The Labour party has made the mistake of treating the primary election process in London as something to be got out of the way, rather than seeing its potential to get people re-engaged in politics. Both the decision to charge potential Labour supporters £3 to take part in the ballot, and the rushed timetable are mistakes that betray Labour’s fears about genuinely opening up the party to a wider audience.
The grassroots are the lifeblood of the party and they have been marginalised by the speed with which the process must be carried through. A longer campaign would have enabled the candidates to put forward positive visions for the future of London and open up the debate.
The £3 charge has been imposed because of concerns that the election would be expensive and a drain on party resources at a time when they are needed for a general election. However, a more imaginative approach could have been to use the primary process to attract new members and supporters, boosting both the party’s coffers and increasing the number of people prepared to knock on doors. If only one in ten of the supporters ended up joining the party, then Labour would have been quids in, paying ten times or more than £3, as well boosting its membership and appeal. Even if during the process there had been an appeal for voluntary donations, that would probably have raised enough to pay for the primary election – most of which will be conducted online and therefore cheaply. The sum of £3 is arbitrary and no way reflects costs.
An alternative would have been to have had a telephone voting system, used by the Tories, which might have cost 50p rather than £3. This may have been open to abuse but this could have been countered by requiring callers to give details of their home address, and again would have generated interest in the party. Remember, for example, the hard fought campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008 between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. At the time there were concerns this would damage the Democratic cause but, in fact, it boosted the party because of the widespread interest that was generated.
Instead, at £3 the few people that will sign up are likely to be politically engaged already. Moreover, the media are bound to highlight the process as a failure given that at best a few thousand people will come forward, a very small proportion of London’s electorate. It will reinforce the notion that people are disengaged from politics, quite the opposite of what has happened in Scotland over the referendum.
The tight timetable is completely unnecessary and points to a desire to get the whole process out of the way as quickly as possible. The party is missing a huge opportunity to tap the huge reservoir of ideas that are being debated at a grass roots level in the CLPs and branch groups . Giving local parties only three weeks to get in nominations means that many will have to hold special meetings, which are likely to be poorly attended given this will be taking place immediately after a general election when activists will be exhausted. Ward parties will have no time to contribute to the process. Moreover, this will not give time for members who do not normally go to meetings to be involved.
As I have toured round London speaking at CLPs and wards, it is clear there is a great appetite for debate around the future of London and all kinds of unexpected issues have come to the fore. It has been very much an ideas focussed approach, which has been greatly welcomed by the membership. In this rushed timetable, there will be no time to debate these matters but rather it will be about who can shout loudest and who is best able to play the party machine. It will merely add to the feeling that politicians are out of touch and do not care about their ordinary members, let alone the wider public.