Campaign news

Beware of Primaries!

11th July 2013

They anoint money and the media as the most important factors in candidate selection, argues Mike Phipps.

Many of us thought the idea of open primaries for the selection of candidates was dead and buried following widespread rejection by members in a Party consultation process a couple of years ago. But the anti-union wing of the Party don’t give up easily and they have persuaded Ed Miliband to put it forward for the next London mayoral election.

Expect a beauty contest of personalities, some of whom were touted in the past as alternatives to Ken Livingstone - Trevor Phillips, Alan Sugar, Richard Branson, to name a few. All are pretty wealthy and associated with Labour’s right wing, if they have a connection with the Party at all.

Policy will take a back seat and ideology won’t feature. That’s good, say Blairites who believe we live in a post-ideological world, beyond left and right, as New Labour guru Anthony Giddens put it in his 1994 book. Elections are no longer about policy alternatives - that’s ‘boring’. What matters is who is more competent, and for that you need businessmen and technocrats rather than candidates committed to principles or even values.

Big money will dominate. Since primaries became the norm in presidential elections in the US, the cost of each election has pretty much doubled every four years - to a staggering $2 billion in 2012.

The electorate has only the flimsiest commitment to the Party whose candidate they are choosing. Mark Seddon, writing in a recent post, quotes Ian Williams, Chair of the New York Labour Party Branch: ‘Registration does not involve any payment of dues, or commitment to ideologies, nor give any say in framing policies… The candidates run in their own right, without party support. That means that the individuals who run – which can be anyone – have to raise their own cash. Bloomberg of New York, previously registered as a Democrat, decided to run on a Republican line because there were so few registered Republican voters in New York, it was easier for him to buy the nomination.’ (

Indeed, Bloomberg spent over $100 million on his last New York mayoral election. Commendably, Ed Miliband called for a cap on spending in elections. But once you make public visibility the key factor in getting selected, then money becomes all-important.

The experience of the US shows that campaign finance laws are easily circumvented, through “soft money”, supportive expenditure by “independent” bodies and legal challenges on free speech grounds. Here too, a tightening up of election expenditure laws didn’t stop the Labour leadership in the 2005 election soliciting undeclared loans from donors rather than actual donations open to public scrutiny. Tough campaign finance laws are one thing - the actual influence of money in politics quite another.

If primaries became the way to choose Labour’s candidates, what would be the benefits of Party membership? Labour has already become too top-down a Party, with members required simply to work to get candidates elected. Once the candidates are chosen outside the Party’s structures, they would be even more unaccountable and elitist.

Handing candidate selection over to registered Labour supporters rather than active and informed members will instantly give the media a decisive influence. As far as the London mayoral election goes, that would hugely strengthen the Evening Standard, now a free sheet handed out daily to hundreds of thousands of London commuters. It ran a hysterical anti-Ken Livingstone campaign in 2008 and 2012, but in a primary wield even more power. Its current editor is privately educated Sarah Sands, formerly with the conservative Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. Its owner is Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch estimated to be the 358th richest person in the world and hardly likely to be a champion of candidates from the egalitarian and redistributive wing of the Party.

Primaries are an ill-thought out proposal with little support within the Party. Indeed, even prominent opponents of the left, like Luke Akehurst, have already expressed their hostility to the idea ( . Given such opposition, there is a real chance that this dangerous step can yet be defeated.

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