Harris' central argument was about money dominating politics. He correctly acknowledges that donation and spending caps could address this - then writes that these could not prevent "an expensive new age of cold-calling, multiple mail-outs and unprecedented political advertising". Of course, they could. Tory rules in Totness capped spending at £200 per candidate.
(How to finance primaries themselves is a more important practical hurdle. While the most plausible Labour model - where party supporters would register - would cost less than the Tory experiment in balloting the electorate, a large part of the point would be to make candidate selection part of a significant attempt to recruit and retain new supporters, volunteers, members and activists for future campaigning).
But I want to show why neither 'hidden agenda' claim about the push for primaries stands up.
That doesn't prove primaries are a good idea - it does mean we could try a genuine debate about their pros and cons.
A party deathwish?
Harris writes that, because political parties have emptied out, "the political class decides that the only option is to kill them". Primaries are designed to achieve this, it seems.
But who does he think has decided to kill the parties?
Labour advocates of primaries believe - whether they are right or wrong - that they could reinvigorate party politics, and be one of a number of ways in which Labour could help to forge a broader progressive 'movement politics'.
There is good evidence, that lowering barriers to participation in party politics, and changing the culture and organisation of parties in ways which increase the voice and efficacy of members and supporters, are the most important ways to revive party politics. The Fabian pamphlet 'Facing Out' set out detailed analysis of motivations for and barriers to political engagement and, through YouGov polling, identified a cohort of 2.5 million voters, politically active outside party politics, who identify their politics as "Labour" but have never been party members. One in ten thought they might join the party; majorities were attracted by other forms of participation if these didn't mean taking out a party card.
Is the idea of wider participation to revitalise parties a pipe-dream? David Miliband cites how primaries and other reforms have seen the Greek Socialists involve 900,000 people with PASOK, as party members or friends of the party. That is 8% of the Greek population of 11 million, so might equate to four or five million Brits taking part in Labour party activity. Would that kill the party or save it? Perhaps we should find out more about the pros and cons of the Greek experiment - on which there has been little detailed analysis in the UK - before we write the discussion off. (Shouldn't G2 be sending John on a fact-finding mission to the next Pasok conference?)
There are choices - even dilemmas - here for current members. Are these "outsiders" a threat to our status and privileges who, if they were really committed, would surely plunge in? Or potential allies to enlist for our causes? Anybody who thinks that, if non-members can take part, "what's the point of membership" is a slam dunk argument to end the debate may just risk confusing a political party with their gym or golf club. The Labour Party is not a private members' society: its mission is to create social and political change in accordance with Labour values. Shouldn't a political community think of itself more like a church? Might opening the doors also mean recognising that, while the cash generated by direct debits is important, it is not the only way to demonstrate a commitment?
Granted, there are genuine tensions too. One can not jump to empowering non-members if members feel disempowered. Facing Out set out a range of cultural and organisational reforms where offering current members real voice and lowering barriers to participation for non-members would naturally go together, arguing that both a top-down leadership and activists and members ourselves had to promote and accept a cultural shift, including greater acceptance of internal disagreement and a less hierarchical and rigid organisational. Nick Anstead and Will Straw in the Fabian pamphlet The Change We Need said a "cultural glasnost" was needed in the Labour Party. David Lammy has vocally critiqued 'the politics of control' while a minister in government.
Harris worried that the point about how parties have failed to keep up with " online pluralism, non-hierarchical organisation and the rest" has not been made? It is, in fact, the main motivation for these changes.
Harris may be right or wrong that Conservatives who promote primaries want a post-party politics. Perhaps some do. But I doubt the most prominent Tory advocates of primaries Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell see them as a route to a non-ideological, mushy centrist politics. In their 2005 pamphlet, Direct Democracy, they advocated primaries as part of a broader strategy to mobilise the kind of movement politics and advocacy - inside the Conservative Party and beyond it - to often shift public arguments on taxation, Europe and immigration - for ideological purposes. So Harris is right that part of their motivation is anti-statist, and the left certainly might worry if anti-politics is being mobilised to that end. The question is how to counter that and mobilise troops of our own. Does the current model seem likely to do it? We may need to think more creatively about the role of parties and political organisation on the left to do that.
An anti-reform conspiracy?
Harris suggests there is another problem with the primaries debate. They distract from proper constitutional reform. This is what motivates the Tories - and some Labour people too, he argues. Here, Harris closely follows Neal Lawson of Compass who wrote of primaries that "In another setting at another time, they would be worth experimenting with. But not now". Like Harris, Lawson also argues that primaries would now be the death knell of the Labour Party, and a distraction from real reform, by stopping proportional representation.
A nefarious plot indeed.
So let me ask this: who is doing the distracting? This 'anti-PR conspiracy' theory lacks any agency unless we can find some committed Labour opponents of electoral reform jumping on the primaries bandwagon. Perhaps they exist. As it happens, I can't personally identify at present in the Labour party.
I think Harris and Lawson will find that their opponents on electoral reform are very often their allies on primaries.
There is no necessary connection. Some will be persuadable on both issues, and may combine support for one issue with opposition to another. But it already seems clear that the most vocal Labour opponents of electoral reform are vocal opponents of primaries too. That is the instinct of the traditional Labourist left and the traditional Labourist right. Both are hostile to cross-party cooperation and coalition politics, and fear that Guardianista liberals are all too willing to sacrifice a system which might win Labour a majority. Neither is keen to open up "this great movement of ours" to part-time less Labour and non-Labour voices either.
So here is New Labour loyalist and tribalist Tom Watson - traditionally a vehemently pro-first-past-the-post and anti-PR voice who is a recent tactical convert to AV. Watson just about summarised John Harris's column, before he had written it, in 140 characters in recently twittering to David Lammy that
@DavidLammyMP They're an idiotic notion.They price the poor out of representation. Don't want US style politics in the UK thank you v. much.
It is also true that the most prominent advocates of primaries almost all seem to support electoral reform: Progress, for example, are campaigning for primaries and for PR too. Chair Stephen Twigg has been an advocate of PR for over a decade. This seems a fairly common position among those who have been long-standing advocates of constitutional reform, among those who can be described as 'New Labour pluralists' like Twigg and 'soft left' voices.
Will Straw, author of The Change We Need, wants the government to back Jenkins' AV+ in a referendum. The Fabians have given a lot of space to the argument for a more pluralist party. And the current Fabian Review devotes a lot of space to constitutional reform - and my editorial argues for a constitutional convention and electoral reform. Other long-standing primary advocates like Anthony Painter and David Lammy favour AV, and make both arguments on their merits.
Again, the link is not absolute. Luke Akehurst on the loyalist right is a long-standing supporter of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform while being sceptical about primaries.
The evidence that primaries are being advocated as an anti-electoral reform front is not just weak; it is non-existent.
If there are die in the ditch Labour first-past-the-posters advocating primaries, I have yet to spot them. Harris quotes Tom Harris, who is anti-electoral reform. But Harris' post was sceptical about primaries. He used the example of a leadership primary as a warning to demonstrate that "there the arguments in favour of primaries start to break down a bit" though suggesting that the momentum behind primaries may be unstoppable "for good or ill". Harris is agnostic about primaries.
I don't yet see any convincing argument as to why one debate needs to be closed down for the other to succeed - issues of national constitutional change and party reform have a rather different locus and constituency.
Of the options for electoral reform, only the Single Transferable Vote sees voters choose between candidates of the same party. So LibDems might naturally focus on that rather than candidate selection reform.
But STV has never had significant Labour support, and few observers - including its advocates - think a switch from FPTP to STV is a particularly likely option. Under the German-style PR system used in Scotland and Wales, under the AV+ system proposed by Roy Jenkins, or under an Alternative Vote system which is reportedly being considered inside government, the issue of candidate selection still arises.
Supporters of electoral reform need to win that argument on its merits.
It should be straightforward to acknowledge that primaries do mitigate one particularly egregious feature of the current system: that the votes of those in most constituencies don't make any difference. Primaries mitigate this in a limited way: they give either the dominant party's supporters, or those voters who want to participate, a greater say over the identity of their candidate within the dominant party. It gives them no greater say at all over the question of who governs the country.
Supporters of electoral reform who think they need to oppose primaries to win an argument against the current electoral system simply betray a lack of confidence in their own case.
So, we have a conspiracy without conspirators. Now, perhaps I am wrong, and there is a tightly organised conspiracy. Unfortunately, if that is true, it is so tightly organised that I have not had the memo. (But then I would say that, wouldn't I?).
But I do think that both Harris and Lawson significantly overestimate not just the ruthless cunning but also the organisational capacity of New Labour high command.
There is one final missing premise in their argument. Far from New Labour high command advocating primaries for these nefarious purposes, I can't see any evidence that they are advocating them at all.
As far as I can tell, number 10 and party HQ are agnostic about primaries. Even those who think that the idea is interesting can see all of the practical hurdles, and are hardly looking for a punch-up about party organisation in the year before an election.
To that extent, throwing around polarising accusations of this kind could well succeed if the aim were simply to block change in favour of the status quo. That seems to me a fairly miserable objective - we all seem agreed on how few people think the status quo works. But that doesn't mean it won't work.
The truth is that this debate which has been driven outside Parliament - within think-tanks and pressure groups in and around the party, the emerging Labour and progressive blogosphere, and particularly driven by those like Anthony Painter, Sunny Hundal, the Young Fabians and Labour staffers who took part in the US campaign and tried to lead practical debates about the lessons for the UK, not just on primaries but on union campaigning, I suspect Agent Lammy and Miliband may even have been breaking with the 'command and control' model and setting out their own views.
Anyway, here's the good news.
John advised his readers to take the primaries debate seriously if the points about constitutional change and party culture were acknowledged, writing that:
Who wouldn't enjoy great national and local democratic carnivals, enlivened by the idea that everyone has a real say? That's actually what our existing elections should provide, but our creaking voting system sucks the air out of them. Take the pro-primaries crowd seriously when they accept all these failings, and one other democratic deficit: the fact that as the wider world has embraced online pluralism, non-hierarchical organisation and the rest, British political parties have either failed to keep up (the Tories) or moved in the exact opposite direction (witness the Soviet-esque emasculation of the Labour party)
I think I have shown that the pro-primaries crowd have met both of those conditions in spades.
So let's call the conspiracy off. Might that more serious discussion now begin?