Published:

by Paul Goodman

Today's Guardian story about Ed Miliband's young people-centred speech today leads on his plans to involve non-party members in its leadership election.

"Labour is to look at broadening its electoral base by offering the chance for Labour sympathisers, and not just members or union levy payers, to be given a vote in the Labour leadership election. The idea may be seen as controversial by union leaders worried that their power base in the party may be diluted.

It is being stressed that the reforms would not disenfranchise unions, but might look at ways that members of sympathetic groups could signal that they would like to be involved in party elections, including for the leadership.

Options being examined include ending a separate electoral college section for MPs, or putting Labour sympathisers in a section with the union levy payers. A formal consultation will start next month, with ideas being put to the party conference in the autumn."

The idea seems to me a logical extension of the principle involved in local primaries: if non-party members can select a party's Parliamentary candidates, why not its leader?  Since the Conservatives used open primaries during the last Parliament and indeed before – Rob Wilson was selected by this method during the 2001-2005 Parliament – watch for David Cameron taking an interest in this Miliband idea.

As it happens, I'm against a system of open primaries for Conservative Parliamentary candidates (as opposed to individual Associations having the discretion to use them).  This is because it will tend to produce local champions at the expense of efficient Ministers, while our present system has the capacity to produce both.  In short, an open primaries system is a step down the road to taking Ministers out of Parliament, which I oppose.

However, I don't see why such a step, and everything that goes with it – an elected upper chamber, a written constitution, more proportional representation, and so on – should be an anathema to the Labour Party.  The main party of the left would usually be expected to hold radical views on constitutional reform, especially if it wants to appeal to younger voters.

A google search duly turns up a story: Miliband backs open primaries Labour urged to alter MP selection.  But that was, er, David Miliband.  Ken Livngstone apparently said that such a method for Labour's London Mayoral candidate would be "fine with me".  Further support for Labour open primaries for Parliamentary candidates has come from the ubiquitous and decidedly non-socialist Douglas Carswell.

I suspect that the unions would object.  But it would be useful for the younger Miliband to show that he's not dependent on them, having narrowly won their support in the leadership election, though not that of Labour MPs or constituency parties.

Will Straw also pushed the idea in 2009, at about the time that the subject became topical.  He'll know that open primaries would help to pep up some local Labour organisations.  Some of them are just as run down as some local Conservative Associations, if not more – though they don't attract anything like the same level of interest from the media.

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