Open primaries could solve Labour’s leadership crisis – and unite the left

Labour needs more people voting for leader, not less


Almost 650,000 people are eligible to vote in this month’s Labour leadership election: an increase of 100,000 from last year. Without the High Court ruling against members of less than six months, it could have been over 850,000.

For comparison, around 375,000 voted in the 2010 leadership election, won by Ed Miliband, and nearly 900,000 voted in the 1994 election, won by Tony Blair.

YouGov, who got the last four Labour leadership results right, predict Jeremy Corbyn will win in another landslide. There will, however, be criticisms that the result doesn’t reflect the wider public, who, in every poll, tend to say they prefer Theresa May to Corbyn.

Labour continuing to underperform in the polls cannot be solely attributed to the party’s leader, its MPs, or the media: none of these things exist in isolation of each other. However, it feels undeniable that the warfare within the party over its leadership alienates both core and swing voters.

Although his re-election looks to be a certainty, Corbyn’s support in the party feels weaker. As a result, another leadership challenge seems inevitable, but so does Corbyn’s re-re-election, and the same MPs refusing to serve.

This would be an unwinnable war of attribution: where the only victors are Labour’s opponents, watching the party drive out the talents and experience of members and representatives from all wings.

It looks hopeless, but there may be a solution: open primaries.

This is a system where, broadly speaking, anyone can vote for a party or coalition’s leader, without having to actually join the party itself.

It’s been used in the United States for decades – where around 20 per cent of the country take part – and more recently in Europe.

In 2005, 13 Italian centre-left parties stuck in opposition formed the L’Unione (Union) coalition, which held an open primary for the public to elect its candidate for Prime Minister.

Over four million people took part, with over three million choosing the independent Romano Prodi, who went on to win the 2006 general election.

A year after that, three of the partners united as the Partido Democratico (Democratic Party), which (although the centre-left lost power again in 2008) is now the dominant social democratic party in Italy.

It has held leadership primaries every four years: all with around three million votes cast, or about five per cent of the country’s entire population.

Terra Nova, an independent left-wing think tank in France (much like the UK’s Fabian Society), proposed the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) learn from their Italian equivalents to select their presidential nominee.

While Terra Nova suggested a state-organised primary, like those in the US, the Socialist Party set up 10,000 voting polls and ran the primary itself in 2011.

All citizens on the electoral roll, minors aged 15 to 18, and members of the Socialist Party, were entitled to vote, in exchange for one euro to cover administrative costs.

Almost three million citizens took part, in contrast to 200,000 party members in 2006, when the Socialist Party lost. That’s 50 times as many people involved in the same decision. They won in 2011, for the first time since 1988.

Les Républicains (The Republicans), France’s equivalent to the Conservative Party, held the country’s presidency for 17 years: from 1995 to 2012. Eager to regain power, they’re now following their resurgent rival and holding a presidential primary this November.

It’s not hard to see why. Open primaries united the left in Italy and resurrected it in France.

In the UK, they could end fighting over leadership by giving the leader a mandate so big from an electorate so broad that entryism would be impossible, with support more likely reflect the wider public.

Based on the French and Italian models, this would inevitably involve voters and members from other centre-to-left parties, like the Greens, Northern Irish parties, and possibly the Liberal Democrats, giving them all a role in choosing the leader of a left coalition.

That would undoubtedly prove divisive among some Labour members and MPs, especially if the SNP or Plaid Cymru were involved.

However, in an increasingly multi-party system, where coalition often looks like the only route to a future Labour government, the left may have to consider how to attract partners before the Tories do again.

David Skuzbee is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @davidskuzbee

See: The new Labour leader needs to reform way the party campaigns

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