A London Primary would be wrong for the Labour Party

October 12, 2012 7:00 am

By Rt Hon John Spellar MP and Luke Akehurst

After a very united and positive Labour Party Annual Conference, it  was disappointing the next day to see a number of senior figures float a divisive proposal about our internal procedures.

The Evening Standard reported that “Labour is considering a giant US-style primary in which every Londoner could vote to choose its 2016 candidate for Mayor.” In fact neither the NEC nor the London Labour Party is debating this.

The proposers are all colleagues we respect, but they have got this badly wrong and the idea needs to be quashed before it creates rancour the London Labour Party could do without.

A primary in London would also inevitably lead to calls for primaries to be used in other regions, including for parliamentary selections. There is even less appetite for constitutional innovations like this in the Midlands and North than in London.

The premise for it is a myth that a primary might have in itself produced a different outcome in the 2010 Labour selection, and that with a different candidate we might have won. The second part is arguable, we will never know. But any serious observer of London politics would be able to tell you that Ken Livingstone would have won that selection whether through the 50-50 CLPs and affiliates OMOV Electoral College actually used or a primary.

Primaries should be rejected for a number of reasons:

  • They are bad for Labour’s internal democracy, diluting members’ say in choosing candidates. This is at a time when members want more say in selections, not less.
  • In the London case a primary would weaken the union link as the affiliates currently have 50% of the vote (cast based on aggregating One Member One Vote ballots of ordinary union members).
  • The relationship between the unions and the Party is a sensitive one and trade unionists would understandably react badly to what they would see as an attack on their voice in the London Labour Party.
  • Primaries cost an immense amount to run and involve a vast amount of organisational effort. Like it or not we are not cash or resource rich as a party and should spent both on campaigning, not on a gimmicky way of picking candidates. You can’t run a primary on the cheap without the risk of electoral fraud or complaints of too few polling stations. Our guesstimate based on what it cost in constituencies where the Tories held them is that a  London primary would cost about £3 million to run. We simply don’t have a spare £3 million, and if we were going to charge people to vote as in France, turnout won’t be good and we might as well register them as members and stop pretending it is a primary.
  • Campaigning to win a London-wide primary with potentially millions of voters would be beyond the resources of any potential candidate without big money or a huge media profile. You might as well give the Evening Standard 100% of the Electoral College as they will be able to make or break candidates, or just state “only celebs need apply”. Our calculation is that a proper campaign in a primary would cost about £750,000 per candidate!
  • There is no evidence of public demand for a primary. We would be doubling the number of times we ask people to vote, in an era of declining turnout. The primary would have far less than the 38% turnout in the actual 2012 Mayoral election. It would therefore be vulnerable to differential turnout by particular communities or campaigns which might saddle us with an unelectable candidate.
  • The “open primary” advocated in the Evening Standard article would mean Tory or even BNP voters and members would have a say in picking Labour’s candidate. They might deliberately pick the weakest one.
  • In the US primaries are administered by the state governments, ensuring minimum standards regarding the conduct of the poll, and the states also include a party affiliation question in voter registration, so that “closed primaries” for your own party’s supporters only can be run. Neither facility is available in the UK and both would involve unpopular public subsidy of Labour’s internal democracy.
  • The rise of the Tea Party shows how in a primary system a well-organised, well-funded and hyper-energised extremist grouping can foist its candidates on a more mainstream host party. The same thing happened when the Democrat left ousted Joe Lieberman as incumbent Senate candidate in Connecticut.

We should focus on recruiting members and supporters to the Labour Party, so it becomes larger, better funded and more representative of the public. We should also spend time identifying and encouraging our strongest possible candidates to run for Mayor, not tinkering with the selection process.  We ought to reject the idea of importing a US organisational model that was developed for specific US reasons.

  • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

    So, there you have it comrades. Having ideas is “divisive” – especially if it involves, like, y’know, giving the public a say. It tells you all you need to know about the Labour Party’s internal culture. The message is ‘just leave it to us and we’ll stitch it up behind closed doors so there’ll be no need for you to worry’.

    For the authors to say that primaries would be “bad for Labour’s internal democracy”, and then in the next breath saying they would “weaken the union link as the affiliates currently have 50% of the vote” is, well, breathtaking.

    The rest of the arguments are just naked naysaying.

    With electronic means nowadays you could surely run a primary at very little cost. But the claim that “There is no evidence of public demand for a primary” is particularly wretched. There is no “evidence” because nobody has collated any – the claim is just as true the other way round in that there is no evidence of public demand for an old-style Labour Party stitch-up either.

    Lastly, the authors say that “We should focus on recruiting members and supporters to the
    Labour Party, so it becomes larger, better funded and more
    representative of the public.” Well, the old ways have proved mighty successful in doing that. ‘One more heave’, eh?

    Give the people out there a say; open the doors and let some air in. We’ll be better for it, and the public will get a chance to be a part of the Labour Party in a real sense. We saw in 2010 how an election gets people going – pretty much all the boasting about a membership boost was down to that. Get people thinking about participation in Labour politics and my guess (and it is a guess, not backed up by “evidence”) is that we could actually see a rise in membership.

    The alternative is to close up, close down, close ranks and conduct our business in the usual way – by stitch-up between competing special interests. I don’t know about others out there, but I’m not sure the old ways are the best way of getting the best candidate, and far from sure they are the right way either.

    • http://twitter.com/Ultra_Fox Colin Hall

      Look at the outcomes in the US.  Have primaries there promoted greater public engagement, or enhanced governance of cities and states?  The evidence suggests not.

      Members have already seen the right to influence policy virtually disappear.  Take away their right to select candidates and their reasons to join and pay subs to the party are pretty much non-existent.

      The Simon Cowell version of democracy is not applicable here.  Ultimately it would still be the party bureaucrats who determine the shortlist for the primary.  

      • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

        So the only way of doing primaries is the American template, eh? Are we not capable of showing a bit of imagination to do things differently?

        I really do despair sometimes with the Labour Party. It just seems chronically incapable of doing democracy – not a great attribute for a party that claims to practice democratic socialism.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/FGQIBLTXGYWYWUQWWPHYJCHXNI Bob Smith

      I think you’re conflating two different issues here. There’s the question of how open the democracy of the country is, ie. if the people were allowed a vote but only between candidates chosen by one person that’s an extremely closed democracy, in fact not really a democracy at all. In the UK we have no legal barriers on anyone at all standing for elections and a small financial barrier, but practical matters have, as in many countries, meant that successful candidates are almost always from a major party. If it’s felt that our democracy is not open enough, there are things that could be changed to make it easier for independents, eg. state funding on a fairly wide basis.
      The second question is one that only concerns us as a party. We all want Labour to keep strong public support, and part of that is ensuring that we don’t become isolated from the wider public, with strongly divergent views and practices. But the party still remains an organisation made up primarily of those who make the choice to join, and it’s up to us inside to make party decisions. It may or may not be that we decide candidate selection is an area we want to take outside the membership, but if we chose not to that isn’t somehow anti-democratic. The public do get a say who they want, at the actual election. A completely open primary basically means you just get two elections. 

      Lastly, you say you finding it “breathtaking” that someone would see the union link as compatible with greater internal party democracy. Maybe this is so obvious to you but perhaps you’d like to explain why? Given that votes are by individual union members, not block votes cast by union leaders, how is it anything but democratic that we give a share of internal votes to the millions of affiliated union members who have chosen to be involved, though to a lesser degree than party members?

    • Brumanuensis

      A few thoughts:

      First, Luke and John are perfectly entitled to say that the proposal is divisive, which, let’s face it, it is. Primaries are a deeply controversial matter within the Labour Party and opponents are entitled to ask if there aren’t better things we could be doing to reform the Party than pointlessly antagonising large sections of the membership base.

      The blunt truth is that a lot of members, including myself, are deeply offended by the suggestion that primaries be introduced. We’ve all fought hard for the Party and we value our role as the Labour Party’s ‘troops on the ground’ in campaigns. There’s a very simple compact at work here: we choose the candidate we fight for. I don’t like parachutes or stitch-ups any more than you, but the way to stop them is to empower local parties and expand our membership, as Luke and John correctly note. Primaries are the ultimate insult. They play into the lazy view that predominates among the upper echelons of the Labour hierarchy, that us ordinary members are too stupid, tribal and backward, to be trusted with making any kind of important decision. 

      If primaries are introduced, the Labour membership will fall. What is the point of being a member if all you’re doing is paying money for the sake of a laminated card? I can just give money and support the Party without joining, if that’s what membership amounts to. And if all the rights of being a member can be enjoyed without actually bothering to commit to joining the Party, then the concept of membership is worthless and Labour will wither and die at its roots. We don’t need more silly gimmicks like primaries. We need respect for our members, more autonomy for local CLPs, albeit within a national framework, cheaper membership rates and more resources being directed towards fostering grass-roots activism. 

      Among other things, just to join in with the ‘nay-saying’, John and Luke are quite right to point out that the cost is exorbitant. With state funding unavailable, there is no way that we can afford to run a primary in London, let alone anywhere else. And no, electronic means don’t count. I’ve seen enough of Diebold and the precarious security of internet voting, to have no faith in the likes of ‘Survey Monkey’ as a mechanism for holding ballots of this kind. Even if it did work, all it would promote would be the deracinated habits of modern politics, where people don’t congregate together for political purposes, but instead interact at an arms length, via electronic media, like we’re doing now. I’d prefer if we did this less, to be honest.

      • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

        Brumanuensis – a decent and powerful response. Some good points (the role of members is indeed crucial) and some not so good (SurveyMonkey?!!).

        Unfortunately I’m just heading off somewhere so can’t deal with your points in detail, but suffice to say that the party’s current way of handling elections is not satisfactory. It gives far too much power to fixers and power-brokers behind the scenes. I am sympathetic to the idea of not having primaries but expanding membership – but you’ve gotta make that effort to expand the membership (and there seem to be a lot of powerful people in the party who are not desperately keen on doing that).

        Briefly, and I’ve gotta go, I think that to make membership worthwhile the party needs to become more of a social institution as well as a simple political party focused almost solely on winning elections. Ideally it should be something that people feel proud and want to be part of, not the denuded calculating machine that to a large extent it is at the moment.

        • Brumanuensis

          Thank you Ben.

          Survey Monkey was a reference to the nearest kind of online voting forum I could think of.

          I agree completely with your last paragraph, which is why I’m surprised that you’re advocating primaries, which in my view will disempower members. Of course, recruiting new members won’t be easy against a declining rate of public engagement with politics amongst young voters, but it will have to be done. I have my own pet theory about why young voters are proving so hard to attract to Party politics, which is that the atomised nature of modern political campaigning, with its obsessive focus on single issues, makes it hard to coalesce people into a broad coalition where individuals agree to disagree on specific policies, whilst sharing the same principles.

          For a social institution to work, people need to feel a sense of belonging – and also a sense of distance from non-members, which is why tribalism, in moderation, is a useful glue to bind organisations together. If Labour wants to become the sort of social institution that you – and I – want it to become, then the hard work of expanding membership is really the only way to go. Social institutions need that sense of shared purpose and comradeship, which a primary won’t bring – unlike say, a caucus, where people have to assemble and debate their choices.

          Just a few additional thoughts.

          • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

            Good thoughts. I agree, except on the real situation, which is that Labour has a sclerotic internal structure and culture that seems incapable of doing much more than arbitrating between special interest groups.

            I have little faith in Labour as it is to become a genuine party of mass participation – there are just far too many fiddly rules and people integrated into the structure who would stand to lose power if that happened. The new Blue Labour-influenced direction from Ed is in contradiction with that and it’ll be interesting to see if anything happens in terms of genuine party reform. I can’t really see it though, however good-willed certain individuals like Iain McNicol are. There are just too many blockages in the pipes.

            So my support for a primary is if you like a way of forcing the Labour Party open up to people on the outside because it seems incapable of doing it itself, and to spread power wider rather than just settling for it remaining mostly in the hands of a select few behind the scenes.

            The practicalities are just that. I’m no expert but would guess it’s pretty much a matter of registering your supporters (as is already being done) and then giving them a code just like the rest of us got for the last Mayoral selection as I recall.

            As for campaigning, equal access to an email list and to the website, plus a mailshot and keeping the campaign short (as opposed to the leadership election, which dragged on for months), and the cost would surely not add up to much.

            The Standard will of course have influence, but that is overstated and coverage would surely be good for Labour because it shows we are open to the public by the very fact of running the primary rather than stitching it up as usual. I couldn’t see how the press could easily spin it into a negative theme about Labour in general because the theme of a primary goes against all their normal criticisms of Labour. People also seem to ignore how close Ken was to defeating Boris last time despite craven favouritism and hostility from the Standard.

            For me, this article and much of the response is reducible to simple conservatism in the form of a resistance to change and an unwillingness to cede any power from the few. I would much rather cede what little power I have in order for us to become an institution that looks outwards and welcomes people in. Like I said before, it’s not as if the old ways have proved particularly successful in doing that.

          • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

            Good thoughts. I agree, except on the real situation, which is that Labour has a sclerotic internal structure and culture that seems incapable of doing much more than arbitrating between special interest groups.

            I have little faith in Labour as it is to become a genuine party of mass participation – there are just far too many fiddly rules and people integrated into the structure who would stand to lose power if that happened. The new Blue Labour-influenced direction from Ed is in contradiction with that and it’ll be interesting to see if anything happens in terms of genuine party reform. I can’t really see it though, however good-willed certain individuals like Iain McNicol are. There are just too many blockages in the pipes.

            So my support for a primary is if you like a way of forcing the Labour Party open up to people on the outside because it seems incapable of doing it itself, and to spread power wider rather than just settling for it remaining mostly in the hands of a select few behind the scenes.

            The practicalities are just that. I’m no expert but would guess it’s pretty much a matter of registering your supporters (as is already being done) and then giving them a code just like the rest of us got for the last Mayoral selection as I recall.

            As for campaigning, equal access to an email list and to the website, plus a mailshot and keeping the campaign short (as opposed to the leadership election, which dragged on for months), and the cost would surely not add up to much.

            The Standard will of course have influence, but that is overstated and coverage would surely be good for Labour because it shows we are open to the public by the very fact of running the primary rather than stitching it up as usual. I couldn’t see how the press could easily spin it into a negative theme about Labour in general because the theme of a primary goes against all their normal criticisms of Labour. People also seem to ignore how close Ken was to defeating Boris last time despite craven favouritism and hostility from the Standard.

            For me, this article and much of the response is reducible to simple conservatism in the form of a resistance to change and an unwillingness to cede any power from the few. I would much rather cede what little power I have in order for us to become an institution that looks outwards and welcomes people in. Like I said before, it’s not as if the old ways have proved particularly successful in doing that.

  • http://www.robbiescott.com/ Robbie Scott

    An

  • http://www.robbiescott.com/ Robbie Scott

    Back to stitch ups then and wonkish candidates 

  • Daniel Speight

    The arguments made seem both reasonable and sensible. The big danger to my mind with primaries is it could become like American politics, whoever is the best funded either wins or forces the competition to also spend big.

  • Redshift1

    Spot on!

  • http://twitter.com/RedSimmo Mark

    Nobody change anything! The Labour Party is obviously perfect in every way as are the internal procedures. That’s why we have record high membership and so many high quality MPs that definitely haven’t just wormed their way in through who they know.
    For goodness sake, as Ben said, what’s divisive about floating new ideas? It is this article that comes across as overly defensive and closed-doors, from the very first paragraph.

  • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

    “You might as well give the Evening Standard 100% of the Electoral College as they will be able to make or break candidates… ”

    Excellent article. I’d always assumed the purpose of primaries was to concentrate influence and remove our collective institutions from the decision making process. Primaries would immediately develop into media sponsored beauty contests.

    Then we’d be back to square one – needing to re-invent what we had lost – a Labour Party able to represent the interests of ordinary people.

    • John Reid

      Our choice for Mayor hardly helped himself in the Mayoral race givng the Standard amunition, remember in 2008 When Ken got 1.02 Million votes on second prefernces (140,000) than the first time he won) the Evening standard wasn’t actually Pro Boris they were just anti Ken

  • http://twitter.com/ElliotBidgood Elliot Bidgood

    I liked the sound of the idea when it was floated,  in theory, and the Hollande primary in France interested me at the time. But this article certainly does make a very strong and cogent case against. This is particularly true in terms of the difference between a one-off party-organised primary in the UK and the scheduled, simultaneous, registration-based & government-funded process in the U.S.

    Although one little thing about the final bullet point on your list referencing the US, not particularly related to primaries themselves. Equating progressive Democrats in Connecticut who disliked Joe Lieberman with the Tea Party, really?

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