Labour’s London primary could be a platform for real change

As a participant in four London Mayoral elections and two full Labour selections I had my own concerns about moving to a new primary system to choose our candidate for Mayor.

The biggest question-mark was whether this would be an open primary in which anyone, regardless of their political loyalty, could determine our candidate. That could lead us open to mischief from our opponents; and it could create a selectorate more likely to be influenced by a dedicated campaign by London’s monopoly newspaper.

Secondly, there were those who were concerned that by removing the electoral college we would strip out of the selection those who are currently enfranchised – members of affiliated trade unions.

To say that the history of the selection process for the Mayor of London has been fraught would be an understatement. In 2004 and 2010 we used an electoral college comprising one half the affiliates and one half the full CLP membership. The affiliates were obliged to ballot.

We reached that point because of the debacle of 2000, when an electoral college was imposed on London Labour. Talk of One Member, One Vote was ditched in favour of an electoral college with the aim of blocking my candidacy.

An electoral college was created of one third members, one third the affiliates and one third MPs, MEPs and Assembly candidates. It had the desired effect – although it was calculated that my winning number votes was around 74,000 to 24,000, I still lost. The golden share of the vote for the MPs, MEPs and Assembly candidates, combined with the votes of some right wing union leaders that refused to ballot their members, turned the result on its head.

The whole episode was shameful. It is an irony of history that although many in New Labour genuinely backed the call for OMOV, others from that same tradition revived and extended the electoral college for purely short-term internal party-management purposes.

This sorry tale is one of the many reasons I will shed no tears for the electoral college. The 50:50 electoral college was a decent-minded compromise on the part of Tony Blair’s leadership after what had happened in 2000 but it was also an accident of history. In creating that 50:50 we have ended up with a system that calmed the tensions caused by 2000 but we can do better.

Between Ed Miliband’s speech last summer and the documents agreed by Labour’s NEC last week a massive amount of work has been done to address London’s concerns. I am reassured by that.  The primary on offer now provides us the opportunity to move beyond an electoral college system.

The new system proposed by the Collins review will be a closed primary, comprising members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. That will give us a selectorate open to Labour-supporting Londoners whether members of the party or not. We will of course have to work hard to draw them in.

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The London mayoral selection timetable means a candidate would be in place after the 2015 general election and by annual conference in the autumn. This provides a challenge but also an opportunity.

The general election will be an intense period of campaigning that should be used to engage members of affiliated unions and Labour voters in the capital. We will be talking to thousands of people every day. We must use that to start a conversation with those people that can take us through to the London selection and the mayoral election. It could become a platform for real change. In membership terms London is the biggest region for the party and for many affiliated organisations. The Implementation Group that will oversee the Collins Review reforms must give priority to driving through the work to recruit affiliated supporters in London so that as many people as possible are given a chance to take part in the primary.

As a CLP rep on the NEC with a longstanding interest in London-wide politics I will be keeping a close eye on the preparations for selecting our candidate for mayor, to ensure it is given the priority it deserves.

The electoral college system agreed in 1981 was the first time a wider layer of people were let in to help choose Labour’s leader.  The ‘Bennite’ insurgency of the late 1970s and early 1980s is often derided but its drive for greater democracy was then a genuinely modernising, historic, step. All of Labour’s leaders since then were chosen using the basic architecture of those modernising reforms. But we have now moved beyond the inevitable compromises of that moment. It’s right that OMOV is now firmly within our grasp.

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