Tag Archives: primaries

Is Julie Kirkbride’s resurrection thanks to her Midlands Industrial Council links?

It is quite astonishing to see Julie Kirkbride apparently announcing that she intends to restand for Bromsgrove after all, and that CCHQ is apparently actively helping her. If, as ConservativeHome contend, she is going to be subjected to an open primary (and not a misnamed open caucus) it will be an interesting contest as this will be the first time an incumbant will have been subjected to the system. It certainly has the potential to blow up in her face; it also has the potential to blow up in the party’s face. How will this no expenses rule of their’s apply when one candidate already has such an in built advantage?

As for why CCHQ have decided to be so generous to her, one has got to wonder if it has something to do with her links to the cabal behind the Midlands Industrial Council scam a few years ago. You may recall that after a lot of resistence, Kirkbride was announced the “link person” between the MIC and the Conservative Party.

The full list of the MIC’s donors have never been revealed (they were very careful to only publish a “membership” list) and it is understood to be behind such things as the Taxpayers’ Alliance (which, naturally, has it’s own well resourced West Midlands office – but not an office in one of those minor regions like Scotland where the Tories don’t have a cat in Hell’s chance presumably all money is being properly spent). What we do know is that their campaigning operation has, under Lord Ashcroft, been streamlined into the main CCHQ operation.

Win or lose, an open primary will cost the Bromsgrove Conservatives around £40,000 to run. Previous open primaries have been conducted to cleanse the party’s reputation – here the money appears to be being spent to at least give Kirkbride an attempt to cleanse her own. The party itself will be getting less out of it – Kirkbride’s continued presence will not exactly help the brand in the rest of the country. Clearly therefore, someone thinks she’s worth it. I just hope people will be asking the right questions.

Open Up: any candidate you like, so long as they are gleaming white.

Another day, another TWO new big ideas for solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system. Without, you know, actually solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system.

First we have Geoffrey Wheatcroft who proposes annual elections. Because, you know, the Chartists did. Imagine that. Political parties in permanent election mode – even more than they are now. I guess it is one of those ideas you either think is genius or stupid and no-one is going to persuade you either way. Needless to say, I come under the latter category.

Second, we have Open Up, a new campaign to persuade ALL the parties to hold Open Primaries in ALL constituencies before the next general election. Again. Once you have gone down the route of such mental decrepitude, there is probably no helping you.

I will however point out a little fact. On their FAQ, they state the following:

Of course, it will cost money to hold Open Primaries. But what price better government?[1] From the financial crisis to the expenses scandal, it’s obvious that our system must improve. As taxpayers we pay a lot now, and we’re going to pay more. We need the best people to be the stewards for our money and our future. Against this background the extra cost of Open Primaries seems very small.[2]

On top of this consider the costs of a General Election…where we don’t have a choice in our candidates:

o The Department for Constitutional Affairs estimated the cost of administering the 2005 general election in England and Wales was approximately £71 million in public funds. (House of Commons Written Answers for 25 May 2005)
o Spending for the three main parties in 2005 was more than £40 million. (Electoral Commission, “Election 2005: Campaign Spending”). This is in addition to the £71 cited above.
* Conservative Party £17,852,245
* Labour Party £17,939,618
* Liberal Democrats £4,324,574

[1] Is there any evidence, at all, that this will lead to better government? Where is it?

[2] Since they have given us some costs to look at, let’s look at the cost of holding primaries for all 628 constituencies in Great Britain (I’m excluding Northern Ireland here for the not unreasonable reason that the three main parties do too):

Sending a second class, franked, letter costs 25p these days. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that if they are mailing the entire British population of voting age (approx 40 million) they could get a discount down to 20p. That is still £8 million – nearly double what the Lib Dems spent in the last general election (including the unlikely to be repeated dodgy donation of £2.4 million from Michael Brown).

Assuming that the voters won’t be expected to pay to vote, and also assuming a LOW turnout of 20%, that adds another £2 million to the bill.

The cheapest I can find C5 manilla envelopes on Viking Direct is £24.99 for 125. Assuming that the party can get envelopes at HALF that cost, the total envelope cost (one to send out and another to get back) will be another £8 million.

So even before we get into paper, printing and distribution costs (which are much harder to estimate) we are looking at a low estimate of £18 million, or more than either the Tories or Labour spent nationally in 2005.

Throughout the summer I’ve heard vague assertions that if all this were done at the same time, these costs could be brought down, but even if they were halved that would still mean each party shelling out £10 million that most don’t have.

I’ve heard suggestions that primaries could be held on the same day as local elections with the ballots being held at polling station, but this idea couldn’t work for Open Up’s campaign who want candidates installed before next year’s local elections (it isn’t for that matter clear how it would work otherwise since local elections all take place on different days and it would mean essentially putting candidate selection into the hands of the state – a radical measure to say the least). I’ve even heard wacky suggestions of all the primaries being held online, along with all the scary potential ballot stuffing that would imply. Presumably Open Up wouldn’t be in favour of that as former ORG Director Becky Hogge is one of their key supporters.

Either way, there is no running away from the fact that what Open Up is calling for is an exclusive club in which only the wealthiest parties are allowed to participate. Any party not able to participate will be clobbered to death for hating democracy. Cheekily, they use the existence of safe seats as a reason for justifying their campaign. The idea that safe seats themselves might be the problem isn’t even entertained. In another video, weirdly, they claim that the Spanish electoral system is corruption free. Spain uses a form of proportional representation but significantly also uses closed lists – giving the electorate very little in the way of a choice in candidates. I’m not sure this is an especially wise assertion to make two weeks after the imprisonment of Francisco Correa.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to primaries, although I do think they are a distraction which in practice will have very little effect on the nature of our politics. I certainly think that the open primaries idea being spelt out by Open Up would lead to more identikit politicians, with Labour candidates under even more pressure to be Tory-ish and Tory candidates under pressure to be Labour-ish (and of course Lib Dems to be all things to all people), but since it has no chance of happening – less of a chance, I’d argue, than Gordon Brown introducing PR before the general election – why worry?

I worry because the anti-politics rhetoric that is informing this campaign (and others) is leading people up the garden path. Instead of embracing the opportunity to shout loudly for pluralist politics and for moving beyond politics meaning little more than voting every few years, people are grasping at ideas that don’t even amount to half measures. There are people out there who seem to believe in both primaries AND pluralist politics, but they have chosen to emphasise the former because somehow they imagine it would be easier to introduce – I will certainly concede that it is easier to explain. But this fatal lack of confidence seems to be leading us towards a system of politics where you have to be richer than ever to participate in and preferably entirely self-sufficient because that way you won’t have to ever claim for any troublesome expenses.

Open Up itself is overwhelming dominated by people with a PR or media background. In short they represent a subtler, more insidious form of corruption – the kind which has told us for years that citizenship is a defunct concept in a brave new world of consumerism. And now, proudly marching around with their Che Guevara t-shirts, they are here to tell us all to be good little revolutionaries and to embrace a politics which looks remarkably like shopping. Choice of whatever brand of washing powder you choose, all of which are exactly the same. It is the ultimate grand joke.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the party leaders’ contributions to the Speakers Conference today. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tell apart the establishment and the insurgents in this debate; they all seem to be arguing along the same lines and I don’t like any of it. Maybe I should just accept that my views are just too unfashionable to even contemplate.

Opening out the mayoral selection process

I forgot to link to my Lib Dem Voice article about how the party might want to reconsider how it selects its candidates for London Mayor, the London Assembly and possibly the European Parliament. This follows on from the article I wrote last week:

Both Conservative and Labour politicians have been talking recently about primaries and indeed the Tories ran a primary election for London Mayor in 2007. I believe it is time the Lib Dems similarly looked at opening out our procedures for selecting our Mayoral and Assembly candidates for 2012, and possibly the European Elections in the longer term.

One thing I should be clear about: primaries are not a particularly good tool for increasing political participation. If you are serious about democratic renewal, then you have to support electoral reform. What they are good for is reviving political parties, something we could do with a bit of. Indeed, that is the crucial lesson we can learn from the US. In the US, candidates use primaries to build up their supporter base and use those supporters to drive their subsequent election campaigns. The UK has nothing comparable. Moribund areas remain moribund and we do nothing about them.

I don’t believe the Lib Dems can afford to run an open primary across the whole of London along the lines of what the Tories have recently done in Totnes. That would cost somewhere between £2.5 million and £3 million. Instead, I would like to see us run a series of caucuses.

Read the rest here.

A Straw poll on primaries

Progress have launched a campaign for Labour to adopt primaries, following on from David Miliband’s Tribune article last week. To mark it, they have quickly whizzed out a short paper by Will Straw (pdf), who I am shocked to discover is now 29 (I have to admit that I still think of him as a horny cannabis-frazzled 17 year old who got stung by a Mirror journo and I’m convinced this happened yesterday). A few brief thoughts on the paper:

  • Will has a positively Jack Straw-esque command for spin. Feeling that he can’t get away with the standard definition of open and closed primaries, he comes up with an option of Labour adopting either semi-open or fully open primaries. In fact, his fully open version is what I recognise as either semi-open or semi-closed system while his semi-open system is closer to a closed primary (Wikipedia has a list of definitions). The arbitrary change in terminology probably has more to do with a concern with not wanting to advocate a system that could be described as “closed” than anything else.
  • Straw appears to approve of what he terms “meaningful electoral reform” but nowhere does he address the objection that both the Labour and Tory hierarchies seem to be shouting about primaries as a distraction from proper electoral reform. The objection that any open list or preferential voting system would do everything that a primary system would do, only more cheaply and inclusively, is not listed as one of the main criticisms of the primary system despite the fact that it is the most compelling.
  • At no point does he address the rather thorny issue of cost, which is surely the biggest single objection to rolling out the system. To be fair, he does refer to ‘cost’ once – when he advocates using online voting. There are very strong reasons to object to online voting (disclaimer: while I agree with ORG when it comes to e-voting, I am somewhat more sanguine than them about e-counting) and we should oppose it for primaries as much as for the elections themselves. Sorry, but there is no way that would be an acceptable way to keep costs down.

Fundamentally, although addressing some internal Labour preoccupations, this paper fails to address the main objections to primaries: why bother when “meaningful” electoral reform does so much more, so much more cheaply; and how will it be paid for. I will give him credit where it’s due however: unlike the Tories, he does at least quite rightly argue that the focus for primaries should not be marginal constituencies where primaries will act as little more than an opportunity to promote the party’s candidate, but in the more moribund seats (Straw defines this as constituencies where the CLP has fewer than 200 members) where primaries most certainly WOULD have a meaningful impact on increasing participation. He’s right: if you are serious about using primaries as a means to democratic renewal that is where you should start.

“Open Source Politics” in Totnes?

The Tories’ open primary experiment in Totnes intrigues me. Douglas Carswell describes it as “credible attempt to create a new system of open source politics.”

I am a bit dismissive about their experiments with “primaries” thus far (most of the Tory candidate selections which have been labeled as “primaries” have in fact been caucuses). The reason for this is that I’ve seen very little evidence that they have done anything significant to increase participation. Certainly, non-members have been able to participate, but it has generally been in the hundreds. Swapping one self-selecting group for another doesn’t amount to much. Doubling, even trebling, participation in candidate selection is almost meaningless in the face of such mass alienation from the process.

The Totnes experiment is different because all 69,000 voters in the constituency have been sent a ballot paper. At a stroke it means that the major problem inherent in the caucuses – that the people who turn up could be dominated by a single group of entryists (whether they are a political, ethnic or religious grouping) and thereby select a candidate that is less likely to find favour amongst the wider electorate – is gone at a stroke. There certainly will be Labour and Lib Dem members participating in this ballot, but the majority of people who do will belong to no political party. The winning candidate will therefore have already won a constituency-wide test. All things being equal, that will give him or her a significant advantage over the other candidates.

Could this system be used to revive political participation nationwide? I think it could, yes. If the top three parties were to do this in every constituency, the way elections are fought would change dramatically. For one thing, I suspect it could do a lot to increase ethnic diversity. As an alternative to all-BAME shortlists – widening participation instead of narrowing it – it has to be a winner. But it would also work in more subtle ways by making seats less safe.

Let’s say a really strong Lib Dem candidate were to emerge in a safe Labour stronghold. Would people, having got to know that candidate in the primaries, automatically revert to their tribal loyalties come the election itself? More than that, the candidate him or herself would be able to use the primary to build their own supporter base. We do see this sort of upset occur in the US in a way that is much less common in the UK.

There are questions that need to be answered. For one thing, to what extent should candidates be free to campaign during the primary contests? I would imagine that in the case of Totnes, this being the Tories, candidates would have a pretty free hand. But how do we prevent the system from giving the rich such a major advantage, thereby leading to a less diverse Parliament? As with UK elections, for the system to be rolled out nationwide we would surely need some kind of spending limit.

There is also a question about where all the candidates will come from. The big barrier, certainly in the Lib Dems, would be the candidate approval system. The party simply doesn’t have enough approved candidates to have a even a two-way contest in every single constituency. Should we lower the bar for candidate approval, in essence allowing any party member to stand? If so, how would we prevent non-liberals from getting selected as the Liberal Democrat candidate? Indeed, one of the main things we see in the US more than the UK is a convergence with the two main parties ending up almost indistinguishable in terms of broad political philosophy – certainly at a local level (nationally, things inevitably become more distinct, but even so the Democrats and Republicans amount to little more than two sides of the same coin). There is a danger that this will lead to vision-less, pandering politics. Politicians will be more responsive to the electorate, yes, but will be unable to actually say what they mean because they will be in the thrall of every single opinion poll.

Despite all that, I’m sure that these problems could be overcome and no doubt some will argue I have overstated them. Fundamentally, the higher the level of political participation, the less pronounced they will be (for example, if there were more people engaged, less wealthy candidates would have an easier time fundraising). However, there is one problem that I can’t see getting resolved any time soon: the cost.

I’m surprised there has been so little discussion about the cost of the Totnes primary. It must be costing the Tories around a pound per constituent to hold this contest. Even if they had managed to bring it down to 50p, that is still about £35,000 to hold just this primary. For a national party that is chickenfeed, but to roll it out nationwide would cost at least £20 million. Even the well-funded Conservatives will struggle to raise that amount of money ON TOP OF the amount they need to raise for electioneering locally and nationally (not to mention the costs of each candidate in the primaries). Where US states use open primaries they are at least part funded by the taxpayer, but the Tories would surely be ideologically oppose to such a subsidy. One thing that would be unarguable is that this form of state funding of political parties would do more to entrench political parties and make them a part of the state than almost any other version. You certainly couldn’t fund every single party to run primaries in this way so what would your cut off point be, and how would you prevent it from entrenching the established parties at the expense of everyone else?

Assuming you didn’t fund open primaries out of taxpayer money, and couldn’t afford to hold one in every single constituency, how would you choose which seats got a primary and which seats didn’t? Limit it to target seats? In which case, the whole “open” nature of the system would be undermined. It would only be open in places where the election was already competitive. In safe seats, the electorate would remain just as shut out as ever. A more imaginative approach would be to fund open primaries in safe seats held by political opponents, but it would be a risky strategy (and it is certainly not the approach being adopted in Totnes).

What I can’t see, with the best will in the world, is how such a system can improve on having single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. STV works by effectively combining a primary with an election – you don’t just get to choose between parties but between candidates within parties on the same ballot paper (of course this depends on the parties themselves playing ball and providing the electorate with a choice, but there is some evidence in Scotland which suggests that the parties which did field a broader range of candidates did better). You don’t end up with a group of candidates who all argue for the same thing because the system recognises that the electorate is not an amorphous whole but a group of individuals with a diverse range of opinions. Instead of all elections being won by the lowest-common-denominator, minority views are allowed representation as well. And the enormous cost is saved, to be spent on other things or even not raised in the first place.

Ultimately then, while I can see that open primaries have real merit, it is hard to see how even the Conservatives can afford to roll them out on anything like a national basis. Without safeguards, they could just entrench plutocracy and lowest-common-denominator politics. It is hard to see how this can be a real practical solution to a nationwide malaise. And everything the system purports to do can be done much more cheaply and simply by changing the electoral system. The question boils down to whether you see the future of UK politics as lying in competing parties setting out broad visions for how the country should be better or narrow communitarianism. For better or worse, that is the debate we should be having about electoral reform, not an argument about reform versus the status quo.

In defence of whips

Here we go again. Andreas Whittam-Smith has written an eye-wateringly hyperbolic piece about Jury Team, which is launching tomorrow. I plan to be at their launch and it remains to be seen how exactly they intend to organise, but when people use stock phrases like “harness the power of the internet” I tend to assume they are going to fail before they begin. Apparently we are to regard Sir Paul Judge as the UK’s Barack Obama. The anti-sleaze champion who is to turn this all around needs money, lots of it, something which he would have had £200,000 more of had he not failed in his bid to sue the Guardian for libel over the Asil Nadir affair in the mid-nineties. Apparently the old adage about he who without sin throwing the first stone, doesn’t apply if you call yourself an independent.

All of this smacks of déjà vu all over again for me, in two ways. First of all, there is the fact that the media was falling over themselves five years ago to big up YourParty, which was apparently going to set the political stage on fire. I even commssioned an article from them, which now appears to be the only online record of their strategy. Talk about history repeating as tragedy and then farce – at least they were dotcom millionaires as opposed to former Tory director generals.

But secondly, there is my experience of student and parish council politics. Seemingly very different spheres, both these battlegrounds have one thing in common: to call yourself an independent is worth real votes. For years, most of the places at the NUS top table were reserved for Labour Party membership card-carrying “independents” who would denounce Labour on the conference stage and then do the party’s bidding behind closed doors. Point this fact out to their supporters and they preferred to ignore that fact, finding the lie much easier to deal with.

In parish elections, there is a similar phenomenon. It doesn’t matter what your political agenda is, so long as you play the independent card you are at an automatic advantage. You don’t have to produce a manifesto and you do it in the certain knowledge that most of your supporters will not really be interested in the day-to-day goings on of the parish council, and so hegemonies arise of “independents” who are really only doing it for glory and low-level corruption. And then they have the cheek to lay that smear on anyone standing with a party label.

It remains to be seen how Jury Team plans to select its candidates. Whittam-Smith suggests it will be done by mobile phone primaries. Leaving aside the security implications of such a system, even in the US Congressional primaries – where the system is well established – are notable for their low participation rates. And if the party is to have no policies other than the twelve proposals it has already listed, how is this going to work with the current system for European Parliament elections? If there is a rabid rightwinger at the top of their list, am I really expected to vote for that guy in the knowledge that it might get the more reasonable person in the number two spot elected?

This example highlights the one notable thing that is absent from Jury Team’s twelve proposals, most of which are interesting: reform of the electoral system. Without reform, running an indpendents list for the Euro-elections is a nonsense, but it is also a bit of a nonsense under the first past the post system as well. Jury Team could get 20% of the votes in 2010 and not get a single MP elected; knowing that, why should people waste their time with them?

Instead of electoral reform, Jury Team propose to bring an end to the party whips. Now there is some out and out nonsense here, such as:

The only real challenge to the UK Government is now through the crossbenchers in the House of Lords who are individuals acting on the basis that they have a free vote which is not whipped by any party. The success of the Lords’ crossbenchers in enforcing better discussion of Government proposals in recent years provides very strong support in favour of allowing similar discussions and votes, unfettered by party whipping, to take place in the House of Commons. It should also be noted that the crossbenchers act as a formal group, even electing their own chair, but these structures confine themselves to administrative matters and do not direct any political policy, exactly as envisaged for the Jury Team.

Are they deliberately trying to wind me up here? It is nonsense from start to finish. The challenge in the Lords is a whipped party vote in a chamber in which no single party has overall control. The crossbenchers barely turn up enough to actually count. Indeed, if this is the model they are seeking to replicate in the House of Commons, it would be an absolute scandal. It would mean turnout amongst MPs would plummet, the government would be held to less account – not more – and yet we would continue to pay them their salary (which, under their proposal to make MPs’ pay awards independent, would mean we end up shelling out even more, as Will Howells points out).

If the party whips system did not exist, we would have to invent it. 99% of the time, the whipping system is entirely benign. It is about making sure MPs vote according to the party line so they can afford to specialise and not have to focus on the minutiae of every single debate. It is about ensuring that if an MP has to be away from the chamber at any given time, then the overall political balance in the chamber can be maintained. Occasionally, very occasionally, it can lead to strong arming and even outright violence – mainly because we have a two-party model that is rooted in the idea that the government cannot afford to ever lose a vote on the Commons floor. If we had a politically balanced House of Commons, we’d see more defeats but I doubt we’d see much more in terms of rebellions. Again, MPs are, if anything, more rebellious than Lords. Could it be that they tend to vote along the party line not because whips hold some kind of terror over them but because they perceive the system is in their long term interests?

If we didn’t have party whips, we would still have a similar system of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-mine. In place of parties would be informal relationships between individuals. The key difference will be that the conspirators will not be accountable to a common manifesto and it will be far more opaque than what we have at present. If I vote for a Labour, Tory or Lib Dem MP I have a fair idea of what I’m getting. How many people knew in 1997 that when they voted for Martin Bell they were getting an opponent of gay rights, for example?

I want Jury Team to make a real go of it, in a way that Your Party never did, not because I think it is a good idea but because I think it is a terrible one. In many respects I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love to be sitting here, in 20 years time, as an Independent MP cringing at the thought of how I bought into all that party nonsense. But the truth is I suspect it will fizzle out within twelve months, just as all similar attempts have done so – not because of an evil hegemonic political system with an agenda to stop anyone from trying something new, but because it is a fundamentally bad idea based on an exaggerated fixation on the importance of the individual over and above the need for collective action. We will see.

Is UK politics institutionally racist?

Trevor Phillips thinks it is:

The public in this country would, he believes, embrace a black leader but the system would prevent it happening. “Here, the problem is not the electorate, the problem is the machine.” It was no coincidence that there were only 15 ethnic-minority MPs, he said. “The parties and the unions and the think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It’s institutional racism.”

I actually disagree with Trevor Phillips in as much as I don’t accept that the UK political system is any more institutionally racist than the US system. The House of Representatives does relatively better than the House of Commons, but the Senate does far worse than either the Commons or the Lords: Obama was the only black senator and he’s now out of the door. Meanwhile, in terms of gender balance, we do significantly better. But Adam Afriye does have a good point when he says:

“In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it’s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.”

If we had a presidential system, it is certainly true that we would create within our own system a similar opportunity for an anti-establishment candidate such as Obama to come out of nowhere. But would we want a presidential system? I can see strong arguments either way, although my mind opposition to directly elected mayors has hardened over the past two years after seeing London’s gradual shift towards post-Livingstone politics. The same system that would prevent the meteoric rise of a “British Obama” also prevents the meteoric rise of a “British Palin.”

But we should also be mindful of the fact that neither Obama or Palin did, in fact, come from nowhere. Obama had been a state senator for eight years before entering the US Senate in 2005. Palin also made it in local and state politics first. The difference between these levels of government and their UK equivalents is that they wield far more influence and power. In the UK, even the Scottish Parliament has very few tax-raising powers; in that respect it is no different from a local authority which can only control how it allocates the cash not make strategic decisions about the level of that cash and how it should be raised. As Mayor of Wasilla (pop. 10,000), Palin had powers that Alex Salmond would hanker for. If we don’t have proving grounds such as these, how can we expect our stars to rise (indeed, I made this point about the London Assembly last year)? Currently the only real avenue is the House of Commons, and that is where there is also the most party control.

The UK Parliament and the system we use to elect its members institutionally favours candidates who are capable of running their own campaigns and working extremely long hours for years before polling day. Inevitably, this tends to favour rich people, successful entrepreneurs and lawyers, who tend to be (but are not exclusively) white, middle class and male. The Labour Party has an additional category of standard candidate background – the trade unionist – but these days these too tend to be white, middle class and male. For every Dawn Butler there are dozens of Tom Watsons and Sion Simons. Labour these days may be unlikely to foster an Obama, but it is unlikely to foster a Keir Hardie either.

Getting elected to the UK Parliament is, currently, an extreme sport. You have to be ever-so-slightly insane to want to put yourself through it. The serious question is whether this is actually healthy? Scrutiny certainly is, but in most parts of the country where we have safe seats, we have patronage in place of that. Fundamentally, we have a system that puts parties, not the public, in control.

Some have argued that the solution to all this is to have primaries, but for reasons I have already rehearsed, I don’t think that will work (nor do I think it works well in the US outside of presidential candidate selections). No, if we are serious about putting the people in control, we need a system like STV which combines a fairer electoral system with a more open system for selecting party candidates. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission are serious about exposing institutional racism (and sexism and all other forms of discrimination for that matter), then they should come out in support of electoral reform.

Whisper it, it’s unfashionable, but political parties still need members

Chandila Fernando, to his credit, is at least campaigning for some radical ideas in his campaign for Lib Dem President. He wants the Lib Dems to “become the first mainstream political party to move away from the tired concept of card-carrying membership” replacing it with “a system of registered supporters.”

Fernando’s website has currently been replaced by a holding page (is it me or does that big beaming face scream “over-exposed”?) so we cannot penetrate the words of wisdom within. However Mark Littlewood, in his role as Head Fernando Cheerleader, expanded this idea on Lib Dem Voice as follows:

1. Anyone can become a member of the party (which I’d probably retitle “registered supporter”) if they are on the electoral register in the UK and sign some form of statement saying they are a supporter of the Liberal Democrats.

2. This data would be centrally collated – although obviously shared with local parties – on a database package that could be deployed for campaigning and fundraising purposes.

3. Once the system had been successfully implemented, which may take some months (at least!), the party’s constitution should be reviewed in order to attempt to enfranchise these supporters into the party’s decision-making process. This might start with consultation and then go on to “open primaries” for PPC selection and even lead ultimately to mass enfranchisement for a party leadership election.

4. A whole range of issues would need to addressed (length of tenure on supporter list before you get a vote, preventing mass last minute non-LD sign-ups to infiltrate the party, provision for those under the age of 18) etc. These are very serious issues – but are essentially technical and administrative points.

5. The explicit aim of such an exercise would be wider participation and involvement, not “demutualisation” or converting the party into a company controlled an oligarchy.

6. The President of the party wouldn’t, of course, have the authority to impose such a system, but he or she could set a direction of travel. He/she should accept that a traditional party membership model is becoming an anachronism. When Charles was elected, there were 82,000 members. When Ming was elected, there were 72,000 members. When Nick was elected, there were 67,000 members. I suspect the total may have slipped further since then (we’ll see when the Presidential vote is tallied). (These totals contrast with 101,00 Liberal members and 58,000 SDP members at the time of merger – or at least those were the totals for ballot papers issued in 1987 and 1988)

It’s easy to dismiss radical ideas out of hand, but it is certainly worth exploring this idea in at least some detail. It certainly is true that party membership (across all parties) is in serious decline and if the current trend continues at some point the Lib Dems will simply cease to be a viable operation. But is a registered supporter system the answer?

I have to declare an interest at this point. I work for Unlock Democracy, which was created last year when the New Politics Network and Charter 88 merged. Charter 88, up until a couple of years ago, did not have members but instead had a database of “signatories” who agreed with the organisation’s founding charter – of which I was/am one. New Politics Network meanwhile specialised for a while in the funding of political parties and published several publications on the topic, most notably these two. For a couple of years this was my main focus at work. Combined with my experience of the party at all levels, I feel I’m fairly well qualified to interrogate this idea.

The first thing to note is that the idea of political parties having registered supporters rather than members is not new. Indeed I think I’m right in saying the US Democrats had registered supporters before any UK party had members. Party membership as we understand it did not exist until the 20th century. At first Labour didn’t bother with members at all and was wholly owned by trade unions and socialist societies. The Conservatives only adopted a centralised membership system under Hague in the late 1990s. The 1950s is generally regarded as the height of party membership but those members had few rights – party membership was as much a social thing as anything else. It is only really the 1970s, with the advent of one-member-one-vote in the Liberal Party, that what we currently understand as party membership emerged.

The registered supporter system in the US emerged out of the system of caucuses and primaries they tend to use to select candidates. There are as many types of registered supporter system in the USA as there are US States. The one thing however that US States do have in common however is that the two-party system is dominant. Independent and third party politicians are a rare exception. Registered supporter systems tend to work better in two-party systems with good reason: two-party systems for all their flaws are relatively immune from entryism.

This is a crucial point when considering how a registered supporter system would work in the UK. With low participation rates, entryism is already rife in the UK. If anyone on the electoral system could ‘join’ at effectively no cost, anyone could run a mass recruitment campaign with a view to stitching up a candidate selection, regardless of whether they agreed with the party’s values or not. Now, that could arguably lead to us having candidates that better reflected the communities they stood in and superficially that is a good thing. But it would mean the party would effectively be a franchise open to anyone to take over. And however problematic this might be in a system where all parties operated in the same way, it would be much worse for a party that voluntarily chose to do this on its own.

It is interesting to note the Conservative experience with primary selections. The party has not rolled primaries out to all Associations as a matter of course, but has been quite scrupulous in picking and choosing which constituencies to hold them in. Participation rates tend to vary but I haven’t heard of any area which had significantly more participants than they would have had if voting had been restricted to members. No Parliamentary candidate has been elected with a four figure tally of votes as far as I’m aware and even the high profile Mayoral selection was a damp squib.

So the closest example of a registered supporter system we’ve so far seen in the UK has been far from a runaway success. But that will be of no surprise to people who closely observe US politics. Presidential primaries gain all the attention, but the level of participation for congressional candidates is approximate to the Tory experience.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at these results, bearing in mind that each House Representative has about ten times as many constituents as each MP. This is not an exercise in mass political participation by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, presidential primaries are a different story. Speaking personally, I think the idea of using primaries to elect party leaders – our closest equivalent to a presidential candidate – has a lot going for it (and before anyone claims Fernando has inspired me, I first mused about this in January). But that is a very different type of election and fundamentally much easier to control.

Is party membership in terminal decline? Certainly there has been a negative trend but it is statistical nonsense to infer that this is irreversible. There has been some talk about how the Conservatives’ membership has continued to decline despite Cameron’s popularity and how this contrasts with Labour’s fortunes ten years before. A sign of the times? Perhaps, or perhaps a more prosaic answer would be to point out that Labour’s increase in membership in the mid-90s went hand in hand with a massive recruitment drive during that period. For an eighteen month period, the Labour Party had a recruitment form in the Guardian (and often on the front page). It was a key strategic objective of theirs, very much comparable to Obama’s 50-state drive happening today, and judging by the busloads of supporters that would drive past me while I delivered my knocking up leaflets in Oldham East and Saddleworth in 1997, it was a strategy that paid off. But it was also a very costly and ultimately unsustainable strategy; no party could do it in the long term.

The Lib Dems can neither afford a recruitment campaign of that scale nor would it be as effective, but fundamentally if you want to reverse a decline in membership you need a recruitment strategy. We lack one at the moment because, frankly, we haven’t really needed one. If you can deliver growth in seats and votes without more members, why spend money recruiting? As time goes on however, that calculation will change as we run out of activists. Arguably, we have already reached the point where serious action needs to be taken.

We also have to consider momentum. Barack Obama has done a fantastic job at creating momentum, but will he have the same easy time of it in four years time? Is what he’s doing sustainable? What happens once the circus has moved on? Members are certainly harder to recruit than supporters, but they are also less likely to drift away during the tough times.

For an example of this, consider Charter 88’s experience. Charter 88 is one of the most successful pressure groups in history. Creating a database of 50,000 “signatories” in just two years, it embarked on a campaign strategy which delivered significant democratic reform in 1997. Having read the organisation’s 1990 business plan, it is remarkable how even back then it more or less sketched out the Cook-Maclennan agreement seven years later.

Charter’s success was borne of its ability to create a sense of momentum. For nine long years it stormed along like a snowball on steroids. In the 1992 general election it held around 100 public meetings; in 1997 it held around 200 (I helped organise the one in Manchester Gorton). Local groups sprang up all around the country. It was really an exciting organisation to be a part of.

And then it all came to a shuddering halt, almost overnight. By the 2001 general election it was a shadow of its former self and continued to decline after that, only really starting to recover a couple of years ago. There are a large number of factors behind this (if you want to know more, Charter 88 – 20 years of Unlocking Democracy will be in the bookshops in time for Christmas), but one of them, I personally have no doubt, was the fact that its supporter base was essentially shallow. Signatories did not own the organisation and it was all too easy to drift away. And once some people drifted away, it became even easier for others to follow suit. The positive feedback which fuelled the campaign for so many years went into reverse.

Fernando is keen on branding so he should consider the different messages sent out by the terms “registered supporter,” “signatory” and “member”. The latter implies that the individual has a personal stake in the organisation in question; the former terms are passive by comparison. Of course we would want our registered supporters to get involved, but would they? I’m highly sceptical.

The other thing to consider is fundraising. I think I am correct in saying that Charter never once sent a mailing to every single one of its signatories (which peaked at around 80,000). Rather, you would receive newsletters and information for a while but would only continue to do so if you gave regularly to the organisation. This is a sensible strategy; there is no point in endlessly mailing people who you hear absolutely nothing back from. No organisation could afford to throw money into a black hole in that way. Any political party serious about campaigning which was based on a registered supporter system would have to operate in the same way; the cost of keeping hundreds of thousands of people in touch otherwise would simply bankrupt it. Fernando talks about using the internet but significant numbers of people don’t have access to it and direct mail remains a more effective means of communication in any case. How would he hold an “all supporter” election for 300,000 people, most of whom contributed nothing financially? Via teh intenets (excuse me while I stifle a laugh)?

Indeed, I’m convinced that if Charter had looked to consolidate itself in 1997 and become a membership organisation (which it ended up doing nine years later), it would have gained some measure of stability. Having members gives you a core supporter base which you can see you through the tough times as well as the good ones. It gives you a sustainable base on which to conduct internal democracy. There is certainly a downside – members of political parties are by definition less representative of the wider population – but in terms of cost-benefit it is the neatest compromise.

None of this is to say that the party should not have a supporters database and should not seek to engage with them. I have no clear idea how the party centrally currently engages with supporters but judging by what it sends members it is almost certainly lacking. Supporters should be carefully nurtured – from them we can develop donors, activists and – yes – new members. We should take every opportunity to get further involved in the party. We should offer to take them there in baby steps. We should offer local parties incentives to send the central party leads in the form of a cut of every penny they end up giving. But while nurturing supporters should be at the heart of any recruitment strategy, this is very different from treating support as equivalent to membership.

To conclude then, what Fernando is proposing is not new – indeed takes us closer to a Victorian style of party politics. In its pure form it is simply not sustainable. It would be susceptable to entryism. We could not afford to service hundreds of thousands of new “members” without getting income from them. It would not significantly increase participation.

And crucially, supporters are not stakeholders. If we were to devalue membership in this way, it would be naive in the extreme to assume that our members would not devalue their own membership accordingly. Just as we would expect more “registered supporters” to get involved during the good times, we would expect a sharper decline in the bad times. Yes, we have seen membership drop alarmingly during the past decade, but things would have been so much worse if we had adopted the Fernando plan ten years previously. Thank goodness he has no chance of winning.

Introducing Barack’s future brickbat

I’ve done the Bob the Builder gag elsewhere, but I have to say this video couldn’t look more like a noose to put around the potential future President Obama if it was made of hemp and had a knot in it:

Remember George Bush Senior’s “read my lips – no new taxes”? Or Labour’s 1997 “things can only get better”? If Obama makes it through on Tuesday and goes onto win the nomination (never mind beyond that), this video is going to be rammed down his throat by his opponents at every given opportunity.

Still, on the plus side it looks like it is currently helping him to capture a wave.

Personally speaking, when it comes to Obama, colour me Fox Mulder. I want to believe, but I need something tangible. Obama strikes me as the ultimate West Wing candidate – his rise could have been scripted by Aaron Sorkin. Enjoy it though I did, I never trusted the version of politics that the West Wing tried selling me and my reaction is the same with Obama.

Still, he does that hope and change schtick well, doesn’t he? If I had a vote, he’d probably get it. But win or lose, he’s going to disappoint a lot of people when he comes flying back to Earth. That’s when we’ll know if he’s really presidential material.