I’m no fan of First Past the Post. It distorts the UK election system in so many ways. But much as I dislike the system, it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. So what can be done to improve it, even if just marginally?
Use of primaries in Labour politics was the idea discussed at a fringe event organised by Progress at Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, with David Lammy, Will Straw and Jessica Asato arguing in favour, and Luke Akehurst against. Many in the audience were far from convinced of the values of primaries at the start, and I counted myself among them.
There are a number of vital questions to which we don’t yet have firm answers.
Firstly to what elections would primaries apply? Cases raised included future choice of the leader of the Labour Party, candidates for mayors (including in London), candidates to become Labour MPs and candidates for police commissioners.
This raises a second question: how much interest can primaries generate in the general population? While it’s possible to imagine reasonable interest in a primary for Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, the same cannot surely be said about Labour’s choice of a candidate for Commissioner of Merseyside Police!
Then there’s the thorny issue of who would actually be eligible to vote in any primary – anyone? Anyone who is a ‘supporter’ of Labour? If it’s just Labour Members then, well, that’s not actually a primary but is basically a selection, so we need more than that, but how much more?
Tied to that is the question of costs – the Tories’ Totnes primary apparently cost £40k, a not inconsiderable sum, and the fear is this would divert Labour’s own already very scarce resources, while taxpayer financed primaries are probably beyond what’s currently acceptable. The system chosen in France – where to vote in the PS primary for President voters pay a small levy of €1 – was cited as a possible example to follow.
But beyond that there’s one big issue which for me is crucial to determine whether any of this is a good idea: will it give Labour better, more interesting and more diverse candidates? For leader, for Mayor of London, as MPs? The answer to that is – at the moment – that we just don’t know. In light of that, and a point raised by Jessica, what do we have to lose from trying this out?
If any such trial is limited, sensible, and time constrained, then why not? Labour needs to be honest enough to face up to the facts if the reality doesn’t match the aspiration, but we’ll only know that for sure once we try.