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Primaries – policy-free beauty contests dominated by big money

Eddie IzzardBeware primaries. They anoint money and the media as the most important factors in candidate selection. Many of us thought the idea of open primaries for the selection of candidates was dead and buried following widespread rejection by members in a Party consultation process a couple of years ago. But the anti-union wing of the Party don’t give up easily and they have persuaded Ed Miliband to put it forward for the next London mayoral election.

Expect a beauty contest of personalities, some of whom were touted in the past as alternatives to Ken Livingstone — Trevor Phillips, Alan Sugar, Richard Branson, to name a few. All are pretty wealthy and associated with Labour’s right wing, if they have a connection with the Party at all.

Policy will take a back seat and ideology won’t feature. That’s good, say Blairites who believe we live in a post-ideological world, beyond left and right, as New Labour guru Anthony Giddens put it in his 1994 book Beyond Left & Right. Elections are no longer about policy alternatives – that’s ‘boring’. What matters is who is more competent, and for that you need businessmen and technocrats rather than candidates committed to principles or even values.

Big money will dominate. Since primaries became the norm in presidential elections in the US, the cost of each election has pretty much doubled every four years – to a staggering $2 billion in 2012.

The electorate has only the flimsiest commitment to the Party whose candidate they are choosing. Mark Seddon, writing in a recent post, quotes Ian Williams, Chair of the New York Labour Party Branch:

Registration does not involve any payment of dues, or commitment to ideologies, nor give any say in framing policies… The candidates run in their own right, without party support. That means that the individuals who run – which can be anyone – have to raise their own cash. Bloomberg of New York, previously registered as a Democrat, decided to run on a Republican line because there were so few registered Republican voters in New York, it was easier for him to buy the nomination.”

Indeed, Bloomberg spent over $100 million on his last New York mayoral election. Commendably, Ed Miliband called for a cap on spending in elections. But once you make public visibility the key factor in getting selected, then money becomes all-important.

The experience of the US shows that campaign finance laws are easily circumvented, through “soft money”, supportive expenditure by “independent” bodies and legal challenges on free speech grounds. Here too, a tightening up of election expenditure laws didn’t stop the Labour leadership in the 2005 election soliciting undeclared loans from donors rather than actual donations open to public scrutiny. Tough campaign finance laws are one thing – the actual influence of money in politics quite another.

If primaries became the way to choose Labour’s candidates, what would be the benefits of Party membership? Labour has already become too top-down a Party, with members required simply to work to get candidates elected. Once the candidates are chosen outside the Party’s structures, they would be even more unaccountable and elitist.

Handing candidate selection over to registered Labour supporters rather than active and informed members will instantly give the media a decisive influence. As far as the London mayoral election goes, that would hugely strengthen the Evening Standard, now a free sheet handed out daily to hundreds of thousands of London commuters. It ran a hysterical anti-Ken Livingstone campaign in 2008 and 2012, but in a primary wield even more power. Its current editor is privately educated Sarah Sands, formerly with the conservative Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. Its owner is Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch estimated to be the 358th richest person in the world and hardly likely to be a champion of candidates from the egalitarian and redistributive wing of the Party.

Primaries are an ill-thought out proposal with little support within the Party. Indeed, even prominent opponents of the left, like Luke Akehurst, have already expressed their hostility to the idea. Given such opposition, there is a real chance that this dangerous step can yet be defeated.


  1. Robbie Scott says:

    Having worked on the Obama campaign I’m in a fairly good position to point out that much of his money was donated to him from superpacs. In fact, donate is the wrong word spent is a better way of describing it. This was the method of choice for Republicans.

    You essentially have an external organisation who is willing to spend the money they might have donated themselves which removes the cap on candidate spending because organisations/ individuals can as you point out spend what they like.

    You’ve put an anti left spin on primaries but it doesn’t have to be that way.

    The Labour Party may well have a rule that says candidates running for office can only spend 10k on their campaign but what is stopping a Trade Union contacting all of their members in London and telling them to vote for X person ? What is stopping them from spending 1m backing a ‘crazy left candidate’ nothing , that is exactly what will happen and it is possible that left wing candidates will become more viable in this system, subject of course to getting on the panel in the first place.

    Trade Unionists need to think outside the box a bit. Similar situation with education policy, nothing stopping TUs setting up Free Schools and Academies they have the money and expertise to do it and running them on socialist principles like the Co-op.

    We have never had a primary in the uk that was seriously contested or in a key marginal. We tend not to have ‘attack ads’ in the UK because party structures constrain that behaviour. As soon as you move into the public realm you’ll have a very dirty style of politics.

    I think it’s absurd to force Trade Unions to opt in whilst moving towards primaries which by definition are full of people who cannot be bothered to opt in to the party themselves. The NEC already has the power to vary membership fees. Set membership fees to £1 if you want to get more people involved and then donate that money to a good cause locally.

    Also Ed is talking about a closed primary where you have to register as being a Labour supporter before you can vote which will be a logistical mess for the elderly and disabled and will cost a bomb.

    Finally, there’s a huge risk of race and religious politics. Given the fact that nearly 90% of ethnic minorities vote Labour and the highest concentration of them live in London it gives that particular interest a huge sway in selections. MP Steve Reed said on twitter last night :

    Steve Reed MP:

    A primary to choose Labour’s candidate for London Mayor will greatly benefit London’s BAME & LGBT population #betterpolitics @Ed_Miliband

    He’s right it will, and given the chronic underrepresentation of those groups that will be welcome. In places like Lewisham, Harrow, Peckham Newham Barking and Dagenham BME shortlisted candidates would stand a very good chance of winning a selection. Much better than inside a largely white male middle class party.

    But again you run the risk of following the American race model where you have the ‘Black caucus’ and the ‘Latino caucus’ and the LGBT caucus etc endorsing people in the primary process and essentially stitching things up.

    Eddie Izard isn’t a sure bet, if Sadiq Kahn or David Lammy are both shortlisted for London Mayor they will have a huge advantage over there white colleagues in a London Primary, especially if they’re running against a non politician.

    Primaries are a very volatile political device because they allow people to appeal directly to sectional community interests and i think we might regret that in the long run. That said there is lots of scope to shake things up in a positive way too.

  2. David Pavett says:

    Primaries would be the death of any effort to achieve intelligent party politics in which like-minded people collectively discuss and agree on what they think is the best way forward.

    To be frank such a procedure hardly represents what the Labour Party does but it is certainly the ambition of many and probably most of the active party members. They are uncomfortable with a world in which university graduates see political parties as a career route. The pursuit of individual career comes to dominate everything else.

    Primaries would give rise to competition of individuals who can find the backing. Spending limits can be circumvented. Agents can arrange for TV appearances and the like. If you don’t have such agents then, in general, you’re fucked.

    Such is the world into which Ed Miliband is inviting us. I really don’t want to go there. We can see how it works in the US and it is horrible.

  3. James Martin says:

    So if I’ve understood Blue Ed’s latest back of a envelope thoughts on this ‘policy wonk’ idea, any old Tory Tom, UKIP Dick or BNP Harry will have a say in who gets to stand for election for OUR party?

  4. Robert says:

    Crazy Lefties well said Mr Scott not that your a lefty of course.

    My feeling is Blair is back and poor old Miliband is so poor at what he does in the main he has decide to go with New Labour in the hope of being elected.

    If he fails it will be interesting to see where Miliband and Blair will go.

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