Bill de Blasio and Boris Johnson, the current mayors of New York and London, were both selected by a primary. (Photo: Getty)
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Labour mustn't let the promise of the mayoral primary die

Labour seems almost ashamed of its attempts to open up politics in London

Bill Clinton’s ‘comeback kid’ resurgence in New Hampshire in 1992, Barack Obama’s unlikely victory in Iowa in 2007, Francois Hollande organising his way to victory in France in 2011: electoral primaries have provided us with some of the most dramatic political moments of recent years. They are also a valuable tool for engaging increasingly disenfranchised electorates - giving more people a voice in choosing who goes on to become their leaders.

When Ed Miliband promised that the next Labour candidate for Mayor of London would be selected using a primary, those of us that have long advocated opening up our internal party democracy to more of Labour’s supporters gave a resounding cheer.

This felt like a golden opportunity to engage with left-leaning voters who agree with Labour values but are not directly involved with the party. It was a unique chance to engage a wider range of Londoners in the debate about the future of the city, giving the millions of Londoners who aren’t party activists but care deeply about their city a voice that they were previously denied. Candidates would no longer be able to rely on a narrow support base but instead would have to put their case to the city as a whole, meaning whoever was eventually selected would have a resounding mandate from the electorate.

Unfortunately, the current proposals for the primary will ensure that almost all of these potential benefits are lost. In fact, the framework actually serves to minimise wherever possible the involvement of those beyond the party’s traditional base.

The first problem concerns the discrepancy between the timetable for affiliated supporters – in other words, members of socialist societies  and trade unions – and ordinary Londoners. Labour’s relationship with its trade union affiliates is a vital one. They are a key part of the party support base, as well as representing millions of hard working people, and it is right that they have given time to register supporters. According to the recently published timetable, affiliated organisations can sign up members to take part in the primary until 19th June, giving them nearly a 16 month window.

So far, so good. But worryingly, the barriers to ordinary Londoners taking part in the primary appear to have been set as high as possible, despite this being the very group that the primary was intended to include. For those who have already signed up as registered supporters or do so before May, there will be a deadline of 20th May to pay the £3 required to participate in the primary. In other words, an entire month before the cut-off point for affiliated supporters. Given the entire campaign will be less than three months, this is a significant difference.

The result is that ordinary Londoners wanting to help choose Labour’s candidate for mayor will have just 12 days after the General Election for to confirm their registration. This is an unprecedentedly short timeframe that will seriously impact the number of Londoners who are given the opportunity to participate. There is no good reason why supporters couldn’t be given the option of paying the £3 now, therefore ensuring that they have the opportunity to vote.

Worse still, the London Labour Party currently has no plans whatsoever by to advertise the primary in the London media or promote it online. People I speak to on the doorstep around London are not even aware there will be a primary, let alone how to take part in it. Unless the Party commits to the adequately advertising the primary and how Londoners can get involved, all the possible benefits of holding one will be lost. This must happen immediately – the narrow window for registering supporters after the General Election may well coincide with coalition talks, obscuring the existence of the primary and limiting the number of Londoners who are made aware that they can have a say. There is an increasing worry that some elements within the party want the experiment to fail, or at least be as close to a traditional selection as possible.

While it is right that the Party’s planning and resources are focused squarely on the General Election, it is a lost opportunity not to put any thinking into how to engage Londoners in the mayoral primary immediately afterwards. Particularly because signing up new supporters now will provide a great boost to Labour’s campaign efforts, providing a new mass of support that can be utilised in the General Election campaign.

All this means we need to make some quick changes to improve the process now. At the very least, the party should extend the window for registered supporters to pay the £3 registration fee to the same deadline (19th June) as that being given to affiliated supporter, giving six weeks (as opposed to 12 days) after the General Election for people to be made aware of the primary and register to get involved. There is no good reason why this could not be easily implemented. And, like my campaign has done with the #worththechange campaign we launched earlier this week, the party should commit now to widespread advertising encouraging ordinary Londoners to sign up as supporters.

These changes are sensible and realistic. They would result in the Labour mayoral primary doing what it was originally intended to do – giving thousands more Londoners a voice in selecting our candidate for mayor, opening up the democratic structures of the party and meaning the next Mayor will be able to get to work with a resounding mandate from their electorate. Whether these improvements are made will give us a good idea about how serious party leaders really are about letting Londoners have a say in choosing the Labour candidate for Mayor.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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