Primed for Change: why we need primaries in the Labour party

October 12, 2009 3:08 pm

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PrimaryBy Alex Smith / @alexsmith1982

On the day that Parliament returns to its duties, Sir Thomas Legg’s letter to over 500 MPs asking them to justify their expense claims or to repay them in full will remind our representatives of the disconnect between the politicians and those they seek to represent.

Yet in spite of the public anger, little has yet been done to change how our democracy functions or to increase people’s involvement in our political process.

Now, a new study carried out by Will Straw and Feni Ajumogobia has shown the need for greater participation in selecting our parliamentary candidates.

At a time when membership of political parties is at its lowest ever point, the report shows that most PPCs across the political parties are selected by an average of just 40 party members.

For some time, I’ve argued in favour of primaries as one way of overcoming this problem. In January, I wrote that we should find ways to “amplify the voices of the electorate” by involving people in the process from an early stage and last month I said:

“I have never felt more involved in a political campaign than in the weeks and months before Super Tuesday. The people I worked alongside in Brooklyn came out to have their voices heard, working tirelessly on cold mornings and bleak nights to influence a process and to shape history from the earliest opportunity. What I saw inspired a movement, and I’ve never seen democracy work better. Labour needs that inspiration now. We need to energise our party, but more importantly than that we need to open our tired structures to the voices of the under-represented. Primaries will not solve everything, but they are the purest way to begin.”

Some have suggested that the call for primaries is based on factionalism within the Labour party, that the Blairite right want to find ways to further diminsh party democracy. I don’t accept that argument. To me, primaries are a way to adapt to a contemporary culture in which people demand the same flexibility and openness of engagement that they find elsewhere. And as one reader of LabourList has noted, I’m no Blairite.

Ken Livingstone and David Lammy have also both come out in favour of primary selections – opening up the possibility that the next Labour candidate for the London mayoralty will be selected that way. It’s a development that I welcome in finding the strongest candidate for our party and putting that person in touch with the electorate early.

As we enter into the last session of this Parliament and move into the general election campaign, and as we develop ways to make politics and democracy more meaningful to those it is meant to sevre, we must consider primaries as one of the most exciting and involving options before us.

I’ll be live tweeting from a Progress event tonight, reporting back on the voices for and against primaries, including Will Straw, David Lammy, Luciana Berger and Chris McLaughlin.

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