Ed Miliband backs open primaries

Climate Change Secretary says the "tide of history" is with primaries

From the Labour conference

Ed Miliband has become the latest leading Labour figure to come out in support of open primaries for Westminster constituencies. At a fringe meeting this evening, I asked the Climate Change Secretary whether he backed the proposal, which would allow non-party members to select parliamentary candidates.

Miliband replied that while he had some anxieties about the idea, he now believed the "tide of history" was with primaries.

He said: "If you put a gun to my head and asked where I'd land I'd say with open primaries."

Others who have backed open primaries include James Purnell, David Miliband and Tessa Jowell. Until now the idea has largely been seen as one favoured by the "Blairite" wing of the party but Miliband's response proves it's gaining ground on the centre left, too.

At a time when all the major parties are haemorrhaging members, I'm sceptical of anything that further dilutes the status of those who remain. It's very hard to point to any direct influence, aside from selecting election candidates, that members enjoy. The introduction of primaries would provide another excuse for thousands of people to leave the Labour Party.

I'm also concerned that primaries would lead to a big increase in the influence of money on election contests. Candidates competing to win the support of thousands of voters would be required to spend substantially more on their campaigns.

The influence of money on US congressional primaries is well evidenced by the fact that 40 of the country's 100 senators are millionaires. A cap on spending could remedy this problem but it's another question mark over an idea that doesn't deserve the status it's acquired.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.