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.