The New York Labour Party International branch has just reconstituted itself. In the old days, many of its members saw their task as greeting visiting New Labour dignitaries, seizing their rose-tinted glasses and holding onto them until
they left. Senior MPs came to study (heaven help us) the American prison and healthcare systems, for example. In their happier moments together, we
even greeted Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, come to study Bill Clinton’s electoral successes.
Now we hear that Ed Miliband has imported a minor Chicago ward-heeler, Arnie Graf, to emulate Barrack Obama – and that he advocates “open primaries”. There is something inherently slavish in this deferential abasement before American ideas – not least when one sees the results of those ideas: the only country apart from Somalia with no paid maternity leave, no sick pay, no entitlement to holiday pay and poverty levels unsurpassed in the industrialised world. It is true that Obamacare has dragged the health system in the United States kicking and screaming to about the same place Bismarck brought Germany at the end of the 19th century, but the compromises to the powerful health insurance lobby have almost crippled it at birth. The power of those lobbies derives very much from primary elections, not least the latest fashion for open primaries which Graf is recommending. They constitute the major route by which money exercises its pernicious influence in American politics. It is the need of a presidential candidate to raise a billion dollars that forces Obama to give the banks, insurance companies and others so much sway in decision making.
If Americans register to vote, they can declare whether they are registered Democrats or Republicans, or one of the lesser parties. Some register as independents. Originally the idea was to take selections of candidates out of the smoke-filled rooms of Tammany Hall-style corrupt cabals. Registration does not involve any payment of dues, or commitment to ideologies, nor give any say in framing policies, but it does allow voting in the primary elections to select the parties’ candidates.
The candidates run in their own right, without party support. That means that the individuals who run have to raise their own cash. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, previously registered as a Democrat, decided to run on as a Republican because there were so few registered Republican voters in New
York – it was easier for him to buy the nomination.
Primary elections swallow cash: they involve television and radio adverts, paying campaign workers and all the costs of a general election – which the candidate have to raise themselves. Unsurprisingly, they usually raise it from people who have money. In other parts of the US, they moved to open primaries as pushed by Graf on a receptive Labour leadership. In the British context, this means that Tory and Liberal Democrat supporters can vote in the selection of the Labour candidate. As in all primaries, it means that monied interests can swamp a contest to stop anyone they see as a threat – which one hopes would include almost any Labour candidate most of us would like to see elected. The examples in the US are so egregious that the idea should be dismissed almost immediately.
But then, we have our own examples. Lord Levy allegedly bankrolled Tony Blair’s leadership campaign, in which all party members voted, because it was “good for Israel”. John Prescott had to pay his own expenses. Imagine the costs of running public campaigns. Wrong in principle and pernicious in practice, the Labour Party needs primaries like it needs Silvio Berlusconi as a consultant. ”
Labour does need to reconsider its organisation, and Graf has some useful ideas about grassroots campaigns. But there are many in the United Kingdom who have equal and more relevant expertise – whose independence of mind would make them unwelcome to the Progress infiltrators in the party organisation. Above all, primaries would open the last barrier to self-indulgent affluent individuals and groups with chequebooks, and ideas that do not necessarily harmonise with what we would like to think of as the traditional Labour ideas. There is no more sense in emulating the dysfunctional US political system than in copying its disastrous healthcare and prison complexes.