Primaries: what works? Report from Liverpool

Prime Time

The debate about how Labour should select candidates to fight elections has been raging for years and it’s not new to hear conference delegates bemoaning selection procedures as anarchic, cumbersome, or biased. But since Progress and others began making the case for reform to the way we select our candidates there have been some real alternatives on the table for the party to consider.

In particular, the use of primaries is now increasingly accepted as a realistic option for reform.

At the joint Institute for Government and Progress fringe event yesterday in Liverpool we hotly debated the possible impacts of launching a trial of primaries in Labour’s selections. Chaired by Andrew Adonis, the panel included primaries advocates David Lammy, Jessica Asato, and Will Straw, while Luke Akehurst provided a thoughtful and well-argued caution against against their adoption.

The Institute for Government has launched a report called ‘what works in candidate selection’ which helped frame the discussion with a set of key recommendations to all political parties to improve the transparency of their selection procedures and address under-representation of minority groups.

But as the discussion opened, I realised that at the root of the debate is a disagreement about the medicine, not about the illness. No one disagrees that poor turnout for selection meetings is a real problem for the Labour party which can only damage our connection with local communities in the long term. How can a people’s party claim to properly represent them when our candidates are chosen by a handful of fee-paying members who may or may not represent their local communities?

Will Straw highlighted research he has carried out for Progress which shows an average of 40 party members voted in the final round of Labour PPC selection contests in the run up to the last election. While the panel could agree that this statistic was deeply worrying, they couldn’t all quite agree that opening up selections and allowing a vote for non-party members would address the problem with certainty.

The practicalities were outlined by Jessica Asato who argued that we could seek a number of concrete changes to our selections through the use of primaries including more inclusive and open selection contests; better visibility for Labour candidates in the community; and reinvigorated local Labour parties. By running closed primaries which would only be open to a network of Labour supporters Jessica argued that the usually hidden process of choosing a candidate in parliamentary or local elections could actually be the first stage of the election campaign itself, engaging those people who are Labour voters but not necessarily party members in the process.

The sub-text to that point is that by widening the electorate for selections we also water down the influence of vested interests, in whatever for they take. For me this is the killer argument in favour of experimenting with primaries. We’ve all experienced the behind the scenes influence of vested interests in party selections and its not pretty.

Luke Akehurst rightly pointed to the possible cost of running primaries. He argued that he’d rather spend £40,000 on hiring a full-time organiser that running a primary among all voters in a constituency. This figure was based on the Tory trials of open primaries in 2009-10 which saw Sarah Wollaston selected in Totnes. But running an open primary where ballot papers go out to all registered voters is a much bigger and bolder experiment that running a closed primary with perhaps a third of the constituency who are registered as Labour voters.

Will also highlighted some ways round the costs such as running primaries alongside local council elections by simply providing a second ballot paper.

However, the final barrier is again about impact and it’s fair to say that during the debate there were some concerns expressed about the party’s membership offer. Do people join political parties in order to have an influence on selections, and would our members be angered by proposals to open up selections to non-party members? Would this essentially water down our membership offer?  

After the event I tried out the idea on a cabbie in Liverpool who took me back to my hotel. He had voted Labour all his life and had strong opinions about the leadership contest last year, but as a non-member he hadn’t been able to vote. He said he was a lifelong Labour voter but simply wasn’t interested in joining the party, but that he’d jump at the opportunity to help select a leader or a local candidate.

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David Chaplin writes for the Young Progressives column

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