For many Labour activists knocking on doors in Scotland in the last few weeks, it wasn’t political division that was most evident but rather the enthusiasm, the energy, and the engagement of the electorate. This was a vote that really got people talking, motivated them to learn about the key issues and inspired an authentic and serious political debate. It was a feat of unprecedented engagement, with people who had never even voted before donning rosettes, picking up a stack of leaflets and getting involved in one of the campaigns. The result was the highest ever turnout in a UK election. It should be a motivation for how we can achieve something similar in other parts of the country.
Witnessing that kind of energy greatly excited me about the potential for Labour’s London mayoral selection. The Collins Review has already confirmed that the selection will be conducted as a primary – the first of its kind for Labour in the UK. Those eligible to vote will be in two categories: party members and the new group of ‘registered supporters’, defined as “any London resident on the electoral roll in London who registers with the party by signing a declaration of values and pays an administration fee”. The selection, Collins suggested, will be conducted through an online ballot and will take place sometime between the general election and next year’s party conference.
I’ve spoken to many Labour activists at conference and all over the capital who are excited by the potential for this to open up the process of nomination and avoid the accusations of coronation not contest that have dominated previous selections.
Even more importantly, this is a unique opportunity for the party to engage with Londoners. To make the most of the opportunity, we need to have the process clarified as soon as possible. The best thing for London Labour between now and the general election is to have a team of strong mayoral candidates taking the fight to the Tories and getting out around London to spread the Labour message in key marginal seats across the capital. It also makes sense to pin down details of the primary so that we can resolve the administrative challenges in advance of the general election and focus on getting Labour into government.
For that to happen, a number of questions need clarification.
Firstly, the barriers to entry for new supporters. All the talk so far has been of a £3 fee. To maximise the potential of the primary to sign up a mass of new Labour supporters in London, the fee needs to be as low as possible. Of course we need to have some small fee as a token of supporters’ commitment to the party and to support administration of the election, but the financial barriers of entry must be kept low in order to get people involved and show that the party understands that Londoners are facing a great cost of living crisis. The French Socialists credit the low (1 euro) fee with being integral to the success of their 2011 presidential primary, in which they were able to sign up nearly a million new supporters. The number of potential new Labour supporters who want to sign up will be greatly increased if the fee is kept at £3; every pound added to the fee means fewer new paid-up supporters for the party.
We also need to know when the details of the process will be announced. The proposed use of an online ballot is an exciting proposal but the system will need testing and any concerns about security will need to be resolved by the time of the primary. This will take time. It is a great opportunity to move the UK electoral system into the 21st Century, as they have done in France, but it shouldn’t be done last minute.
Another issue that needs clarifying is the timeframe for the primary itself. All we know so far is that the selection will take place sometime after the General Election. But the exact timing is important in determining how successful the primary will be in signing up new Labour supporters. New supporters who are inspired and invigorated by our general election campaign should be welcomed into the party and allowed to take part in the primary. As such, there should be a short period after the general election in which these people can register for a vote in the selection.
Some of the most heartening and exciting images from the Scottish referendum were of young people getting involved in politics for the first time. Allowing young people in London to vote in the primary would send a clear signal that Labour was a party that valued their opinions and wants them to be a central part of the party in the years to come. As Ed Miliband confirmed this week at conference – to rapturous applause – it is now party policy to lower the voting age to 16 so the primary will likely be consistent with this.
We now have a huge opportunity to establish a process in London that can be a shining light of inclusion and transparency and can be replicated across the country. Bill de Blasio, who gave an excellent speech at conference yesterday, was selected in a keenly contested primary that gave New York Democrats a real opportunity to choose between different options within the party. The sooner the NEC announces the details of the London process, the sooner we can begin doing the same here: discussing and debating the issues facing London, expanding our support base in the capital, and making sure that Labour wins big in London in 2015 and then 2016.
David Lammy is the MP for Tottenham