The Dark Underbelly of Labour Party Politics
I am utterly crestfallen by the result in the Ilford South selection last night. Not for myself, but for the good people of Ilford who deserve better than to have been at the centre of a manufactured political circus.”
Sam Tarry MP, after being ousted by a trigger ballot.
Labour Party politics have always been by turns ferocious and genuinely fraternal, bitter and yet sentimental. They have their little rituals, and they have their own little hypocrisies. Anyone who has ever contemplated pushing their best friend under a bus in order to get his or her job will be familiar with the fine-sounding euphemisms that are used to disguise ruthless ambition.
If you want to understand what it’s like inside the belly of the beast, I strongly recommend a trip to the White Bear in Kennington this week to see Triggered. This is its second run and it ends at the weekend, though given that it filled the small theatre space for its first run and was full on Tuesday when I went, it might be back.
It’s about so-called trigger ballots. A Labour MP is “triggered” when the request for a full selection is made by either a third of local party branches or a third of affiliate branches, such as trade unions. If it is not triggered, the sitting MP is automatically reselected. Once seen as a tool for the left, triggering is now said to be being used by Keir Starmer to help purge the left.
Labour MPs, by and large, hate them. They argue, as the then Labour List editor Sienna Rogers wrote in the Guardian in 2019, that “selection races are fiercely fought, and campaigns are time-consuming and expensive. They argue that their efforts could be better directed towards defeating external enemies.”
Triggered is an attempt to turn a trigger battle into drama. It’s January 2020, and Labour MP Sally Finch (Antonia Beamish) desperately wants to avoid a reselection battle, but the well-intentioned chair of the local branch of Momentum, university lecturer Jim Marr (Michael Palmer) manages to force one on her, and he and fiercely ambitious local businesswoman and Blairite Safia Peters (Catherine Adams) stand against her for the nomination. The ring is held by the chair of the national executive’s organising committee, June Wright (Carrie Cohen.)
Carrie Cohen is an accomplished feature actress who conveys all the serious self-importance of the chair of the committee. Jim Marr looks and sounds like every Corbynite you have ever met. Catherine Adams mixes humanity and ruthlessness in just the right proportions so that ruthlessness always comes out on top when the two conflict, and Antonia Beamish, playing the sitting MP, the play’s protagonist, the character whose fate we care about, engages our affection and sympathy from the start.
My only doubt about the play was that it may be a shade TOO accurate. Emma Burnell is a political journalist and Labour supporter; she knows that of which she speaks, and she cares about it. She tells her story clearly and simply, like the good journalist she is. Most playwrights would have adorned the story a little more than she does, and taken some of the procedure out. She tells it as it is.
As theatre, does that work? Rather to my surprise, it seems to. The night I was there, the place was full of political obsessives, and lines like, “How does Labour List get such accurate verbatim reports?” got loud, knowing laughs. But there is enough dramatic tension to appeal to audiences which would be baffled by lines like that. Even so, I think the political speeches were too long for drama.
The strongest scenes were those which emphasised the human drama taking place in front of us, which was that of the sitting MP. “It’s not personal” her old friend Safia Peters says when admitting she is challenging her for the nomination, “What do you mean, it’s not personal?” says the MP. “It’s my life.”
Written and directed by Emma Burnell
Director: Emma Burnell
Technical Directors: Steve Cox and Jaymie Stewart
Third Act Productions
Running Time: 65 minutes minutes without an interval
Booking to 26th November 2022
The White Bear Theatre
The White Bear Pub
138 Kennington Park Road
London SE11 4DJ
Reviewed by Francis Beckett
at the White Bear
on 22nd November 2022