Wednesday 26 August 2009

Chuka Umunna: The primary motivation

This is a guest post from Chuka Umunna, responding to the recent debate for and against the use of primaries to select candidates, here on Next Left, LabourList and on a range of other political websites in response to the Progress prime time campaign for primaries.


A debate about primaries is raging on the blogosphere in and around the Labour Party. Good. We all know the way we do things needs to change and we are desperately trying to work out how, hence our utter obsession with the Obama for America campaign.

Some will say now is not the time to engage in internal naval gazing but I don’t think it should be characterised as such. There will never be an appropriate moment to discuss primaries, so why not now? Its August and we have time to reflect; come late September the relentless march towards the General Election will be in full throttle and the focus will rightly be on constructing a proper offer for a Fourth Term (Summer Hannan bashing does not a winning manifesto make).


On the primaries issue, I find myself sitting on the other side of the fence to many with whom I agree on most things; I may not sit comfortably where I am but it would be dishonest to plant myself anywhere else. I have been in favour of primaries for some time. I agree with the majority of the points put very eloquently by Sunder Katwala in his Next Left post but my principal motivations for supporting primaries are to help break the grip of the “hackocracy” over selections and a desire to select people who, if elected, will question more and not be so willing to accept the old ways of doing things.

I don’t think this is a left/right issue - I arrived at my position having gone through a gruelling, 10 week long parliamentary selection process last year and it is that experience, above all else, which has shaped my view, in addition to this year’s expenses debacle.

Let’s be clear: this issue has provoked so much emotional discussion because the power of selection - be it of your local council candidate, PPC or the party leader - is the last remaining tool that gives party members any real clout. There is also an undeniable attraction in primaries for those who see party members as akin to embarrassing, eccentric relatives and want to ignore and usurp them: this rightly invites deep suspicion. It is why, after all, David Cameron, likes them - his touting of primaries as illustrative of his desire to take politics to the masses is totally disingenuous; he cannot trust his members to pick candidates who resemble modern Britain, so he turned to this mechanism instead when is “A” list ran into trouble.

Therefore my support for primaries comes with a condition: if we are to move towards them, their introduction should be in tandem with other reforms designed to re-enfranchise and rejuvenate our membership. In 2006 Jon Cruddas MP and John Harris wrote a pamphlet, “Fit for Purpose”, which made many sensible suggestions in that regard which I want to see implemented.


We were very lucky in Streatham when we held our parliamentary selection between January and mid-March last year. It was always going to be intense and, at times, fraught. However, as a local party, we were left to get on with it, with no outside interference. We were also blessed with an incredibly diligent local team of officers who ran a tight, efficient ship.

So what I say here is in no way a reflection of how my parliamentary selection was run. What I take issue with is the architecture of the process, as provided for in our national party rules.

Before parliamentary selections kick off, there is internal wrangling over whether there should be an open or all women shortlist. I’d like to think that purely objective decisions are made as to where to impose an AWS in every case and that considerations of who might stand (and their patrons) do not impinge on such decisions, but many think otherwise. Then there is the shortlisting process, which is ridiculously complex, before the actual hustings itself. By that stage, it was a relief just to make it to the hustings venue, despite the need to give the speech of your life once you got there!

I would not have succeeded without the advice of many insiders who had been through the process before, with and without success, and advised me how to navigate it. My occupation is not in Westminster (nor in public affairs more generally – I’m a solicitor) but more than half a decade of activity at a local and national level gave me access to these insiders who provided me with invaluable insight. I drew on their experiences and learnt how to run a selection campaign – I would otherwise have had little chance of becoming the PPC in the constituency I grew up in and love.

Regardless of the occasional meddling of the party machine which, lets face it, happens (did I hear any one say “parachuting”?), the actual framework of the process massively advantages those with access to insiders and connections - what I call the “hackocracy” (the inhabitants of the Westminster Village). Is it any wonder there is dearth of people from other walks of life being selected in winnable or Labour held seats at present, when the framework of the process so obviously advantages this class of people.

Hazel Blears, some time before the broach incident and her resignation (the less said about that, the better), made a good speech to the Hansard Society in which she said the following:

“Politicians must not live on ‘Planet Politics’ and behave in ways which are alien and strange to the electorate.

“This happens partly because there is a trend towards politics being seen as a career move rather than call to public service. Increasingly we have seen a ‘transmission belt’ from university activist, MPs’ researcher, think-tank staffer, Special Adviser, to Member of Parliament, and ultimately to the front bench.

“Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of those jobs, but it is deeply unhealthy for our political class to be drawn from narrowing social base and range of experience. We need people from a range of backgrounds – business, the armed forces, scientists, teachers, the NHS, shopworkers – to make good laws.

“And we need more MPs in Parliament from a wider pool of backgrounds: people who know what it is to worry about the rent collector’s knock, or the fear of lay-off, so that the decisions we take reflect the realities people face.”

I felt a tinge of irony re-reading Hazel’s speech this weekend but she was absolutely right. I think primaries could go some way to addressing this, breaking the grip of the hackocracy over selection and opening up the process to those outside of “Planet Politics”. In a primary, you will have to do more than impress the party faithful; you would also need to galvanise support amongst the party’s local voters – Westminster connections will be of little assistance in so far as that is concerned (bye bye parachuting). And any attempt at rigging the process for a favoured person in a primary is far more likely to cripple that favoured person because - if selected - they will lack legitimacy before even reaching the ballot box, which would be capitalised on by opposition parties.

Because the architecture of selection promotes the candidacies of Westminster Village people, many people enter parliament who are already part of the system and therefore less likely to challenge what they find on arrival. “I was acting within the rules” was the favoured refrain of those found wanting in relation to allowances and expenses but why, when they knew the rules were wrong, did they not do more to challenge the rules on arrival? I am convinced that if more outsiders entered the Commons, there would have been a far greater clamour for change and, thus, reform before the Telegraph printed a word this Spring.


What of the various objections which have been raised? Those who claim the system will become corrupted by money forget that it is already deeply affected by it. Selection candidates already spend thousands of pounds on the process - increasingly those without means are excluded and this needs urgent attention. The solution is quite simple – set a low expenditure cap of, say, £400 and enforce it in law in the same way as the expenditure limits imposed on candidates for public office in elections, with similarly tough sanctions.

There should still be a role for party members in weeding out those wishing to stand who do not share the party’s essential principles and values in the primary process. Accordingly, a long listing process should be conducted by the local party concerned beforehand to ensure every candidate is “Labour” and one which they could work and campaign for.

I also doubt the public, if given the chance, will select a bunch of celebrities. There is the famous saying that “politics is show business for ugly people” but I think the public approach politicians differently to celebrities. They demand far more of you once you step into the political arena given your influence extends beyond,say, what people listen to and wear to the pound in your pocket and your civil liberties. Look across the pond – Congress is not stuffed full of Hollywood startlets.


So lets take a serious look at primaries, as a way of reviving politics. I would be more than happy to go through one myself, if the party changes the rules in the future to provide for them: what is there to fear? There is another way of reforming politics about which I am extremely vexed - our voting system (AV plus please!) - but that topic is for another post.

* Guest post from Chuka Umunna, who is parliamentary candidate for Streatham Labour Party.


Bill Kristol-Balls said...

Labour primaries should allow for a mix of candidates, say 2 nominated from the local party and 1 or 2 nominated by the centre.

Then it's for the voters to decide who they want.

Jessica Asato said...

Really good piece Chuka. As long as we keep the right checks and balances, primaries should reward those candidates who can communicate with local Labour-supporting electorates rather than those people who know how to play the system.

Can I be cheeky and ask whether you'd be willing to sign up to Progress' campaign? I think you agree with pretty much every element of it! If so, do sign the petition link here:

Unknown said...

Well we all know what needs to change, but like most things there are alot of vested interests that need to be overcome. But we have to welcome a debate on this, and look at the positives of the primary system and negate the negatives (i.e those with the most resources are able to do well).

The key is to refresh and democratise the local parties. It seems like lots of the local parties (of all sides) haven't moved on from either the village/factory floor mentality.

If we're serious about things, our overall aim should be to 'open up' membership in local parties away from the current tendency to have a closed shop.

Unknown said...

"Congress is not stuffed full of Hollywood startlets"

Actually, US politics is pretty full of celebs of one sort or another, ranging from baseball players to astronauts. But then it's also fairly full of political hacks and rich businessmen.

Primaries in the UK might break up the hackocracy and start filling up Parliament with doctors and the like (though I do think it would "trusted professionals" rather than a range of "real jobs") but I'm not sure US politics really demonstrates this point all that well.

"primaries should reward those candidates who can communicate with local Labour-supporting electorates"

I'm a little confused as to why that would be case - with a low expenditure limit there wouldn't really be any way of communicating with the electorate in a primary, and they'd just judge on the 2-page CV, as happened in Totnes.

In Labour selections, flawed as the current process no doubt may be, you do actually have to go round every member's house and talk to them in person and in detail. This does allow good "outsiders" (Chuka is actually an example of this) a chance with a good campaign.

The debate is essentially whether you want a democratic process that is wide but shallow or deep but narrow. There are arguments either way but I don't think you can have it both ways.

Two other points arise. Firstly, the shortlisting. That is where under the current system the rules are complex and can be "gamed" as Chuka says. But most advocates of primaries seem to think that the local party would still shortlist, in which case there would really be no difference in that aspect.

The other is this point on the money - people keep implying that there is simple but effective regulation of campaign spending at actual elections. There really isn't. There is a bureaucratic nightmare that can entangle those who don't know the system inside out but allows those who do to easily evade all controls.

That argument can cut both ways but let's at least acknowledge reality.

Charlie Marks said...

What do processes matter if the outcomes remain the same?

New Labour's problem is not the selection of candidates - it is policy.

The strategy has been to win support in key marginals, using tactics such as tailing opinion-formers such as the corporate press and relying heavily on focus groups and polls.

In policy terms this has meant traditional Labour voters to the vagaries of the free market.

Now that the Tory-inclined swing voters have a strong Tory party to vote for, what use for New Labour?

Robert said...

I do not think we need worry, by the time labour needs to worry about elections I'll be long dead.

Labours next program will be looking for a New Blair, or a New Thatcher, or anyone who might win labour an election, screaming and shouting the leaders name like the demented Americans is not going to make people vote.

We have seen labours idea of getting women elected, thats failed, they were hand picked by Blair to vote for him not to question him.

I think once the next elections are over the biggest problem for Labour will be staying in second place. to many people have moved away from the crack pot Labour center right group