Wednesday 19 August 2009

John Harris: why primaries would help the right

This is a guest post from John Harris replying to Sunder Katwala's post in response to John's Guardian column.

The Guardian also publishes a response to John's column from David Lammy.


I'll start with one point that demands to be made. I don't want to 'close down' any discussion about anything - I think the argument about primaries, on the left at least, is interesting, partly in that it necessarily takes in discussion about the nature and future of political parties, the concentrations of power in the political system more generally, the prospects for meaningful left politics and so on. Just because I'm opposed, doesn't mean I'm not up for the discussion.

A lot of people won't like this, but anyway: Sunder et al's big problem, it strikes me, lies in an implicit denial of where we are politically, how much power has already passed rightwards, and how the Tories' pushing of primaries is a pretty naked bid to squash the argument for PR. They didn't expend all that energy and money on Totnes for nothing.

As I said in the Guardian piece, there have been two broad responses to the expenses crisis- delusional anti-politics (witness Martin Bell's latest wheeze), and convincing calls for constitutional reform, and a change to the voting system in particular.

Self-evidently, the latter spells trouble for the Tories, so they're leading the charge on primaries, but implementing an increasingly centralised, strangulated style of party management (again, see my piece) that surely reduces the whole thing to window dressing.

I cannot stress this next point enough: inwardly, I'm hardly optimistic, but this is surely the best moment for a move forward on PR in years. You might be in favour of electoral reform - but even if you're horrified at the idea of hitching yourself to any Tory wagons, backing primaries in the current context will assist the right in their attempt to kick that issue to the margins. That's not necessarily fair, and it's not the stuff of high debate, but it's the truth. The somewhat arcane details of who supports
what in high Labour circles simply isn't that relevant to where all this is going.

Now, a few other points. Yes, Labour politics could do with a lot more participation and participants. But what has played a key role in emptying the party and wider movement out? Answer: the fact that, aside from a say in choosing candidates, it's very hard to say what influence or voice being a member of the party brings any more (before anyone starts, I don't have a
rose-tinted view of any supposedly lost idyll of internal Labour democracy, but even theoretical influence is better than none at all). Moreover, one of the effects of this absence of voice has been the leadership regularly defining itself against the party, adopting policies that few Labour people would want to go out and argue for, etc. Sunder's 'church' analogy is telling: there's a real danger in the primaries argument of going the last mile to reinventing Labour as a vague mass of supporters/participants, with a tightly-drilled, centralised leadership who are accountable to no-one (I confess, I don't know that much about PASOK, but I'm pretty up to speed with power relations within the Catholic Church).

As to money. I like James Graham's point in the previous discussion thread: "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." Moreover, if you read my Guardian piece again, you'll see that I really went for the money argument having highlighted the possibility/likelihood of primaries spreading up through the political system, from Westminster constituencies, through mayoral contests, to leadership elections. At each stage, the importance of money would surely increase.

An illustrative fact: Nicky Gavron spent a cool £42,000 communicating with thousands of Labour members when she successfully went for the Labour mayoral nomination in London. How much would be required when the selectorate ran to millions? What level of spend would be needed by a candidate for the national leadership? I'm unconvinced by claims that the business of meaningful communication could somehow be solved by email, or cash from the Electoral Commission - and I don't trust the political class with supposedly reliable caps on anything (to be mischievous and somewhat tangential, the likely future of tuition fees maybe isn't a bad example).

Following on from this, there's something Sunder doesn't touch on. In The Guardian, I wrote: "courting the more reactionary parts of the press would often be crucial, and debate would always be in danger of being reduced to the currency of name and face recognition: as one British academic recently told me, 'it's big money, or it's Arnold Schwarzenegger' (or rather, Esther
Rantzen)." God knows, both of those - and the first in particular - inevitably bedevil our politics, but primaries would lock them in from the get-go. And again, there's a question of trust here: I'm not sure where the Alan Sugar-for-Labour mayoral candidate project is up to, but primaries would make nonsense like that even more tempting to party high-ups, which is where the importance of money would transcend any formal caps. This point would apply just as much as the constituency level: what guarantees pre-existing celebrity/help on the doorstep/whatever better than wealth?

Oh, and one other thing. Sunder writes: "I do think Harris and Lawson overestimate not just the ruthless cunning but the organisational capacity of the New Labour high command." I hear the latter might be waning, but on the basis of their centralising, emasculating record, I wouldn't take any chances.

In short, back primaries if you want and let's have the debate. But bear in mind that context is all, and on both sides of politics, some people are surely pushing the idea of a new democratic dawn while continuing to plan for what I'd understand as the precise opposite.

Nefarious? Something like that, yes.


Unknown said...

I have to say, I think he makes a strong point about the idea that primaries will suddenly solve everything (not that anyone has said everything will be solved).

In that case, if the naked choice is between primaries and electoral reform, then it's wise for the left to keep agitating for the latter than go along with the former.

That said, I don't see electoral reform being pushed by this govt either.

Unknown said...

I'd add something more intelligent but brain is a bit fizzled right now. May blog about this later on Libcon

Charlie Marks said...

The other reason the Tories are so keen on open primaries is that it's a novelty which makes the party look changed. Meanwhile the Tories can continue to oppose democratisation.

Sunder Katwala said...


Many thanks for the response. I accept that you don't want to close down the debate. Scrutiny and critique of primaries and the broader reform agenda is a good thing, and I hope this exchange has weakened the idea they are being proposed with malign intent.

1. I still can't see how the "helps the Tories" and "weakens PR" arguments work. The Tories can argue whatever they want. I am not sure why an experiment they hold then must determine a Labour debate which has been on-going in the last two years. That gives them a powerful veto.

2. But the argument works the other way around. It is John's argument which helps the Tories. The Tory argument 'its primaries or PR' is bogus, yet here it is being advocated that we accept that frame. Why not say what is true - reforming local candidate selection is fine, but does nothing to address the question of how and whether voters influence who gets to govern the country in a General Election. Accuse the Tories of ignoring the bigger question by saying 'we agree find that interesting too; but lets not pretend it is not a substitute for national constitutional reform'. Why accept their frame?

3. Substantively, the "both/and' argument is convincing. If you win it, PR won't give you a culture of engagement without broader reforms, both of the constitution and of parties.

AV+ would constrain governments somewhat; make majority governments (somewhat) less likely and coalitions more likely; increase a bit the voice of (some) minor parties.

What would it do for member empowerment and engagement in parties? How would it help Labour connect to broader progressive activism and movements? Not much that I can see. The "distraction" argument risks distracting us from this point.

So I don't see how PR offers the whole solution to issues of participation and engagement in politics, though it is important to make more votes count for something on general election day. Indeed PR without party reform seems to me to risk disempowering members: leaderships and MPs could become more remote - eg coalition negotiations over policy; some will feel there could be a centrist bias (though that can be challenged).

Newmania said...

Primaries help the right because they stop the left using class entryism to employ working class conservative votes in support of a socially progressive project they do not wantThey help the right ,in other words ,because they provide real accountability. They dish PR because you will not be able to take voting rights away.
The answer is for the left to win arguments with real people and stop is time honoured Fabian strategy of ,manipulating the system to vastly exaggerate the power held by a small minority whilst simultaneously complaining about their inability to concentrate even more power with Left Liberal courtiers via PR

What the left hate and what they cannot admit is that their leaders despise the views of many of their voters ,perhaps a majority . Immigration , Criminal Justice , Education , EU membership, Marriage , Minority-ism , are all way to the left of the country . or skewed to the Liberal Progressive cause .There is endless Surveyed evidence

Its simple, left wing politics and democracy do not mix , never have .

Take Sunny Hundal for example .He amuses himself vanity publishing sixth form leftism to a congregation of hundreds , has no experience of anything ,no achievements and no special talent . This inconsequential gnat is nonetheless published lending his “weight” to a high pay commission , yes really . Such a person could actually be parachuted onto a Labour seat currently and many not unlike him are , such people represent almost no-one .I need hardly say that this sort of lunacy simply amazes ordinary people .Open Primaries are a vital corrective to the fetid little world of the political courtier and careerist in the Liberal elite

Robert said...

It has been a serious problem for Labour of late, they are the lap dogs of American presidents, so why not have the whole hog of thousands of parties at elections, jumping up and down waving placards shouting Gordie Gordie we love you.

Gordon standing on stage waving his hand nodding his head smiling and saying we will win we will win, makes me want to vomit.

Less of the parachuting more of real people coming into politics, less America and more f*cking British politics, less leaders thinking we can make money out of backing the USA.

little wonder I'll not bother voting at the next election

Jessica Asato said...

Thanks for engaging with the debate John. I agree with everything Sunder has raised, but I’d like to add a few points of my own.

You raise an interesting point about whether supporting primaries damages the case for PR. It’s important to get to the bottom of this claim because Progress is a firm supporter of the Vote for a Change campaign and has campaigned for PR long before the MPs expenses crisis. I wouldn’t want to jeopardise the, albeit slim, chance that the government will see sense and hold a referendum on voting reform on general election day. But I just can’t see how you come to the conclusion that Tories are backing primaries to scupper PR.

This is because the Tories have been promoting primaries for a good while, and not as far as I can see on the basis of any other argument except that they think it would be good to engage more of the public in party political democracy and because it makes them look more welcoming as a party which might garner votes in the long run. Douglas Carswell et al published a report for the Centre for Policy Studies in 2007 arguing for them on the first of these grounds. The campaign for PR has been around for a long time, but it’s only since the expenses crisis that it’s built up a head of steam again, yet the Tories used a primary to select Boris Johnson for London Mayor and many of the current crop of parliamentary candidates were selected by primaries before anyone knew about duck houses and moats.

In terms of the Totnes selection, I think that the Tories went big on this in order to decontaminate the fallout from Anthony Steen. It was a cynical use of primaries, but a pretty successful one. Totnes is an area where a primary would work well since it has a relatively vibrant political scene, good local papers and a strong sense of community. In no sense, therefore, do I think that the Tories are backing primaries because they will stymie PR. Having just asked a well-connected Tory whether he’d heard this used as a reason for backing primaries in Conservative circles he said it had never occurred to him. My next thought was, let’s not give the Tories ideas! The Tories I expect see no prospect of us winning the debate on PR and therefore haven’t given it a second thought. Your assertion that the right are attempting to kick PR to the margins doesn’t stand up.

As for whether primaries have been used by CCHQ to impose candidates, to my knowledge none of the Tory primaries have had shortlists drawn up by Tory central office. Now it is true that they are drawn up by local association officers, and some have been called into central office, but this is not how the Labour party operates and I do not see why if Labour introduced primaries we would move to this system. If anything, the good thing about primaries is that they take power away from the centre. The A-list which Cameron tried to impose on his party only lasted for a brief while until it caused so much consternation among local Conservative Associations that it was abandoned. Just have a read of ConservativeHome and you’ll see that Cameron isn’t exactly winning his way with centralisation. Progress’ proposal is for local Labour parties to choose the shortlist which will mean local members retain authority over determining whether someone shares their values and to ensure that gender and ethnic representational concerns are addressed.

Finally, if Labour were to call for primaries too, we’d take a fair bit of power away from the Tories on the issue. The reason why they are doing well with it is because they can buy voter support as we saw in Totnes. If primaries were introduced to work on the same day, funded by the state, Tories wouldn’t be able to use Ashcroft millions to weedle their way into the public’s affections. This isn’t the best argument in favour, but it’s tactically a better one to fight the Tories on than ceding the ground because we’re worried about losing the argument on PR.

Will Straw said...

A couple of thoughts:

"backing primaries in the current context will assist the right in their attempt to kick that issue to the margins."

Why? Let's suppose for a moment that we all agree that primaries are the answer and the question is just one of tactics. There is not a cat in hell's chance of the Tories advancing PR so our only chance is (a) a referendum on election day, or (b) a referendum under a new Lab or Lab-Lib Government. If either of these scenarios took place, we would neuter the Tories argument that it was a choice between PR and primaries by advocating for both. If the Tories won then we would be well placed advancing our own democratic reforms (incl primaries) as part of our case to the public that they should vote back a Labour government that would go on and introduce a referendum on PR.

"Nicky Gavron spent a cool £42,000 communicating with thousands of Labour members when she successfully went for the Labour mayoral nomination in London. How much would be required when the selectorate ran to millions?"

This strikes me as quite a lot of money when the selectorate was only 25,000. Of course a candidate needs to spend some cash but let's suppose that billboard and TV ads were banned, the local party sent out emails to all members on behalf of every short listed candidate, and the taxpayer (or central party) covered the cost of a single mailshot to all voters. What large cost does a candidate then need to spend money on? At the constituency level I would have thought that a spending cap of c.£2k would about cover other expenses and is a small enough sum for a genuine local candidate to raise (ie it is £20 from 100 supporters).

Keeping costs low means that you have a level playing field on which to compete on ideas and organisation which are both to be encouraged.

At the London level, you would certainly need a higher spending cap but the same logic applies as before. Ban certain activities and get the taxpayer to pay for others and you have a level playing field.

Unknown said...

Thanks to John for his well-argued responses here and over at the Guardian (where I have left a similar response), and to everyone else for engaging in this important debate.

On John’s central point: there’s no hitching to ‘Tory bandwagons’ here. I agree that we must move to a more representative electoral system, as I have argued before: I am certainly not using my support for primaries to detract from that. But I do not want proportional representation because I believe that preserving the link between an MP and their constituency is vital. Many people on this thread have bemoaned the lack of “local” candidates in our elections. And we know all too well the resonance of claims by the BNP that politicians “don’t understand us or our area”. The distant party lists of a PR system are hardly the way to solve that.

Primaries should be part of a much wider package of democratic reform, which includes the way we elect, as well as select our representatives. I believe that Alternative Vote (AV) system, where people rank candidates in order of preference rather than selecting only one, has much to commend it. And I also recognise that this system may open up space for other political groups to emerge – perhaps to the left of Labour, a stronger Green voice, or a pro-EU party on the Right. I believe Labour must be confident enough to share and represent good progressive ideas wherever they come from.

Nor should primaries be a way of electing ‘celebrities’ to do as they please. They are a way of widening the pool of talent and experience from which we choose our representatives as far as possible, to find the best person to implement and bring to life Labour’s manifesto. I agree with others on here that people who do want to be members of the party should have a greater say in our policy debate and formation – and have argued for a long time now that the politics of ‘command and control’ will no longer do:

The points about the practicalities of the system, and about how to finance it, are good ones. This needs some serious consideration. Will Straw makes some good points above, particularly on the need to keep costs low. I do think that if parties opened up, some state funding for what I see as a democratic development would be more palatable. Election spending per candidate is already capped at election time. Members, supporters and unions could still donate to party activity. This is not about depoliticising – quite the opposite. Those who argue that are the ‘already-politicised’ – and are dwindling in number. It’s time to reach beyond the usual suspects. As we saw in Totnes, in a primary an engaging movement can built behind candidates. It is up to us to build a progressive movement behind ours – and I think primaries are a good place to start.

Sunder Katwala said...

David and others,

Thanks for all comments. As it happens, I have also written in support of AV, sometime before this crisis back in 2007, though I have been broadly sympathetic to PR . In any event, the argument against PR can't be based on "distant party lists" and loss of constituency links, since no serious PR advocacy for the Commons favours such a system.

On primaries, I think this exchange highlights that we need to root this debate in a wider argument for party reform - and how thay might lead to primaries and/or other reforms. Perhaps 'primaries for or against' is too narrow a debate, which leads to fears that primaries could be emasculating of parties, and hopes that they could be empowering. Perhaps both are possible - maybe primaries as the only reform could weaken parties if they did not come as part of the broader cultural and organisational changes advocated.

In particular, it will be necessary to give members more voice in order to lower barriers to non-members. This would be important in itself, but also challenge the hidden agenda fears.

Equally, it would be important to hear what those who seem equally dissatsified with the status quo are proposing as an alternative agenda. John expressed support for "more participation and participants" and for increasing member voice.

I think there is a challenge for some who share the view about empowering current members as to whether or not they also support lowering barriers to entry (whether via primaries or other methods) as a way to increase participation, or whether any such moves are seen as emasculating of current membership

Unknown said...

"As we saw in Totnes, in a primary an engaging movement can built behind candidates."

I don't think we saw that in Totnes. I think we saw people vote for a doctor rather than two politicians after glancing at three 2-page CVs for a few minutes.

Of course, the Tories have said otherwise...but they would, wouldn't they?

Nonetheless, as a tactical device it was highly successful - certainly many of the primary voters will now feel invested in the candidate and vote for her again at the general election.

From a purely electoral point of view it had a lot to commend it, and perhaps Labour might have benefited from a similar experiment in, say Luton South, if electoral gain is the yardstick. (And it must inevitably be fairly important for a political party!)

That is not "movement politics" however - rather the reverse, a low level of engagement from a large number of people, with very little activism involved even from the candidates.

As for state funding - as someone who has knocked on many doors for the Labour party, I would love a system of party registration, but I suspect that it would destroy the very popularity which has everyone so excited in the first place...

Still - perhaps someone will do a poll on it. Any takers?