Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Exposed: the primaries conspiracy

John Harris wants to close down the emerging discussion about whether Labour might adopt some form of primaries to select Parliamentary candidates. But his Guardian column did not engage with the arguments of what he calls "the pro-primaries crowd", instead attributing to them two ignoble hidden motives: that they aim to "kill off" political parties and distract attention from electoral reform.

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?


Anthony Painter said...

Yes, it is ironic that the voting system favoured by John Harris and Neal Lawson- AV+- would allow a greater number of parachuted candidates through the top-up route as well as the constituency route.

With expense-capping, such candidates and the well-heeled could actually find it tougher to get selected. Totnes is not necessarily indicative (the campaign was too short) but they went for a local insider/ political outsider. My guess is that primaries will create a default localist dynamic but the best campaigners will shine through. That's the point.

So quite where the conspiracy is, I have no idea.

The agenda is quite simple- open up the party or face increasing irrelevance.

Robert said...

Labour have been chattering for a while about using the America system of picking people, we all stand around waving placards screaming having an orgasm while Brown comes out wearing spider man or superman gear.

We are not America when are the Labour party going to realize we do not do America politics, at the last conference they gave me a placard and said will you be willing to shout and clap when told, I gave them back the placard and told them no.

Policies are what make me think not some ploy to get people screaming.

james.graham said...

Primaries are an incredibly weak substitute for electoral reform. The problem is, AV+ isn't either. Insisting the former might kill off the latter sadly exposes the flaw in the strategy behind the AV+ fudge in the first place: once you start compromising to such an extent that you're prepared to throw away proportionality, pretty much anything looks like a deal.

There are a few things in this article I'd take issue with: the Totnes spending limit of £200 was ridiculous and rendered it to the status of beauty contest. You NEED candidates to be able to campaign in primaries, otherwise they don't achieve anything. It really is time primary advocates started having a serious debate about this instead of insisting that their solution both a) improves participation and b) magically won't cost any money.

There is a real choice to make here: go down the communitarian route of primaries, or the enhanced representative democracy route of PR. I agree that AV+ supporters are pretending that this isn't a real choice, but I think primary supporters underestimate it as well.

Anthony Painter said...

James- why are primaries 'communitarian'? Just curious.

Jim Jay said...

James - why are primaries a substitute for reform? They *are* a reform - i think you mean they are a substitute of a reform you don't like instead of the reforms you want. Which is not the same.


If John Harris thinks the Tories did this to kill off political parties he needs to explain why the Tories want to kill their own organisational form. I don't think they do but would be interested in what he had to say on that.

James said...

To answer your question: The thing that primaries test more than anything else, whether they are Totnes-style open primaries or Straw-style closed primaries, is commitment to the "community." Our politics is already headed in that direction - we already see elections being fought on the basis of who is the most 'local' candidate, which candidate does the most casework, etc. etc. Primaries would take that one step further. We end up with a politics that isn't really a conflict of ideas at all, but instead a series of different parochial interests competing with one another.

(and by the way, I DO accept that the Lib Dems have to accept a lot of the blame for this)

In the US ironically, the one thing that mitigates this is Big Money.

In the UK, by contrast, we have party selectorates. I do think the argument that adopting a primary model wholesale would lead to the end of political parties as we know it. Where I perhaps agree with Sunder is that there isn't a conspiracy to do this.

One thing I'm a bit confused by is why people keep citing PASOK as best practice. Fair enough when they began their reforms a few years ago, but it hasn't exactly brought them electoral success, has it?

James said...

Jim Jay: I didn't say they are a substitute for "reform" - I said they are a substitute for "electoral reform." It is one thing to put words in my mouth; quite another to take them out!

Whatever primaries do or don't do, they don't change the electoral system.

Anthony Painter said...

James: I can absolutely promise you that selections currently are no more a battle of ideas than the choice between chicken and fish. Equally, a strong local candidate already has a head start in a selectorate of very few people.

I haven't heard anyone use a communitarian argument in favour of primaries. Though, now you come to mention it, forcing candidates to more directly engage with the concerns of local Labour supporters- whether ideological, issues, or local- is one of the major advantages. We do elect MPs to represent their constituents after all.....

James said...

I'm sure that works for you Anthony. But those of us who fit outside of the soul destroying, lowest common-denominator style hive mind politics we have at the moment and want to see a pluralist, inclusive political system are looking for an alternative, not a system that produces more of the same.

The problem with this rush to the middle is that is leaves too many people behind. You may not see that as a problem; I do.

stuart.white said...

I have no idea about the existence of a conspiracy, but I was struck that John Harris also pinpointed the centrist drift concern over primaries. While I would (now) concede that we don't KNOW this will happen with primaries, it is certainly a real danger. That's why I think we should experiment with primaries, but not commit to them beyond that.

Sunder Katwala said...


I would query the argument "substitute" for electoral reform. I

Yes if my fairy godmother offered me benevolent dictatorship powers to implement either electoral reform in Britain, or some form of primaries in the Labour Party (or even all parties: I don't think it is legitimate to prescribe party organisation from outside), I would choose electoral reform. (Give me benevolent dictator powers, and I might go for an AV/AMS 50-50 hybrid rather than AV+ or AMS, though I would see straight AV, with PR second chamber and STV in local government as a very good advance in the real world; and think there is a coherent case ).

Beyond that, I am not sure what the weight of this distraction argument is. Perhaps you could clarify.

1. We have seen that the claim that it is motivated to distract seems baseless. Those Labour people advocating primaries turn out to be the same people, on the Labour side, supporting the Vote for a Change campaign - except for Neal Lawson and John Harris.

And the party hierarchy don't seem to be employing the distraction technique, since they don't seem to be advocating primaries.

2. I don't see how the argument "If you stop talking about Labour party primaries and movement politics, we will get our referendum on electoral reform" follows. How does this work? If there are more arguments to mount on electoral reform, let me know what they are.

Indeed, can't I equally argue that Neal Lawson risks narrowing his coalition of support for electoral reform by suggesting that the existence of a national campaign on PR means postponing or vetoing any consideration of party reform issues on their merits (where he seems to argue that the principle would be one he would support, were it not for this context)?

3.What I don't really see is how the Labour party holding three pilots in this Parliament, or even selecting all of its candidates in some form of primary at the next election or the time after would make any really significant difference to arguments for or against first-past-the-post, the Alternative Vote, AV+, AMS, STV and various hybrids thereof.

I think those are mostly debates about the nature of the government and Parliament that we elect - likelihood of single-party majority or coalition government, etc - and the issue of individual candidate selection is a relatively low priority (though I accept some, particularly STV supporters, might give that a higher priority).

4. If the argument is "those dastardly Tories will now defeat us on electoral reform because they will say we have these shiny new primaries", then I don't see what use this one is either.

We can't control the Tories - they can make whatever arguments they want. And we will have to get a bit more confident about the merits of our counter arguments.

If the argument is that primaries will be popular but shallow reform, then it would surely be a strategic mistake to accept a (?dastardly Tory) frame or "proper constitutional and electoral reform OR primaries.

So how about 'Of course, any party can keep its shiny primaries under many different electoral systems. We don't have anything against fun ways to pick your local parties' candidate - but lets not pretend that is the same as whether you can influence who gets to govern the country after the General Election".

I don't see how we strengthen the case for electoral reform by pretending that primaries weaken the current system. Clearly, at the margin, they could improve it in some respects or (if we do get hyperlocalism everywhere) make it worse.

James said...

I'm not saying they weaken the current system - in fact, I'd argue they would lead us to the ultimate form of first past the post, as practiced in the US. In the UK, we currently face a choice: continue down the US road or take a European path.

I do think it is a bit of a distraction however because I don't actually think anyone has yet outlined a system that they would seriously consider rolling out on a nationwide basis. A few pilots here and there are all very well, but they don't really get us very far - especially if they are based on models which are not scaleable.

If the country were to go down the line of Totnes-style open primaries then someone had better start talking about where the £50m+ to organise them is going to come from. Up until now when talking about increased state funding of politics people have been talking about half that amount - and got nowhere. So where is this pile of cash going to come from?

If we're talking about Straw-style closed primaries then what we're really talking about is making political parties a more established part of the political framework, with US-style party registration. That means legislation, which will need cross-party backing, and a national debate about whether we really want political parties to go in that direction.

If on the other hand we are talking about the sort of open caucuses that the Tories have been running up until now, then the hyperbole really needs to be dampened down. They are practical tools which might well help renew local parties, but they aren't going to drastically increase participation in the system.

However useful the open caucus model might be, what I see is people focusing on the first two. Both those options also appear to pose the question for those of us who aren't members of the Big Two: are we about to be legislated virtually out of existence? Those first two models really are alternatives to multi-party politics.

I'm not for a moment suggesting people should shut up about primaries - indeed I've written more about them in the past fortnight than anything else. But I would like the debate to move beyond the hyperbole and onto practicalities.

If people aren't prepared to discuss how a UK-wide primary system might work in practice then it is a pretty fair observation that such a discussion is no more than a load of hot air.

Mike said...

What Britain Needs:

Proportional Representation

Closed Primaries

No F***ing American Style politics with all the stupid celebrities, big cash donations and anti-government culture.

Charlie Marks said...

More importantly - policy.

It's hard to get people interested in politics when it's about choosing between candidates rather than actual policies.

SgtSkepper said...

Hey guys. I'm new here. Could anyone recommend a good book or two about the pros and cons of the various voting systems (PR, AV+, first past the post etc.). While I have my own views on the topic, I'd like to hear well-thought-out defences of all of them.

Thanks in advance!

Nick said...

Mike - not sure how you would use closed primaries along with PR, unless you mean some form of mass selection of the party list.

On the other points - spending limits are either going to be near zero and strictly obeyed, as in Totnes (rendered easy by the very sudden and unexpected decision, tight timescale, etc - i.e. unusual circumstances) or they're going to be like they are in other elections - high enough to allow a campaign but laxly enforced.

And I'm afraid the idea that in general or other elections the Electoral Commission does enforce even the rules that do exist, let alone that those rules create a level playing field or are even enforceable at all, betrays the fact that those who write such are not actually that closely involved in electoral politics.

So that brings us back to Totnes where the winning candidate spent zero and no one really did any campaigning at all. That form of democracy is wide, but very shallow. People quite literally chose on the basis of looking at three 2-page CVs and it is unsurprising that the doctor won it.

I really don't think that such a process is going to build up "movement politics" so much as continue the drift of politics towards consumerism. Great news for local celebs or doctors (and you may argue that's a good thing) but that's about it.

As for party members choosing the shortlist, well that rather reinforces my view that the whole thing will be skin deep - don't you think people will become rather more cynical when they are given a choice of three party hacks to vote from?

And finally the "conspiracy" - not sure that's really what Harris was alleging, but still. Clearly many different supporters of primaries have different motives.

But there is definitely a discernable (not even covert really) toying with "virtual party" ideas among one specific element of New Labour (you wrongly seem to assume there is monolithic "high command" rather than different strands on the right of the party) and that very much links in to primaries as a way of moving beyond a European-style party structure and towards an American system.

However, I recognise that many people of that view are quite happy with PR *as well* as primaries, as they think the combination will lead to more liberal centrism of the sort they favour. It's more the Tories who have gone in for "primaries as distraction".