French primaries point the way for democracy


The issue of primaries was discussed in a Progress fringe at Labour party conference. David Lammy, Jessica Asato and I spoke in favour with Luke Akehurst (and a number of people in the audience) expressing reservations.

French-presidential-elections-primariesKey points for the case against included concerns about the cost and whether primaries would actually re-engage voters in the democratic process. The Socialist Party’s (PS) experiment with primaries to select their candidate for President has given the clearest possible response.

On Comment is Free, political commentator, Agnes Poirer, explained that five million people had watched the final debate last Wednesday and wrote:

“It’s called primaries fever. It’s taking place all over France and should last another week. Although, in theory, only affecting the people of the left, even the right has showed early symptoms…

If a million people vote today, it will be a success for democracy. A bigger turnout would give an incredible legitimacy to the left’s candidate.”

In the end, 2.5 million people took part each paying a minimum of €1. In total, I’m told by a PS insider that the party collected between €3.2 million and €3.7 million - allowing for a significant profit once costs are taken into consideration.

Since no candidate took 50 per cent of the vote, there will be a run off this coming Sunday between François Hollande, who came first with 39 per cent, and Martine Aubrey, who secured 31 per cent. Ultimately the Socialists will end up with a significant war chest to fight President Sarkozy at the next election.

Even more significantly, the PS collected contact details for more than 1 million people making it far easier to mobilise large numbers of volunteers for the campaign.

As Daniel Hannan MEP understands:

“The eventual winner… will begin with a large corpus of emotionally committed supporters.”

The Conservative party, of course, experimented with primaries to select candidates like Sarah Wollaston in Totnes. Her independence has made them increasingly reluctant to fulfil the coalition programme commitment to hold 200 primaries ahead of the next general election. But democracy campaigners should hold them to it and push for primaries for the mayoral elections and for the selection of the elected police commissioners.

See also:

The Refounding Labour offer to non-membersDaniel Elton, September 21st 2011

The votes of trade unionists are a strength to Labour not a weaknessTony Woodley, November 19th 2010

How to transform LabourGina Byrne, October 18th 2010

Purnell sets out his grand visionWill Straw, February 15th 2010

Directly elected mayors with increased powers will reinvigorate local governanceNirmalee Wanduragala and Nick Hope, January 25th 2010

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  • Rob the crip

    New labour dreams, the flag waving the placards and the control freakery of the new labour Reich are now we are told over. Progress at it’s best.

    2.5 million people paying a £1 dream on.

  • Selohesra

    What I never understood with primaries is what is stopping people joining up to parties they disagree with in an attempt to foist a complete loser on them as their candidate. Is this how Labour got landed with Ed?

  • Richard

    Selohestra, the French primaries are open to all persons, party members or not. Just because people voted in the primary, it does not necessarily make them committed supporters. Daniel Hannan is only partially right.

  • http://leftfutures.org Jon Lansman

    But what of the differences between the French context and the British, Will?

    As I said at Left Futures, the undoubted success of the French presidential primary is a poor reason for the Left to advocate the introduction of such primaries in Britain for the election of Labour’s leader. Whereas in France, the person being selected is a candidate for the presidency, a post with considerable power but whose power is also counter-balanced by that of the French Congress, the post for which Labour’s leader is a candidate is very different. The British Prime Minister is not set apart from Parliament but first among equals in their cabinet and in the House of Commons. Accountability, checks and balances come from within the Cabinet, Parliament and also the Labour Party itself. Creating the claim of a powerful popular mandate would serve only to reinforce the concentration of unaccountable power at the centre which developed during the Blair years with ultimately disastrous consequences.

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  • Mr. Sensible

    I am not in favour of this, for the simple reason that, why should I be interested in who the candidate is for a party who I know I won’t be voting for?

    I can see that it might be suited to a more presidencial system like France or the USA, but we don’t have such a system, some would say thank goodness.

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