Labour primaries: a dash for cash?

by Andy Howell

As Labour’s newly elected NEC prepares to settle in for the new year, it appears that one of the issues they will be considering carefully is that of primaries for selections. Primaries are loved by some and hated by others and, perhaps, the controversy over them was why refounding Labour was relatively passive on the subject or, at least, kicked it into the long grass.

Renewed interest in primaries follows the French socialist party’s recent use of a primary system to select their presidential candidates. Here at party HQ, interest in the French experiment seems to lie less with a desire to expand democracy, and more with of a sense that primaries are an opportunity to pull in some quick cash.

The business case following the French primaries is simple. To vote in the French Socialist’s primary voters had to pay a €1 fee. 2,860,157 people voted in the second round which, of course, equates to a lot of dosh — just short of £2.5 million pounds.

We saw something of a membership bounce after the election, but that has now worn off. Party membership is now on the decline once more and funds remain under real pressure. Concern remains about the party’s ability to support a compliment of staff that is adequate to mount effective political campaigns. Against such a backdrop, it is no surprise that there is interest in anything that can bring such a big hit in terms of finance. But such a fascination with primaries may well divert us from developing a realistic, long-term, business plan for the party.

It is not unknown for membership organisations to face a membership crisis. Those that are able to successfully re-launch do so by, at least, reconnecting with their membership and, often, by modernising and improving their membership offer. Today’s Labour party expects a lot from its members in terms of campaigning activity. Of course, there is little point in Labour if it is not an effective campaigning machine, but we have become a party that gives very little back to members and, increasingly, seems uninterested in the rights of members. Democracy is becoming something we aspire to in the country, but something we marginalize internally.

Over the next 12 months Iain McNicol, our new general secretary, and the new NEC must build on refounding Labour and create a proper, and realistic, business plan for the development — even survival — of our party. As a membership organisation, we need to be energetic and imaginative in giving members real rights as well as responsibilities. The party must be properly focused in supporting and servicing its members more effectively.

A suspicion remains that the party’s financial strategy is heavily dependent on Sir Christopher Kelly (chairman of the committee on standards in public life) who could ride to the rescue by proposing a system of state funding for political parties. However, it is just as likely that Kelly, as the very proper mandarin that he is, will not move until there is real consensus on the issue across the main parties. And there seems little chance of this emerging in the near future.

There is debate to be had about primaries, but this should be a full and frank debate on political grounds and not simply simply focussed on the chance to pull in some quick cash. The development of a primary system is no substitute for the development of a rigorous and energetic business plan.

Members leave the party because they feel marginalised and unwelcome. While we need to be imaginative in engaging the public, and ensuring that we are not simply talking to ourselves, there is no substitute for a healthy membership base. We ignore our members at our peril.

Andy Howell is a former deputy leader of Birmingham city council and is chair of the Labour democratic network.

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12 Responses to “Labour primaries: a dash for cash?”

  1. swatantra says:

    Lets have these Primaries. and lets have State Funding.
    The last paragraph is very pertinent because the Party is in danger of becomng fossilised yet again and needs new and fresh faces. Hope the NEC take note.

  2. Nick says:

    There we go. The solution for politicians is more public money. You can’t get the money voluntarily, so you will get the money with force. No difference between that proposal and a mugger using a knife.

    As for primaries, I’m in favour. It’s part of reforming the corruption around MPs selection.

    1. Primaries
    2. Right of recall.

    That deals with the issue of the 52% of MPs who are corrupt.

    Here’s why. Lets say you have a corrupt Labour MP who is subletting a Grace and Favour apartment for cash. To get rid of them you may well have to wait 5 years, and then vote Tory in order to remove them.

    Right of recall means that you can get rid of the corrupt MP before the 5 years is up. You can get rid of them without having to shoot yourself in the foot and vote Tory.

    That doesn’t deal with the major issue. MPs and Parties lying about what they are going to do, or keeping what they are going to do secret.

    For example, the Lib Dems lied about tuition fees. Labour implemented migration policies without a mandate. For that you need, like the Greeks, for the electorate to have the final say.

    Referenda are expensive, so a cheaper variant is needed. The best is referenda by proxy. The elector can nominate any MP, not just their representative as their proxy. It’s proxy votes that count for the final assent of a bill.

  3. The Future says:

    This is quite a good article and focuses on an important area.

    In my opinion, 2.5 million may sound a lot, but a small loss in members and their membership fees would very quickly exceed this figure.

    I agree we need to give members more responsibility but we also need to be tougher on a party on those members that frankly contribute nothing to the party but expect to have all the say. Labour has far far to many arm chair generals and nowhere near enough boots on the ground.

  4. paul barker says:

    Any idea of the Numbers on Membership decline ? I have seen suggestions of 10K since the spring but the source was unclear if that was numbers leaving or Net decline, 2 very different things.
    I have also seen suggestions of a big rise in Numbers In Arrears, often a pointer to future losses.

  5. Jon Lansman says:

    You’re right to say that the debate on primaries should not be “focussed on the chance to pull in some quick cash”. Apart from anything else, we wouldn’t raise anything like they did ion France. There is the world of difference between an election to pick the candidate for a presidential election that is itself not far off, and the choice of a party leader who will simply lead the opposition for another four years.

    I agree too with your stress on the value of membership and the need to avoid undermining our membership base.

    The other key argument in my view is about accountability. Whereas in France, the presidency is a a post with considerable power but whose power is also counter-balanced by that of the French Congress, the post for which Labour’s leader is a candidate is very different. The British Prime Minister is not set apart from Parliament but first among equals in their cabinet and in the House of Commons. Accountability, checks and balances come from within the Cabinet, Parliament and also the Labour Party itself. Creating the claim of a powerful popular mandate would serve only to reinforce the concentration of unaccountable power at the centre which developed during the Blair years with ultimately disastrous consequences.

  6. Peter Kenyon says:

    Dear Andy

    Catchy headlines are appealing, as old hacks like myself know – guilty as charged. But ‘dash for cash’ suggests a Labour leadership contest is imminent. Really?

    I appreciate some contributors to this blog might wish for that, even if they might shrink from actively working to topple the current Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. But how likely is that before the next general election if one were to assume Labour will lose? As far as I’m concerned that is unthinkable. So how can you the last leftie in the West Midlands feed their fantasies?

    Of course, there is that modest matter of the London mayor election next May. So perhaps there is a plot to unseat Ed Miliband if Ken Livingstone fails to persuade enough second preferences to topple Boris? It would only take 52 Labour MPs to nominate an alternative candidate under the current Labour Party rules to force a contest.

    Obviously one to watch, especially as the latest issue of Progress (financed by the 1%) asks ‘Can Ken win?’

    All I can say comrade is be careful what you wish for.

  7. Rich says:

    Primaries are an awful idea. A constituency party is far more likely to select an electable candidate than is a primary electorate. The latter will often rank ideological purity above just about anything else. In consequence, each party’s ideological center shifts towards the extreme. Primaries also weaken parties. While that may sound nice, does it really make sense in a parliamentary democracy?

  8. Andy Howell says:


    There are fans of primaries everywhere and for all kinds of elections! Remember those of us outside of the hallowed cap have elections most years!

    The serious point is that some seem prepared to entertain major changes (and this is just one) without rally considering benefits and consequences but just cash!

  9. Andy Howell says:


    Some of us have elections every year or almost every year! Fans of primaries see them being used in all kinds of settings. Rather than debate the pros and cons some people seem to be simply seduced by the money …..

  10. Andy Howell says:


    Peter Kenyon (see above) has taken a number of constituency and branch membership records and has extrapolated membership loss. He reckons that we will be at about 175,000 by the end of the year.

    Labour is notoriously opaque about membership numbers and the membership figures count people up until 7 months after they have left or lapsed.

    LDN aim to keep a running calculation of membership over the winter — mail Peter direct!

  11. Andy Howell says:


    I have some sympathies with anyone who is frustrated with the current selection processes. But primaries can — and will — be manipulated by many of the same people!

  12. Andy Howell says:

    Jon Lansman,

    You might a very good point about seeing accountability in the round, i.e. just just within Party boundaries. Need to think about this some more!

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