Making the most of primaries

First published in Progress magazine

We should automatically trigger primaries where party membership falls below a certain threshold, says Richard Angell

Primaries are an idea whose time has come in British politics: the coalition agreement mapped out plans for 200 all-postal primaries in this parliament, and last year Bassetlaw Labour engaged 6,000 local Labour supporters in a primary to determine their MP John Mann’s vote in the leadership election. Now the party there is bigger, stronger and has just won back a majority on the council – no small achievement.

It is fair to say, though, that many party members remain sceptical about primaries, concerned they may lose control over the process and outcome.

To help allay fears, the party rulebook should build on a rights-and-responsibilities model, making clear that local parties retain the right to decide the shortlisted candidates who will eventually go to the electorate in the primary. Not only will this increase interest in the party, it will become an electoral necessity, as the boundaries are redrawn. Slashing seats to 600 will delay when we can select our candidates in crucial marginals. Too many MPs in the last parliament stood down as candidates late, which hardly helped Labour in closely fought contests. By contrast, where we had candidates in place 18 months before the election, and where they worked hard to engage the electorate, we did better and people won against the odds. Getting local voters to feel a sense of ownership over the insurgent Labour candidate will replicate that effect. Candidates being chosen by 100 members in a seat hardly throws open the doors to the wider electorate.

There is a way that Labour could mimic the Bassetlaw example to help mitigate all this, by using primaries to encourage MPs and local members to drive up membership and raise interest in the race.

We should introduce the requirement that, if the constituency party has not ensured that at least one per cent of the Labour vote at the last election are party members, and the candidate selection takes place within a year of the general election, then the decision is thrown open to a primary. Moreover, the minimum threshold to avoid an automatically triggered primary should rise in each year of a parliament, meaning, at year four, a local party would need to have transformed four per cent of its vote into members – otherwise the question is put direct to local Labour voters. This would also help prevent the last-minute parachuting in of candidates.

These are achievable goals. Take the four top Tory-held marginals where Labour is not selecting early. They have an average Labour vote of 18,796 each. That would mean needing 188 members by year one, 376 by year two, 564 year three and 752 for the final run. In the closest Liberal Democrat-Labour marginal, this would mean multiples of 137 for every year of the parliament that has passed, resulting in the need for just 546 members to avoid a primary.

This would incentivise us as members to ask people to join, ensuring the party is always outward looking and ready to win. It would encourage us to reach out and – if this is not being done – then local people win a greater say, hopefully resulting in more support for a candidate and, in turn, more members.

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