The principled case against primaries

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People keep talking about adopting primaries as a progressive move to take power away from our unrepresentative membership and give it instead to the wider public. Opponents need to engage with the arguments of principle rather than keeping quiet in the hope that the costs will make primaries impractical.

The major issue is how we see the citizen (apart from professional politicians, their employees and the rich) interacting with politics. I believe that our aim should be to encourage more people to become political actors in their own right. Others think that the only form of political engagement which can be fostered is the one-off action of voting in a selection or election. These are the Punk (grab a guitar and form a band) and X-factor (sit on the couch and vote) models of political engagement.

We know from experience that the larger the voting group in selections, the more having money and the ability to take time off work will count. We know that performance and presentation have become more important than a record of work in the community and the party. There were many good arguments for one-member-one-vote but it has made the group of selectable members narrower. The party is unable to control expenditure on selection campaigns, with spending of over £1000 becoming common. How rich would you need to be to win a primary?

Do we want a party whose members work for the election of candidates standing on collectively agreed party policies – or a collection of private armies owing allegiance to individual politicians who have won the right to put forward their own policies in our name?

If unions pump money and the time of their members into a candidate’s hard-fought primary campaign, they will owe them hugely if elected. Why would our big unions donate to the national party if they could build a much stronger presence in parliament through the primaries? Big business would also see the attractions.

The cost of primaries is not the crunch argument against them but there are certainly other ways we could spend the money on broadening democracy. There are wider problems of political alienation, but it is hugely difficult to persuade working people to pay £15 for membership because they simply cannot afford to gamble on it being worthwhile. But lots of people will sign up to be registered supporters. If we are going to spend a lot of the party’s money – or the state’s money – on broadening political engagement, why not subsidise membership to make it generally affordable again?

We all know there is a crisis of political engagement right across the democratic world. We cannot ignore that problem and pretend the party today is the party of 1945.

But before we abandon the broad-based party model, let’s have a serious debate.

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