Let the people decide!

Welsh Labour should adopt primaries in our election for our new leader.

Last Friday I announced that I would seek support to stand for election as leader of Welsh Labour. One of the reasons I did so was because I felt that the debate we needed over the summer months and the autumn was simply not taking place. 

I am standing to drive that wide-ranging debate about the future of Welsh Labour as a political party and movement as well as our ambitions and visions for the future of Wales and then to be a leader of Welsh Labour with a clear mandate to deliver radical change.

And that radical change must begin with the way in which we elect our leaders.

Last month I wrote to Paul Murphy suggesting some significant changes to the process of nominating candidates that will eventually appear on the ballot paper. I suggested that the process of nomination be extended from the current system where AMs alone decided to include MPs, council leaders and our MEP. I was grateful to everyone who contacted me to welcome these suggestions.

But today I would like to go a step further.

My starting point is democracy and opening up our democracy as a party. If we are serious about being a party for the many and not the few then this needs to begin at the beginning. I do not want any tolerance or any acceptance of a democracy that is either fixed in advance, where back-room deals determine who gets to stand or a democracy where our elections are shaped and orchestrated by the few.

So this week I will write to Paul again. I will suggest that Welsh Labour adopt a system of primaries rather than to rely upon nominations from this very small subset of elected representatives. 

But why has my thinking changed on this issue?

Since last Friday I have spent a great deal of time talking with various people, from party members, to colleagues, friends and journalists. Almost the whole of this debate has been focussed on the process of nomination. I have come to the conclusion that until this changes then there will be no discussion of either politics or policy because no candidate needs to do anything except talk to their colleagues. There is no reason to appeal to a wider audience. 

My purpose in making such a suggestion on opening up the nomination process last month was to open the process beyond the Senedd in Cardiff Bay – after all this is our party leader in Wales. Under the current system the ballot paper and the election would be determined entirely by the Labour group in the National Assembly. And there’s nothing democratic about that. For me democracy means the real active involvement of the membership and our socialist societies and affiliates. It does not mean deals behind closed doors in the Bay. 

Primaries are a familiar part of the political landscape in the United States but tend to be treated with deep suspicion on this side of the Atlantic. They have been used as something of a novelty by political parties who have fallen on difficult times. Both the Lib Dems and the Tories have employed open primaries where all voters in particular constituencies being invited to select a candidate for a parliamentary seat. The motivation has usually been more to do the dreadful state of the party at the time and a need to generate some interest in the selection rather than to adopt primaries from a point of principle.

I hope that we can do better.

In fact the process of electing leaders in socialist or social democratic across Europe tends to be more open and more democratic than what has been so far proposed for either Welsh Labour or UK Labour. Most our our sister European parties have more open means of involving the whole party membership and only a few parties allow parliamentarians the veto that they effectively enjoy in either Wales or the UK. So what I am proposing is a primary nomination process which involves the whole membership of Welsh Labour.

So how could primaries work in Welsh Labour?

The purpose of this is to remove the power of patronage and appointment from professional politicians and return that power to party members as a whole. And the immediate impact of that will be two-fold. Firstly any prospective candidate has to do more than appeal to their friends and colleagues in the Bay. They will need to reach out across the whole country and the whole movement and speak to members about the sort of party and the sort of choice that they want to see. Secondly it would mean that potential candidates have to speak about those issues that matter to people and not politicians. The debate would be more about policy and politics and less about the potential for deals over jobs, roles, the process of governing and the politics of the group in the National Assembly.

In this way a system of primaries would be more open, more democratic and more empowering. By removing the sense of an internal narrow selection the party and the group would be strengthened and the election when it takes place would be the election that the party has chosen rather an election where the candidates are, in effect, imposed upon the party.

I would suggest that the party organise a series of hustings meetings in each region where every party member would have three votes and any candidate receiving over 15% of the total vote would appear on the final ballot paper in the election in the autumn. Each of the potential candidates would have the same opportunity to reach out and make their case. And each party member would be able to see and question everyone who wishes to be a candidate and would have the same opportunity to shape the election.

This is the radical and democratising way in which Welsh Labour can not only avoid some of the narrow debate that we’ve seen over the process or structure of nominations over the summer and can demonstrate how democracy can enliven and open up politics.  

Real politics. Real democracy. For the many and not the few. 

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