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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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.