Learning from France: can we make primaries work for Labour?

(((Elliot Bidgood)))
12 min readNov 27, 2016


In France, 4 million voters have been participating in a process to select the presidential candidate for the centre-right Republicans — Francis Fillon is tipped to defeat Alain Juppe in a runoff today. The Socialist Party will select their candidate in January — a move partly timed to allow its voters to see who the Republican candidate is — and 2.9m participated in the process than selected Francois Hollande as their choice for the 2012 election. Hollande then won the French presidency with over 10m votes in the first round and 18m in the second.

Voters must pay €2 and sign a pledge nominally committing them to party values, but other than that there appears to be little vetting in what are effectively open primaries. Given the Socialists’ turmoil and the near-certainty that the runoff in the 2017 election will feature the Republican candidate against the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, some left-wing voters have also participated in the Republican primary this time on behalf of the more moderate Juppe — this has even been tacitly encouraged by the Juppe campaign. In 2013, 2.8m also voted in an open primary that elevated Matteo Renzi to the leadership of the Italian Democratic Party.

This mass participation is in contrast to the Labour experience, post-Collins reforms. In our 2015 contest under the new rules allowing £3 registered supporter signups, 423,000 voted mere months after an election in which 9.3m had stood with us even in defeat. Of 112,000 £3 supporters, 84% voted for Jeremy Corbyn, most having joined expressly to vote for him. Corbyn also expanded and won full party members and affiliated supporters in the unions, but not by as much (49.6% and 58% respectively).

Then in 2016, with Corbyn as an incumbent with extremely poor ratings with the public at large and 2015 Labour voters, and despite an ad hoc grassroots recruitment effort by Saving Labour, 70% of those who paid the new £25 fee in a 48-hour window still backed Corbyn. This was again larger than his wins among even the reshaped post-2015 membership (59%) or affiliates (60%) — 506,000 votes were cast in total. Rather than engaging several million ordinary voters in Labour’s democratic process as hoped and helping to make us a more broad-based party, the registered supporter scheme arguably eased Labour’s capture by a fraction of a percentage of the most left-wing voters in Britain, including supporters of the Greens and far-left entryist parties. These people have little connection either to the founding principles of Labour under Clause One or to the mood of the wider electorate.

This has prompted discussion among moderate Labourites about the supporter scheme — whether it is possible to run better campaigns under it or propose rule changes to improve it, or if it is intrinsically flawed and should be scrapped. Part of the equation here is your assessment of the other options for winning the party back; whether the membership itself can be won over (I’m sceptical, given the Corbyn joiner majority even there now, their rejection of Owen Smith’s soft-left pitch and waves of moderate resignations) or if some version of the Electoral College could be revived (I’m basically sympathetic, but right or wrong it would smack of ‘old politics’ to many and the idea seems bedevilled by the same paradox as PR anyway). So I’m working on the basis that at least one leadership election will need to be won with the registered supporter scheme still in place, and perhaps even central to the strategy of moderates.

If such a plan is to work, moderates need a rigorous analysis of how the current registered (and affiliate) supporter schemes are designed, how to use them and how applicable experiences from France, Italy and elsewhere might be to us.

Mass public engagement

For a start, there is a question of whether the UK has the type of culture of political engagement that would allow us to mobilise enough registered supporters to truly mimic foreign primaries. It is true that the public seem to long for ways to control politics more directly, hence the instinctive popularity of referenda on most issues and the deadly effectiveness of the Leave campaign’s “take back control” slogan.

Further when ‘don’t know’ regularly polls in the mid-30s on preferences for PM, between Theresa May in the high-40s and Corbyn in the mid-teens, it suggests there is a space to be filled by a more credible alternative to the current Tory government. And with regard to specific interest in Labour registration among moderate voters, George Eaton of the New Statesman did report the following in June 2016:

“Yet afterwards, Corbyn’s opponents are hopeful that they can prevail. They speak of harnessing the energy of “the 48 per cent” who voted for the UK to remain in the EU and have been politicised by defeat. An unpublished poll by GQR found that 10 per cent of the public would pay £3 to participate in a leadership election. A plurality of this group oppose Corbyn and consist of three segments: liberal cosmopolitans, “old right” Labour and “pure democrats” who want “a strong opposition””

However, those hints weight against other factors, and we cannot be blind to challenges. While we often gaze across the Atlantic at the US primary model, their system of publicly-administered voter registration and regularly scheduled primaries bears no resemblance to ours, where major political parties are essentially tribal, self-enclosed private members associations and have never been able to count on more than a few percent of the population as paid-up stakeholders. A French political science professor told Politico that the new primaries there were a response to the structural weakness of the two main parties (“If they had real activists, more influence, and if their governance was more democratic, in theory they wouldn’t need primaries”) and noted that even the expanded selectorates skew “more urban, educated, informed and politically motivated than the average population”. And in Italy primaries are used partly to pick the leaders of the left’s loose, shifting multi-party alliances and coalitions, and were used to help establish the dominant Democratic Party, which itself has only existed since 2007. This contrasts with the pattern British voters are used to, where a stable Tory-Labour duopoly simply produces potential prime ministers for them from our labyrinthine internal structures, and they then give the final word at a general election (though this does result in Tory rule more often than not).

Compared to Europe, there are also hints that overall political engagement is weaker here — turnout in the last general election was 66%, against 75% in Italy in 2013 and 80% in France in 2012. And for all the public demand for more involvement, voter fatigue can set in — the longing for more say can perhaps sometimes be read as anxiety about the quality of political representation, rather than a literal desire by voters to delve into the nitty-gritty themselves (note the lack of interest in a second EU referendum). Rafael Behr wrote convincingly on how the Tories’ strength in politics essentially lies in “the promise to mind the shop, freeing up voters to pursue their lives unencumbered by a duty to be overtly political”, while left-wing activists are prone to conflating activist enthusiasm with political success and “enlightenment” — hence how we fail to grasp the scepticism of former Labour voters about Corbyn’s “pious amateurishness”, for example. If you don’t believe him, remember that Labour (515,000 members) currently lags the Tories (150,000 members) by 13 points in the polls. Along these lines, a Labour organiser also suggested to me a few months ago that a flaw in the supporter scheme might just be that “no one pays £3 to be sensible”, with such an option likely to appeal most to an unrepresentative fringe.

That GQR poll Eaton alluded to offers a ray of hope that that might not be true here, but even then, the experience in summer 2016 shows it will take sustained work to mobilise moderate voters (and in 2015, Corbyn’s opponents did not even highlight supporter signup on their websites). We must be aware of the tic Jade Azim coined as “fluffism” — the lefty habit of retreating into clichés about “hope/inspiration” when we can’t quite evidence our lofty claims on how to engage voters, and the risk of mistaking a lack of demand for partisan alignment for a lack of supply from us in all cases. And for that matter, political wonks generally are prone to Field of Dreams-esque ‘build it and they will come’ fallacies on voter engagement, even the Tories occasionally (Police and Crime Commissioners, anyone?) Assuming people can be engaged, it will take substantial focus to raise the profile of the process enough to do that.

Supporter status should be structured and emphasised as something continual, even if the call for the one-off nominal payments does only coincide with leadership ballots. CLPs could incorporate it more fully into their routine campaigning and compete to sign up supporters all the year round, and do so regardless of their local factional balance — Corbynites and Corbyn-sceptics alike need to prove that their approaches have mass appeal, and should have nothing to fear from a genuinely broad-based movement. At the moment, it is new and remains an afterthought, something even Labour activists only remember when a leadership election is called. We can hardly expect voters to care about it when we don’t. If we began trialling it for local selections or other uses as well, it might help mainstream it.

One aspect of the French process I admire is something that does directly mimic the US model — people are voting at local polling stations, not just by post or online as in Labour. At home, some of the Tories’ local experiments with open parliamentary selections have revolved around ‘caucus’-style town hall meetings accessible to the full public (though as seen in the US, these will engage far fewer people than straightforward primaries). This is part of the distinction between a true primary — a physical process occurring in people’s communities — and a limited public role in another navel-gazing internal Labour process.

Parliamentary model

In France the focal point of the primaries is the presidential election every five years, and while they are used for other offices in the US, nominations still only take place in the year of the general election. Even with the advent of fixed-term parliaments this offers Britain little guidance, with standing parliamentary leaders and unpredictably-timed contests, but Italy might offer more clues.

In October 2005 the centre-left Union electoral alliance used a primary to select its PM candidate for the 2006 general elections, in a process that saw 4.3m vote and Romano Prodi elected. Polls were open from 8am to 10pm and were open to all Italians over 18 and to some resident immigrants, with a €1 charge levied and polling stations managed on a voluntary basis in squares, local party quarters, schools and local shops. There was also provision for expat voting. In 2009, 3m voted on the standing leader of the new Democratic Party from a list of six candidates, choosing Pier Luigi Bersani. This didn’t necessarily strengthen the PD, it should be observed — Bersani was unable to form a government following a weaker than expected performance in the 2013 election, prompting another leadership contest in late 2013 while the PD formed a coalition government under an interim leader. But Matteo Renzi — initially a great white hope for European social democrats, before his current constitutional referendum battle — won both rounds of that process and became prime minister. He won among 300,000 party members, taking 45% of the vote on a reformist mandate, and before securing 68% of the vote in an open primary involving 2.8m voters.

Eligibility and access

Both Labour’s 2015 and 2016 contests were marred by arguments over eligibility, with the party right concerned about entryism and the Corbynite left about what they viewed as ideological ‘purges’ by party staff. The 2015 experience was partly what led some moderates on the NEC to vote for the prohibitive £25 fee and 48-hour signup period for the 2016 contest (along with some consistent left opponents of the supporter scheme, notably Ann Black). Nicholas Sarkozy similarly complained about the Juppe camp’s active courting of left-wing voters, while the centrist Renzi’s opponents accused him of courting right-leaning voters.

But perhaps it is simplest to throw open the gates with an open primary and allow people to self-select, to end the dispute about who can be involved. The Tories included all registered voters in their selection trials, and Labour should consider the same basic principle for inclusion, with perhaps only a nominal pledge, a resumed £3 charge and no Compliance Unit intervention. The pool of voters who will sign up for a candidate like Corbyn numbers a few hundred thousand at most, and the active hard-left in Britain and ‘Tories for Corbyn’ troublemakers were smaller still. If moderate candidates were able to successfully mobilise even a few million as Hollande and the Italian Democrats each did, then we could outvote them.

Centre-left renewal

If Labour moderates are going to put the supporter scheme front and centre in an attempt to win back the party, we have to think hard about our own appeal. As Owen Jones noted, some modernisers initially talked about Liz Kendall winning one million votes, a far cry from her 19,000, and Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Owen Smith similarly failed to capitalise.

Candidates are part of it — we can’t beat somebody with nobody. Quality is always in the eye of the beholder and to me at least, Labour’s soft-left and right between them have several potential standard-bearers. But the French Republican primary has probably been boosted by the profile of the people involved — a former president and two former prime ministers. By contrast, backbenchers and even shadow cabinet members tend to suffer from low recognition, before we even get to the question of their appeal. This is why the baffling spectre of David Miliband still hangs around in public polls and the bookies odds, despite his lacklustre performance in 2010 and his flight from the UK political scene over three years ago now. It is worth noting that the unknown Owen Smith polled okay with the public at first glance, at least by comparison to the incumbent and unpopular Corbyn, but this was simply not enough. The right candidate might need to raise their profile on their own in advance, and become established enough to pull people in at scale. We could perhaps do with a ‘Boris’ figure (as much as that example pains me).

Part of what helped Corbyn outmanoeuvre his opponents was the existence of niche networks and forums that were fertile ground for his message, unrepresentative though they were — the echo chambers of social media, left-wing campaign groups. Moderates would need to lay more groundwork and work out what our equivalents are. Most obviously there is a clear mutual interest between Corbysceptic Labourites and concerned Remain voters, including continuing grassroots pro-European campaign groups, given the angst about Corbyn’s weak support for Remain and his inability now to hold Theresa May to account. I do believe Labour needs to accept the result of the EU referendum, but effective scrutiny on the government and pressure for a softer Brexit will be essential for years to come and can only come from us, whatever the Lib Dems might say about their ineffectual demands for a second referendum.

But we cannot have all our eggs in the Brexit basket. We need to search for other wells of support we might also tap, including faith and community groups. If Dan Jarvis was our candidate, he might be the first Labour candidate who could engage forces networks. Jewish Labourism badly needs a revival after the neglect that community has suffered. And an often-overlooked weakness at the heart of Corbynism — and modern Labourism generally, to fair — is that for all the talk of a revival of a movement built on traditional Labour values, just 60,000 trade unionists affiliated themselves in order to vote for him in 2016 (in 1994 under the old system, over 400,000 affiliate votes were cast for Tony Blair alone). In the 1980s pragmatic unionism was vital to fighting off Militant and restoring the party to electability, and polls repeatedly confirm that trade union members at large have more ideologically diverse and Corbyn-sceptic views than the vocal minority of far-left activists. There is a sleeping giant here that can be awoken, though the Old Right is perhaps better positioned than the Progressites to do so.

More generally moderates must develop that all-illusive compelling vision we hanker for, especially around responding to an unequal and fast-changing economy, and could road-test it in an expanded selection. But that is the subject for another blog. I will say that projecting competence and effectiveness still matters too, however — Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn have both shown that ideas and slogans are only one part of building a credible alternative to the Tories, as non-activists must be able to instinctively believe we can deliver. And we must reach out to as many voters as we can to convince them of the importance of a strong opposition, why it affects them personally and is something worth having. Every single voter in this country is disempowered by the reality of a government that faces no credible threat of removal, and thus no opposition, including those who are not already Labour supporters. That is why making this work is so vital.



(((Elliot Bidgood)))

Research & comms analyst at a consultancy for not-for-profit organisations. Recovering Remainer, @UKLabour member, Unite. All views my own