CLP as a consequence.

One studying of the “Battle for Birkenhead”, due to this fact, is that it’s a microcosmic illustration of the ideological contest which continues to rumble on inside Keir Starmer’s Labour get together. Choice processes have in fact develop into keenly implicated within the get together’s factional dynamics, with figures on the Labour left accusing the management of isolating and overlooking potential inter-party opponents.

The Battle for Merthyr Tydfil and Higher Cynon

On this method, the “Battle for Birkenhead’s” key dividing line displays that of the not too long ago resolved contest in Merthyr Tydfil and Higher Cynon, which noticed Labour MPs Beth Winter and Gerald Jones contest the brand new seat. 

On Wednesday, it was declared that Jones, a shadow minister for Wales, had gained the competition — after which, Winter, a member of the Socialist Marketing campaign Group like Whitley, launched a press release saying the choice course of was “not a good contest”. She complained that “unacceptable obstacles” have been positioned in her method. 

Momentum accused the get together’s management of “taking a sledgehammer to the democratic rights of native Labour members so as to purge socialists and instal loyalists” within the aftermath of Winter’s defeat. 

The frontbencher versus the backbencher

However whereas McGovern and Whitley’s ideological variations actually function within the marketing campaign, each camps stress different dividing traces. 

Whitley’s camp touts his document as an area MP, together with his representations to the division for levelling up, housing and communities as he gained extra help for the cash-strapped Wirral Council. His current article for LabourList was entitled: “My hometown Birkenhead wants a backbench champion”.

Conversely, McGovern’s marketing campaign highlights her frontbench place as a way by which she might make direct representations to the Labour management, with which, not like Whitley, she is carefully aligned. McGovern’s marketing campaign calls the shadow minister for employment a “frontbench champion”.

Gordon Brown versus Mick Lynch

The McGovern marketing campaign has additionally garnered the help of two former Labour leaders in Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown. Brown, whom McGovern as soon as served underneath as his parliamentary personal secretary, not too long ago visited the Birkenhead constituency.

The previous prime minister informed assembled activists: “I’m asking you to help Alison not simply because she’s an incredible MP, and she or he is a good MP. And never simply because she’s an incredible frontbench spokesperson for the Labour get together, as a result of she speaks on employment, she speaks on labour rights, and she or he speaks on poverty and all these points”.

Whitley’s marketing campaign boasts a sequence of endorsements among the many native Labour get together, in addition to the help of Paula Barker, the MP for Liverpool Wavertree, and Margaret Greenwood, the outgoing MP for Wirral West. Mick Lynch, basic secretary of the RMT, has additionally pledged his help, calling Whitley a “Working-class commerce unionist who hasn’t forgotten his roots”.

The Battle for Birkenhead’s solely hustings occasion, held on the third June, was attended by round 80 CLP members. One wonders whether or not the lowish turnout (the FA Cup remaining was on the identical day) may profit Whitley’s marketing campaign, given his established familiarity with activists in Birkenhead and the McGovern camp’s consequent need to succeed in out so far as potential within the CLP.

A battle for Labour’s future?

Ultimately, given the size of the boundary modifications, the extent of inside strife within the Labour parliamentary get together has been comparatively little.

However for a wide range of causes, in Birkenhead, the dispute arisen as a consequence of boundary modifications couldn’t resolved with out an MP versus MP contest. It has led to a battle which is clearly implicated in wider disputes over the get together’s current ideological trajectory. 

It’s no secret that Starmer’s group is managing the candidate choice course of in minute element. And so this consequence, set to be introduced on sixteenth June, shall be watched by Labour figures of all factions and all ranges of seniority with severe curiosity.