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27 February 2015

Labour mustn’t let the promise of the mayoral primary die

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

By David Lammy

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.

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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.