The selection of Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate in Erith and Thamesmead has been suspended while irregularites are investogated, including a broken seal on a ballot box. Both Alex Hilton at LabourHome and Daniel Finkelstein of The Times note that the murky hand of Charlie Whelan in battle with Blairites was always likely to be a few-holds-barred contest. Some have been disgruntled at what they see as the parachuting in of Georgina Gould; others have seen the campaign against her as ageist, noting that she is campaigning to win a democratic election.
I have no surefire way of picking between the claims and counter-claims which can be read in the media and on various blogs, and so do not intend to make any substantive comment about them. But does the episode help to capture why Labour would benefit from a more fundamental rethink of how we select candidates? Is it time to experiment with open primaries for Parliamentary candidates?
I think this probably remains a minority position in the party. Party members and activists may be reluctant to lose one tangible power they hold. That is an insider/outsider dilemma to be addressed if we are to bring new campaigning energy to the Labour Party in the way that the recent Change We Need Fabian pamphlet by Nick Anstead and Will Straw advocates.
The threat of entryism is overstated, and can be dealt with better by opening up than narrowing participation, as Ben Brandzel has argued convincingly.
Some may fear that open primaries would lead to candidates not as committed to Labour, though I doubt this. I am not sure we would automatically see very different candidates, but some greater diversity in political career patterns would be a good thing.
No doubt, you would need to be a party member to run. And we would probably get throught through a hybrid model of nominations and shortlisting within the party before an open meeting and vote
There could be pitfalls too and issues to iron it. But it could both test candidate's public campaigning skills, and make selection contests something that made the party face outwards too. In a wider contest, it would be important for the party that its candidates contested selections in a way that might attract people to Labour, not deter them. My instinct is that there would be (on balance) a stronger enlightened self-interest for candidates to fight clean too.
It seems to me essential to a strong campaign to take back the London Mayoralty that Labour runs an open contest to engage progressive voters and audiences early. Is it time to introduce this for future Parliamentary selections too.