Open primaries not narrow shortlists are what the Labour party needs to re-connect with voters

by Peter Watt

There has been a lot of discussion in the Labour party recently about the narrow pool from which the current parliamentary Labour party (PLP) is drawn.  Basically the concern is that there are too many white middle class graduates who don’t represent the community as a whole.

So this month we have seen Chuka Umunna launch a Future Candidates Programme aimed at encouraging more business figures to stand for the Labour Party.  As the shadow business secretary said:

“Our party – all parties in fact – must reflect what Britain looks like and the jobs which people do.  Not only do we want more people setting up businesses, leading businesses and working in businesses, we want more people from the world of business in our ranks – from our councillors to our MPs.”

And then this week Dennis MacShane has expressed concern about the paucity of working class MPs.  He has suggested “all working class shortlists” for some parliamentary selections.  The idea being that we could use quotas to increase the numbers of non-middle class candidates and ultimately MPs.

Dennis proposes that 10% of parliamentary selections should be reserved for people on the minimum wage so that the pool from which our politicians are drawn stops being so narrow.  As Dennis said:

“The country desperately needs new political ideas, but the intellectual reservoir from which we draw our political leaders has become a paddling pool, when what we actually need is a raging torrent to get the country going again,”

The Labour party already has a long and honourable tradition of using quotas to increase the representation of women MP’s and indeed councillors.  At regular intervals there is also discussion of using quotas to increase the representation of other underrepresented groups and in particular minority ethnic candidates.

But I think that all of these initiatives increasingly start from the wrong diagnosis of the problem.  The diagnosis is that the Labour party, or any of its rivals, are basically sound.

That as presently constructed, political parties are the best way to achieve social justice and progress and that once people realise this then they will want to be a part of it.

Yes, there are some institutional biases that influence selections; but overcome these by some form of positive action and all is well.

I no longer think that this is right.

As institutions, political parties are increasingly remote from the public.  The public do not trust politicians, mistrust their motives and doubt their ability to solve the problems that they face in their lives.

While millions worry about paying the bills, about feeling unsafe, if their children will get jobs and whether they themselves will have a job in a few months – politicians discuss Lords reform or hacking.

Meanwhile people believe that journalists, police and bankers are all “at it” along with MPs and their expenses.

Using quotas to add a few more working class or business MPs won’t solve the problem.  The candidates may well be working class or from business but the selectorate will still be the same elite and basically middle class bunch.  Party members will need to be appealed to, and once the parliamentary hopeful has secured selection and been elected, they will need to keep that same selectorate sweet.

The basic culture of the body politic will not change.  We will still believe that we know best; that we are more important and more relevant than we really are and will still fight to preserve our rights as paid up members of the political class.  We will do all that we can to preserve the status quo – or at least our own status.

The very closeness of the current political situation means that the focus of the parties is on winning and that means that the incentive to be brave is limited.  Why do something risky when “one more heave” might secure a victory?  Wait for power goes the argument. Then, once we’re in, we can change things fundamentally. Except we won’t and the decline will continue.

It is very dangerous for our democracy if the building blocks of it, our political parties, continue to become more and more irrelevant to millions of voters.  It surely cannot go on indefinitely?

So we need to do something big and bold to break this cycle.  Of course political parties are fundamental to any system of representative democracy.  They are the coming together of those with similar values and world views so that common policy positions can be established; so that candidates can be selected and if voted for by the electorate that can then form administrations.

Without political parties this would all be all but impossible.  But as Ed Miliband made clear in his speech on May 12:

“…politics is an increasingly minority activity.  When you knock on doors, you will all have heard it; ‘you’re all the same.’ ‘It won’t make any difference to me.’”

And I agree.  Turnouts at elections are low and membership of all political parties is now below 4% of the electorate and falling.

It is true that there has been a small recent increase in Labour Party membership.  But no one really believes that this is the end of the inexorable decline in the numbers who choose to join a political party.

And yet this tiny minority of voters who choose, as I have, to join a political party, jealously guard their right to select candidates for election.

Most Labour party members may not have gone to Eton but that doesn’t stop them being exclusive!

Little wonder that voters look on bemused or worse simply do not see political parties as being relevant to them or their lives.

Now more than ever is time for the Labour party to focus its attention on this dangerous level of disengagement.

It time for the Labour party to allow voters to select candidates using a system of open primaries.  Those seeking selection would be forced to appeal to voters in order to become the candidate rather than fellow members.  Winning candidates would then enter into electoral battle with supporters and advocates from beyond the limited ranks of party members.

Some say that it will cost too much.  Some say that logistically it cannot be done.  But using technology and a bit of creativity these objections can be overcome.  Some worry that turnouts will be low.  But whatever the turnout it will be a more inclusive process than the current closed and private world of the party member selection.

Some say that the right to select candidates and leaders should only be reserved for members.  But members join to help change the world not to select candidates!

Of itself, the introduction of open primaries will not arrest the disengagement with political parties.  But it will be a big step along the road of forcing the Labour party to engage with voters and their needs.  After all, if you want to get selected then it will be in your own self-interests.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

Tags: , , ,

5 Responses to “Open primaries not narrow shortlists are what the Labour party needs to re-connect with voters”

  1. JS says:

    This sounds great in theory. And as a former General Secretary, Peter Watt is well qualified to discuss the mechanics.

    However, would potential candidates have to go through a filtering process to ensure they have ‘labour’ values? If so, who decide this? An elite?

    Also – it could mean you get entryists who have strong oratorical skills sweeping the board. Not necessarily good.

  2. Mike Homfray says:

    But the outcome would be further Americanisation of the party structure, meaning parties would be little more than mobilisation efforts for those who can afford to stand in their interest. There would be no benefits of being a party member, so membership would become redundant – and so any sort of democratic party structure.

    Back to the American model again, which should be avoided at all costs. The American obsession of endless elections for everything has not assisted in reconnecting people to their political system – particularly the poor, who don’t vote because the parties represent and are interested in the same people in socio-economic terms – and its not them

    Bad idea, but then, I’ve never agreed with a word Watt says to date

  3. Mouth of the Umber says:

    I think this is another example of a ‘political apparatchik’, insofar as you think you know the answer and then you try to find the evidence to support your answer.
    You rightly say most people are becoming disengaged with politics; members of political parties are also becoming disengaged with political parties.
    One measurement of engagement with politics is the percentage of the population who are members of a political party. I was amazed that no mention is made as to how “open primaries” will encourage people to join a political party. I would suggest it will encourage members to leave.
    Why should you join a party when you can select the candidate without being a representative? After all, the remaining members will have to campaign and fund-raise for a person who isn’t necessarily of their choice.
    No incentive to join and a lot of motivation to leave a political party.
    Obviously, the Whipping system goes by the way, which could be a big plus for the system.
    What needs to happen is that a review of political participation is quickly undertaken in American States where they hold open primaries and see the results. Are significantly more people becoming engaged with politics?
    As engagement with politics is dropping overall in America it would suggest that open primaries are not significantly more likely to encourage political engagement.
    Which suggests we need to look at other areas, without a doubt the cynical reporting by some parts of the media isn’t helping, but is this significant? The actions of politically motivated pressure groups, such as; Immigration Watch, Taxpayers Alliance, Countryside Alliance and possibly Fair Fuel UK.
    Even taking these factors into account it suggest that policy is a big motivating factor and it is also a big discouraging factor.
    Open primaries will change the candidate, but it won’t change the policies.
    One of the major problems with policy creation is that it has become centralised through the NPF. The LP tries to make one policy fit all even though the electorate have become far more individualistic.
    As well as having a centralised policy making body with a centralised command structure, the LP still uses a marketing tool shown to be wrong in the 1980s by industry and proven to be wrong in the book Consumerology [ISBN-13: 978-1857885507].
    This isn’t helped by many politicians haven’t had jobs outside of politics.
    The policy making process is also stuck with politicians who through political dogma think they know the answer, but struggle to find the evidence.

  4. Peter Watt says:

    Mike, my name is Peter. Just because you disagree with me doesn’t mean you have to be discourteous.

  5. Robet says:

    And that’s it on Labour uncut, you do not bother answering the questions put forward, just that he did not call you Peter.

    I notice this on a lot of Labour blogs you have your views you write them up but never ever really answer the questions, this place has become a Progress off shoot

Leave a Reply