More thought on primaries – and London Mayors

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Now that the Tory’s primary in Totnes is over, I thought I’d add a couple of extra thoughts following my previous post on the subject.

The first is that, following the discovery that the candidates each had an expenses limit of £200, it is hard to see how this was much of a test at all. Despite the fact that “hundreds” of people are reported to have attended the hustings, the fact that a total of 16,000 people voted suggests that this was little more than a beauty contest. I’m all for spending limits, but this was clearly ridiculous. What’s more, it may yet be something the Tories end up rueing as Sarah Wollaston is almost entirely untested as a campaigner. The process has given her a massive boost, but I wouldn’t write off the Totness Lib Dems just yet.

Secondly, it is hard to see where the Tories go from here. Despite the fact that they have almost 200 selections still to run before the general election, no-one is calling for it to run open primaries in even a majority of them. At a cost of £8 million for 200 contests, it is not surprising. Until the advocates of this system start talking about how they propose paying for it, we can fairly safely ignore them.

There has been an interesting ripple in the Labour Party following this. Miliband is now proposing a system of closed primaries (i.e. open to supporters only). David Lammy has called for something similar to be used for the selection of Labour’s next London Mayoral candidate (the Standard claims that this is an “explosive intervention” which may be over-egging it just a teensy bit). Cynics are already dismissing this as Lammy throwing his hat into the ring. If this is the case, it is somewhat misguided – if Livingstone is determined to restand who on earth could beat him in an open contest?

Since the post is unlikely to be disappearing any time soon, the London Mayor is a position that might well benefit from all the parties holding a more open candidate selection process. As Lammy says, the system used by the Tories to select Boris was a bit of a disaster, barely increasing participation at all. But if the barriers were lowered, it could be a very healthy contest.

For the Lib Dems, opening out the process would be especially interesting because the party’s existing selectorate is currently concentrated in the South and the West of London. The rest of us get ignored. I hear these reports of Richmond Lib Dems getting harrangued by candidates. Speaking as a Barnet member: if only.

But of course there is the cost. I don’t see the party being able to afford a Totnes-style open primary any time soon. But that is no reason to do nothing. I would propose the following:

  • Combine the contest for Mayor with the contests for London Assembly candidates.
  • Instead of counting London as one big college, hold seperate contests in each London Assembly constituency. There are 14 of these. For the Mayor and the Assembly “top up” seats. Count the votes so that each contituency’s votes are the same, or at least proportional to voting size (the current system of one-member-one-vote means that the votes in the South West eclipse the rest of the city).
  • Roll out a series of caucuses in each constituency. Caucuses should be open to anyone on the electoral roll of that constituency. For various reasons it is probably impractical to hold all caucuses at the same time. Instead, caucuses should be held according to how many members are in each constituency, from the lowest upwards. That way, candidates will have an incentive to campaign in areas where the party is least strong and thus gain a “snowball effect.”
  • Caucuses should not be combined with hustings but each constituency should be free to hold one or more hustings as they wish.
  • A final rule: the winning mayoral candidate should automatically be on the party’s list of top up Assembly candidates. Their position on the list should depend on how many top ups were elected in the previous election. So in 2012 the Mayoral candidate would be placed fourth. That way, the Mayoral candidate will still have an incentive to shore up the party vote.

I wouldn’t guarantee that a system like that would greatly increase participation. What it would do however is increase participation in areas where we currently have very little, and ensure that our Mayoral and Assembly candidates better represent the whole of London. To me, that is a very real incentive to open out the candidate selection process. With supporters of open primaries apparently content to limit them to marginal seats, they don’t appear to be able to say the same thing.

Either way, the last couple of Lib Dem London Mayoral campaigns have been such basket cases we can not only afford to experiment but it is incumbant on us to do so.

2 thoughts on “More thought on primaries – and London Mayors

  1. Your idea about holding the selection in stages, so candidates can build up momentum, is an interesting one. I think that’s an important part of what makes US candidate selection seem more open (momentum either coming from a selection spread over time or, even if there’s just a one-off vote, from the rolling news about amounts of money raised and opinion poll standings).

    Even if we didn’t change the rules in other respects at all, simply having the list and Mayor candidates selected based on a series of constituency level selections, spread over time with results announced as they come in, would open up the field much more.

  2. I think that’s true Mark, but the order would be important. If Richmond were to set the pace then we would pretty much have what we began with. If on the other hand the contest were to begin in a place like Barking, it would help widen the debate significantly.

    I’d still prefer an open caucus over OMOV though. A couple of years ago I argued that we ought to weight each vote according to the party’s existing conference representative rules, but I can’t see that ever being adopted and all it means is that a small selectorate gets to pick and choose.

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