Monday, 10 August 2009

Primary motive- political change

Progress has launched a campaign to introduce primaries into Labour party selections- Prime Time. I have been arguing the case for 18 months now, both here and elsewhere so I gave a quote of support to the campaign:
'The demand for political change is irresistible and it’s right across the political spectrum. Labour has a simple choice. It can instigate change or be swallowed by it. Every single selection from tomorrow could be decided by those who have expressed support for Labour. A spending cap could easily be set just as it is in every single election in the UK. It would bring people to Labour rather than repel them as some have erroneously claimed; it could become the start of a real movement for change. It would be a disaster if this just becomes some sort of intra-party factional battle. Someone will get this right. Why don’t we make it Labour?'
Parties are suffocating, local selections are decided by ever smaller and self-selecting cabals, there has never been a greater distance between political parties and the communities they serve (with notable exceptions), politics is in its worse state in living memory, the status quo is just not acceptable anymore.

The process put forward by Will Straw- a short-list decided by members, the final vote by those who declare themselves to be Labour supporters- is a closed primary and is the right solution. It's difficult to estimate but I would imagine that would mean the participation of two or three thousand typically rather than 100 as is currently the case. Straight away you bring a whole new class of people into party politics and the party would change unrecognisably. I can only think that defenders of the status quo think the party is fine as it is. It is not- in terms of engagement, policy discussion, responding to local communities, participation, representation, it is underperforming. Things must change.

The money argument is spurious. A cap could be put on expenditure once the selection was announced. If primaries became a permanent feature of our electoral landscape you could require candidates to set up a campaign committee or some such and limit all expenditire to that committee and impose a cap of say £5,000 or £10,000. That is the sort of level of expenditure that serious selection campaigns currently spend so there is not great difference- other than that there is no cap currently. Finance could be found from trade unions and elsewhere for candidates.

That leaves the 'I don't hear people on the doorstep wanting constitutional change' canard. I promise you anyone who has spent time on the doorstep over the last few months has heard about very little but the demand for change. People don't say 'I want PR' but they do say 'you guys don't listen', 'expenses show how out of touch politicians are', 'a plague on all your houses', 'I only see you guys when you want my vote.' There are a myriad of other expressions that are basically demands for political change. Sometimes you have to reach behind what people are saying.

It was disappointing to see this debate turned into a factional dispute by- the usually interesting- Neal Lawson last week. It is a false choice between proportional representation and primaries. In fact, if you have PR, possibily with a greater number of safe seats as a consequence (depending on the system but let's not over-complicate), then primaries become even more important. I just hope that the next phase of Labour politics is not characterised by every single thing- political change, social policy, how many sugars we have in our tea- rammed into this false real v new Labour torpid debate. This approach was evident in John Harris' piece in The Guardian this morning. Those he agrees with are pure of motive while those he doesn't are wolves in sheep's clothing. Surely we can do better than that?

I have been privileged over the last few months to be in a position to give something in the region of thirty talks on Barack Obama. I always relate it to political change in the UK. There is always an enthusiastic response: in Nottinghamshire (see my account of the Lowdham book festival here), Walsall, Liverpool, Essex, Surrey, Acton, Birmingham, or wherever it's always the same.

People are demanding change. Why else did 16,000+ people vote in Totnes? Now the way the Tories did it is not right for Labour. But that's not the point. The point is the motivation for people to get involved. So what on earth are we waiting for?

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