Harold Wilson was wrong. It’s a day, not a week, which is a long time in politics.
In a few days we have seen an MP’s past become a problem, an inquiry launched, a resignation, a suspension and any number of new stories and commentators emerge.
In a few days an obscure back bench MP has been on every news and political programme with his party playing catch up to deal with the backlash.
This week’s political soap opera revolves around one Jared O’Mara. Elected (to some people’s surprise) in June in Sheffield Hallam, the backbencher had been pretty low profile. In fact, he has yet to speak in Parliament. But now, initially thanks to stories on one of the leading political blogs, his distant past and more recent actions have caused a major headache for the Labour Party.
In a nutshell, a series of online posts by O’Mara were found which managed to offend or insult many people. These included a suggestion that musician Jamie Cullen should be sodomised. While these were written well before he became an MP, allegations then emerged about insulting behaviour towards women earlier this year. And in the way of these stories, a steady stream of quotes, accusations, allegations and attacks began.
Rival political parties poured oil on the flames and Labour was, at first, seen to be dithering in the face of increasingly shocking revelations.
Frankly, O’Mara has no future in politics now. It is inconceivable that Labour, or any other party, will select him as a candidate again.
But that aside, the whole episode is also a major problem for the Labour Party.
So what options remain for party managers and activists?
One argument which has been deployed, for example in the Guardian, is that when the snap election was called there certainly wasn’t time to look into the background of every candidate.
In other words the Labour Party is a victim here. I am afraid that won’t wash.
It is inconceivable that in a seat which was likely to attract media focus, having been surprisingly close in 2015, there was no time to do a bit of basic research. Labour MP Lucy Powell, speaking on ITV’s After the News programme, made it clear that candidates are and should be vetted. And for anyone to carry the Labour Party name, or any other party’s name, an official from the party has to sign shortly before polling day. (For the political geeks out there, this is someone called the Designated Nominating Officer – I have been one myself in the past).
So, given the victim response is not available, Labour retains a number of options.
Launching an investigation and removing the whip from O’Mara were obvious, and necessary steps. But the party now has a timing problem. At some point the investigation will have to have results. Labour will want to make sure that any announcements likely to cause more problems are far enough away from the elections in May, which in 2018 include all the Councils in Greater London.
Labour will also need to find ways of responding to accusations that allegations had been made, but not dealt with, in the past.
The party will also need to be ready to deal with an increasing number of stories on this topic. Even relatively minor accusations will gain strength as they now have media salience. The Sophie Evans accusations for example (she tells of being insulted by O’Mara in his bar) had been published previously and gained little attention. Now of course they gain importance. And I am sure journalists are going through the Trip Advisor page about O’Mara’s bar to contact anyone who posted reviews mentioning violence or insults.
Labour also faces a stakeholder problem. Because of the range of insults posted by O’Mara in his younger days, a potentially large number of groups have been affected. Among these are groups Labour would generally expect to be supportive.
So, what can Labour do?
The instinct in a political party to protect one of your own is a strong one, and some, such as Angela Rayner and Shami Chakrabarti have attempted to do this (Chakrabarti’s comments are some way into the story in this link). However, any further vocal defence would be a massive mistake. It will simply look as if the party is applying different standards to different people.
Labour also needs to repair any damaged links with particular groups, but to do it quietly. LGBT campaigners, for example, may well want to know why O’Mara’s online comments weren’t spotted. The party will need to be in receive rather than broadcast mode to rebuild any lost confidence.
They key thing the party can do however, is to make it clear that its processes will be such that candidates with baggage like this will get caught in an improved filter. No one wants MPs to be identikit. But party members and managers do need to be able to select candidates without the worry of stories emerging into scandal.
Paula Keaveney MCIPR is senior lecturer in Public Relations and Politics at Edge Hill University. In the spirit of full disclosure – she is a member of the Liberal Democrats who has been through, and organised, candidate screening.