The Bizarre Labour “Primary”

By Josep Colomer.


The British Labour Party is back. I mean back to its old days when it lost one election after another. For the first time, the party has held a primary election to select the party leader in which every vote had the same value. The selectorate was formed of party members, members of trade unions and registered party supporters. In total, 422,664 people have actually voted. This is only 4.5 percent of the votes the Labour party obtained in the general election four months ago. In spite of rhetoric about “engaging a wider body of supporters in Labour Party activity” and “expanding the electorate”, the actual participants have mostly been party and trade unions activists with eccentric preferences regarding the whole electorate.

This kind of ‘primary’ has nothing to do with the United States primaries. In the US, the average participation in the presidential primaries during the last forty years has been above 30 percent of the voters in the presidential election. In the Democratic primary of 2008, more than 52 percent of the party voters participated, and both the Democratic and the Republican primaries may reach high levels of participation this coming year too. The higher the participation in the primaries, the closer the winner tends to be to the preference of the whole electorate. The lower the participation, like in the British Labour experiment, the less electable the winner can be. This seems to be clearly the case of the new party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has won the ‘primary’ with support from only 2.6 percent of the party voters in the last election.

This looks like a way back to the long period when the British Labour Party was in opposition, during the 1980s and early ’90s, which was attributed partly to the way the party selected candidates for prime minister and members of parliament. While in the winning Conservative Party, leaders and members of parliament kept control of nominations, in Labour, all party members and trade union affiliates had voting rights. Tony Blair achieved to change the party rules to select candidates, particularly by reducing the weight of the trade union affiliates, in the mid-1990s. An electoral college was formed by splitting the votes into three thirds: members of parliament, party members, and trade unions and other organizations.

    With this, Blair was able to promote his centrist ‘Third Way’ between classical Labour and new Conservative policies and to become able to win one election after another. New rules were also established to select new candidates for parliament seats. Instead of being chosen by the party members in each electoral district, candidates to candidate began to be screened by the party central headquarters, they were obliged to attend training weekends, to submit standardized CVs, and to be interviewed by a panel which included members of parliament.

The intention, according to a senior party figure (quoted by Jeremy Paxman), was to “weed out of the charlatans” who might have somehow sneaked through the old selection system. He was frank about what this meant. People who “appeared not to have a pragmatic line on policy disagreements” or could “not avoid sounding divisive and combative if disagreeing with party policy” would be eradicated.

 By the new primary procedure, the chosen Labour party leader sounds again kind of “divisive and combative”, as in the old times. Most observers bet that he is a likely loser in the next election.

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