Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Primaries: getting to the change we need

Obama aura and accoutrement are not enough: how would primaries really work here?

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The American political system, with its heady mix of money, personality and glamour was never more alluring than during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. Many in Britain have looked to the Obama campaign for ideas on how we can refresh and renew our politics, but at times it has felt like we on the left in Britain have been too fixated on acquiring the aura and accoutrement of the Obama campaign rather than thinking through what will actually make us more appealing to the British electorate.

Take the debate around primaries: rather than starting with a fascination with them in theory, we ought to consider Labour’s electoral challenges and then ask whether primaries can help. For example, declining party membership leaves us without the activists that we need. While US political parties face similar challenges in terms of party membership, recent research shows that primaries can be a powerful catalyst for energising people to become activists. Research also shows that voters respond more strongly to advocacy by their friends and family than to advocacy by strangers. Thus mass participation in primaries could be a way to win Labour new ‘friends’ and activists which would have a real impact on our success at the ballot box.

But this is where things get complicated. The allies won in the primary campaigns are easily carried over to the US general election campaigns because of the short window between the two votes. In Britain our lack of fixed term parliaments means that candidates are often selected years before the general election. This could fatally undermine any momentum built during a British primary campaign and so we need to think through how to create professional perpetual campaigns or to reconsider the timetable for selecting candidates.

A separate challenge for Labour is that the expenses scandal has revealed a public distrust of ‘professional politicians’ who are not sufficiently responsive to their constituents. Primaries could return power to constituents and enable them to select candidates who are more representative and therefore more electable.

However, for this to work the primary voters must be reasonably representative of the constituency electorate, something which may be prohibitively expensive in Britain. Even the Ashcroft-funded Tories have only run the all-postal ballot, like in Totnes, primary once despite it attracting 16,000 voters. Most of their ‘open caucuses’ have had much lower turnouts, like the 180 who voted in Penrith. This is hardly more representative than the 40 members who currently select the average Labour candidate. Clearly who can vote and how they vote gets to the heart of the type of candidates we will select and what party membership means, and this will requires significant consideration as we formulate any primary system.

There are innovative solutions out there, like the deliberative polling model that the Greek socialist party Pasok tried in its Marousi mayoral primary in 2006 which uses a small representative sample of the electorate. But this in turn reduces the number of new ‘friends’ created through the primary process.

Primaries could help us win more ‘friends’ and more votes, and it could democratise the way we select our candidates, but delivering the change we want is not going to be straightforward. Now is the time for a practical debate on designing a primary system for Labour that will work.

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Jonathan Bailey

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