Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The rush towards primaries as the magic bullet that will restore the Labour party link with local communities is ill-considered and dangerous, argues Duncan Harrod

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Will Straw writing in Progress Magazine this September (‘Primary Lessons’) joined the growing numbers advocating for the adoption of American-style primaries as the cure for anaemic local interest in internal labour party selections. However, citing Barack Obama as the symbolic ‘change’ candidate that primary elections could unearth for the Labour party here in Britain misunderstands the mechanics of primaries.

It should be noted that had the Democratic party relied solely upon the primary system to choose their 2008 nominee, we would today be talking about President Clinton II, or possibly President McCain. Remember that Barack Obama’s strengths in the 2008 season lay in two areas; raising unprecedented amounts of money from small donors and organising a powerful insurgent campaign amongst committed activists in the caucus states. Even then, the battle between Obama and Hillary lasted until May, as Hillary’s name recognition and spending power was dominant in the larger primary states. Without the caucus states, which allowed the Obama campaign to harness the celebrity of the Senate’s rising progressive star, name recognition and money would have decided the Democratic nomination.

The American system is uniquely American. The political culture that has developed around the myriad elected offices has no comparison to the UK system. With 500,000 elected officials, the US has roughly one elected representative for every 614 people. The UK by comparison manages with one elected official for roughly every 2,800 people.

The strength of the American system is that it provides prospective politicians with a development system as they progress from town to county or from state to national office. It is the links that develop between elected officials and their constituents, the retail politics, which are the strengths of the American system, whether primary or caucus not simply the mechanics of the electoral system.

While adopting a primary system could develop stronger links between Labour and local communities, the flipside of that coin is that it would also require great deal of money. Seeking donations can be said to be the central goal of every candidate and party organ within the 50 states save for the host of self-financing multi-millionaire candidates that seek to avoid a political apprenticeship through the application of copious amounts of money.

The power of money in American elections has always been viewed suspiciously by British progressives. Yet a primary system requires money. The important question is not how the Labour party will finance primaries but how prospective candidates will finance themselves.

The great risk in adopting wholesale an alien method of selecting candidates will be how it will further entrenches the role professional politicians, bankrolled by head office. Local candidates representing local issues may be quickly replaced by big spending candidates. Candidates will no longer be indebted to their local party for their selection but rather to the deep pockets that funded their glossy leaflets, direct mailings and radio jingles.

As every election shows, the UK requires distinctly regional voices to represent the demographic jumble that is modern Britain. A Labour party that is captured by London groupthink will continue to struggle to speak convincingly outside the M25.

The adoption of primaries may well re-establish the links between Labour and local communities. Or it could further alienate those areas of the population that can not afford to participate in pay-to-play politics.

Britain is a diverse nation ethnically, economically and demographically. The application of a one-size-fits-all system is not the answer.

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Duncan Harrod

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