Northernheckler's Blog

A Yorkshireman's adventures in the big Smoke

Primaries – After Bracknell what now ?

I was interested to see the latest Tory experiment with ‘open’ primary selection for candidates resulted in a less than predictable result for some of us in the world of Tweets and Blogs, but perhaps a slightly more traditionally anticipated outcome for the Conservatives who frequent the Blue Mountain Golf Centre. ( Iain Dale fails to win selection in Bracknell ) Resulting in the selection as candidate of local GP Philip Lee.

I’m not sure I can answer the questions this throws up – so I’ll restrict my self to musing over what the questions are.

First of all this wasn’t really a primary, and wasn’t all that ‘open’. It required pre-registration. and attendance at the Blue Mountain Golf Centre whose website alone would dissuade a good few from rolling up (Wonder if they have a no hoodies rule ?). More of a caucus really. However the principles are similar.

Iain Dale’s a big name in on-line politics. His blog is very widely read, and his connection with the notorious, and even more widely read Guido Fawkes blog has placed him centre stage in the blogosphere (if that’s not a few mixed metaphors and acronyms too far).

I’d imagine many people assumed that he was already an MP – and will be surprised by his non-selection. Iain puts this down (in the article linked to earlier) partly to negative spin on his homosexuality – I hope that”s not true, but fear that it is to some extent. I do suspect though that what is more likely is that there is an emerging tendency to favour local candidates – which I think would be mirrored in the Labour Party, and to favour individuals with “respectable” backgrounds – which I think will be more likely for the Conservatives, but may well affect Labour too.

That in itself is an issue. OK – I accept that people have a right to want a local candidate – but how will that sit with people who have ambitions to sit for parliament yet live in a safe sit for a party they do not belong to ?  I mean if you’re a budding Tory candidate you’re not going to get very far in a safe Labour seat – or vice versa. Even in major swings of voting intentions – such as in Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, 300 or so seats never change their party ( source Electoral Calculus) – so I’m not sure how that opens things up very much. It brings the “Ryan Giggs” effect into politics – Ryan being surely likely to have been one of the worlds greatest international football players – were it not for the fact that he’s from Wales, who haven’t qualified for a major tournament in his lifetime.

It also seems to favour the local “great and good” – which might be good for me – who knows, if we can have GP’s I’m sure we could have headteachers, especially if I’m from a special school, and I’ve been a foster carer. Only trouble is I don’t know jack about politics – not really, just my own opinions, and I’ve never been a councillor or anything. But hey I’ve been a school governor so I’d get a few votes so it would be OK. OK until I got into parliament that is – then I’m not sure I’d have much idea of how to go on.

No – I’d rather vote for someone who had a little political experience under their belt – not just ‘world experience’ – but I’m not sure the ‘selectorate’ would agree.

I’m not really disagreeing with the idea of primaries, I’m just wondering about the practicalities – the niggles that would crop up and make them hard to work.

This latest Bracknell Primary for instance occurred because an MP stood down. So what would you do then if we had a mutual primary arrangement ? Have primaries for all the parties ?  Or just the one ? And if you register to vote in an interim Tory primary (as Labour MP Tom Harris urged Labour voters to do Why you should vote for a Tory ) would that mean that you could still register to vote in the Labour one next time it came up ?

And I really don’t know what you’d do about safe seats. Get rid of them is the obvious answer – and I can see that that approach would have some popularity with local punters. Far better many would say, to have a well known local candidate, then a professional politician foisted on the consituency to make sure the chosen few are in the cabinet. I’m not sure though – I’d like to think that the party voted into Government won’t have half the cabinet deselected half way through the term of office, by disgruntled opposition voters registering for the primary (which they would if they wanted a say in a safe seat) – I’d also like to think that frontbenchers wouldn’t have to neglect their duties to spend time pressing the flesh in their constituencies too much just to secure re-selection.

These are all problems. Problems I’d like to think can be solved – they haven’t been solved yet though – and I think that the Bracknell Tory primary result indicates that very well.

I can’t really answer the questions – so I’ll just reiterate my opinion – Primaries are a possible way of re-democratising and re-energising politics – but I feel they can only do this if they are part of a calory controlled diet. (Sorry – I made the last bit up – I meant  – Only if they are part of a wider range of electoral and constitutional reforms)

What I’d like to see as a starting point is all of the major parties putting Primaries and Electoral Reform in prime position in their manifestos for the forthcoming General Election, to let the public know exactly what kind of a will for change each party really has.

October 18, 2009 Posted by | politics | , , , , | Leave a comment

A political football ( club ) ?

[ I had a good idea with this one but got a bit bogged down – remember I’m an ordinary bloke not a journalist – I tidied off the worst of the rough edges and decided to publish anyway, maybe I’ll come back to this theme later ]

Listening to the debate at Progress’s event last Monday Would primaries save or kill the Labour party? I naturally did a lot of thinking about the pro’s & cons of primary elections. As I’ve blogged previously  Thoughts on primaries and electoral reform – and Monday’s debate did nothing to change my mind – I can’t help but feel that although I tend to be in support of primaries, I think that they would be best employed as part of a wider range of electoral and political reform.

I’m not especially well versed in this subject area though and I feel that those issues are likely to be covered elsewhere with a little more subject specific knowledge than I can muster The Progress campaign for Labour primaries page is as good a place as any to find more information – so instead I’d like to turn my attention to something slightly different – but very much related I feel.

A strong theme that arose in the debate on Monday was that on the one hand it was slightly unfair that people who had taken the trouble to join the party, and indeed pay their subscriptions would in effect have very little more say in the selection of candidates, than an ordinary member of the public who may not eventually go on to vote for the candidate (or party) at the election. Against this it was pointed out that in many cases Parliamentary candidates are effectively selected by as few as 50 people, which raises some interesting questions about the true nature of democracy.

The answer which seemed to arise to these questions was essentially this : that political parties as they are now, and have been for many years will not continue to exist if they cling to the models of membership that they had in the past. Labour has dwindled to a fraction of its former size, and the Tories similarly have seen a haemorrhaging of members even in what is seen to be a time of renewed enthusiasm for them among the general public. New approaches to membership must develop if parties as we now recognise them are to continue.

As a football supporter, I was (and am) struck by the similarities between “the beautiful game” and the state of politics in this country

(and yes I know I turn every conversation round to football – that’s just me OK !)

In the 60’s & 70’s and before, supporting a football team meant turning up at the matches and standing in the cold to watch. That was really the only way of doing it.The particularly keen became season ticket holders which made them part of the core customer base – if we’re looking for an analogy with a political party, a season ticket holder was like a “member” of the party.

I held a season ticket until the mid eighties, at which time I moved away from home. I haven’t been to many games since – so have I stopped being a supporter ?

Well in the old sense I have – someone who manged 3 games over to 2 seasons would have been thought a pretty poor supporter in the old days, but times have most definitely changed.

For one thing, the geographical limits have changed. When I grew up in West Yorkshire, there was very little choice about football teams. It had to be Leeds or Huddersfield really. Few people travelled much further afield – or really expected to in their life time.

Now it’s more or less expected that people will move around as they progress through life – to different parts of the country and to different parts of the world. You’re as likely to be able to buy a Manchester United shirt in Oxford Street as in Manchester, and it’s become recognised that the people who sit in the stands aren’t necessarily the only “lifeblood” a team has.

Millions watch football on TV – and money from the television deals essentially provides the biggest part of the finance within the game.

I can’t imagine Sky TV ever paying millions of pounds for the right to televise CLP meetings live though – so perhaps that’s not the right part of the analogy to use.

Where I think politics can learn, is from the myriad of different ways in which it’s not possible to support a football team :

You can join “Patron’s” societies – to have access to the hierarchy within the club – and pay for the privilege.

You can join Travel clubs – and just go to the away games – Did you know that Huddersfield coaches sometimes pick up passengers in Milton Keynes ?

You can be part of online communities – email lists, and web forums – which are often joined by players and staff as well

You can buy a shirt and never go to a game or do anything else – but some of the money still goes to the club

You can open a bank account or get a credit card which provides funds to your team

You can vote for “player of the year” on the club’s website.

Which sort of brings us back to primaries. But back in the Labour Party – it’s still in the main a “put your card in your wallet and turn up at the meetings” kind of deal (and please, I am aware of the irony of a member of less than 6 months standing waxing lyrical on membership – I’ve no wish to knock those hardy stalwarts who’ve done just that for so many years)

What I’m saying is that just as changes in technology, and society changed how we support our football teams then it will also change the way in which we support our political parties – and I’d hazard a guess that the parties that get their heads around this the quickest, will be the ones best placed to survive the the coming decades.

October 18, 2009 Posted by | Football, politics | , , | Leave a comment

Into the village

UPDATE : I’m endebted to Jessica Asato at Progress for linking back to this article via Progress’s Newsletter e-mail – Many Thanks. Subscribe to it on the Progress website at

Last night I attended the Progress debate ‘Would primaries save or kill the Labour party?’ at Portcullis House, Westrminster and heard a wide range of Labour people – including David Lammy MP, Luciana Berger (Prospective Council candidate, London Borough of Camden & excellent blogger), Chris McLaughlin
(Editor, Tribune), Will Straw (Editor Left Foot Forward & well known Labour activist) as speakers, and Sion Simon MP, Alex Smith (editor of Labour List), Jessica Asato (acting Chair of Progress), in the audience, to name but a few whose names will be familiar to any Labour twitterers.

A very lively and entertaining debate and one which I enjoyed immensely.

Actually I have to confess that this is the only event of this nature that I’ve ever attended. Much as I truly did enjoy it, I have to say that the very act of being there – not even considering the debate that took place – spoke volumes about the need for electoral reform, and a remodelling of political parties and the political system – which may well involve the introduction of primary elections for selection of candidates.

But why ?

Sitting in the debate, and catching the view across to the Palace of Westminster, I couldn’t help but think that this was a long long way from the life which I was born to.

I spent my childhood living on a council estate in the Heavy Woollen district, the son of a factory chargehand and a nursing auxiliary. I went to a state grammar school and eventually gained a first class honours degree  at Newcastle  Polytechnic. My career as a teacher in special schools has left precious little time for any interest in politics, and my current position as a Headteacher in an inner London borough even less.

So I’m not in any way part of the Westminster Village – I went along to this event purely on interest gathered via the web and via twitter (actually via Luciana Bergers tweeting of the event – Luciana’s blog is listed on my ‘blog roll’ on the right)

As some one who joined the Labour Party just in June I have to admit I was slightly daunted by the prospect of visiting his event. For a start I didn’t know of the existence of Portcullis House – which for those who don’t know, is the building directly opposite the Houses of Parliament, bang on top of Westminster tube station. It’s quite an imposing venue, and the security checks complete with armed guards, and body searches only add to the sense of exclusivity.

Inside the debate there were lots of men in suits (which was commented on by David Lammy actually) (although it meant I fitted in !). Many of the people there  seemed to know each other. I didn’t, well only one, but did know a few (lots actually) via twitter – and was made to feel very welcome. A truly open event – open to everyone, free of charge – a debate with top class speakers, in a first class venue. Anyone who wanted to go could do – free of charge.

I wonder would my father have ever attended though ? Or any of the staff he supervised at the British Belting and Asbestos factory in Cleckheaton for all those years ?

Well I’m sure that many of them voted Labour – I know at least one that was a Labour member, (and a very militant one at that), but you know what ? I don’t think any of them would have. They’d have been put off of course by the distance – a long way to go for a bit of a debate, and they’d have been put off by the venue (despite the fact that the venue was for me a huge plus point for the event), and yes, to be honest they’d have been put off by all the men in suits (like me). And lets not forget that many of the people on my Dad’s team were women, Pakistani and Carribean workers – certainly not all blokes with flat caps (although one or two were).

Most of them would have thought it was not for them, and in fact would have thought anyone who did go was possibly a little eccentric.

So my first reaction on entering the “village” is this : I think it’s fantastic that Labour Party organisations such as Progress can facilitate events which provide such a high level of honest, open and intelligent debate, and better still that they can make it available to everyone from whatever background.

It hits me immediately though that if Labour (or indeed any other party are to connect with the whole range of the electorate  – as they must – then they (we) must find ways in which to replicate the quality and sincerity  of debate that I saw last night, right across the country.

Of course I’m sure that there are a great many activities that Labour activists engage in around the country that do just that, but as the figures given last night regarding the declining membership of Labour and all parties show, there will need to be more imaginative approaches to the way things are done in future, if the general public are to be truly engaged in politics once more.

An OFSTED inspector said to me once : It’s not enough that the school makes the offer, the school must work to ensure that the offer is fully taken up.

I thnk it’s the same for political parties

I’ll try and ensure I blog something on the content of the debate in due course. Meanwhile I’d like to thank Progress for all their efforts in facilitating the event, and all the Twitter friends that I have now verified as real people – thank you !

October 13, 2009 Posted by | politics | , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on primaries and electoral reform

I’ve read a lot of articles recently about “primaries” to select candidates for political parties – most from Labour Party sources – but not all – a surprisingly convincing argument is made by current bête noire Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph article A primary objective: make MPs answer to the people . There’s also a far more comprehensive list of web resources to be found on the Progress website, where supporters are also invited to sign up in support of Primaries.

So have I been converted ?

Well what I have recognised is the need for a change.

It can of course be argued that parties are for members, and that they alone should choose the candidates. Yet in many seats they aren’t just selecting the candidate they are “de facto” selecting the MP. I’m not sure how many people do this but a look at tonight’s results from the St Alban’s Conservatives’ reselection of MP Anne Main MP shows the problem – 144 votes to 20.

A grand total of 164 people potentially deciding the next MP – although the sheer absurdity of that may well ultimately decide that they do not.

It’s also clear that there are other things that may need to change. If we accept Hannan’s figure that 70% of seats are effectively “safe” – then that means that approximately 35% of the electorate – those who vote against the “safe” candidate – have no say whatsoever in the make up of parliament.

Ironically the voters for the safe candidate are also likely to have less say than other constituencies in who represents them – since they are more likely to have candidates from outside the area “parachuted” (why do they always use that word ?) in order to ensure that those likely to hold ministerial office are more likely to be elected.

So in theory primaries seem like a good idea – open up the contest, and make the selection of candidates more responsive to local electorates. I can see that – it makes sense, and I can see also that there are ways of limiting the expense – holding the polls on the same day – limiting the publicity that candidates are allowed to present, and there needn’t really be any need for pre-registering. It would seem that if all parties have their primaries on the same day, then you turn up on the day, give your number, and are given 3 ballot papers (maybe more) – of which you must return only one – you choose which to return.

I can see how this can work. There are however, so many imponderables :

If you did a primary like this and published the results you’d have a dry run for the election – an opinion poll to end all opinion polls because it would have the support of the returning officer. This WILL affect the real election.

The issue of when to have primaries will also affect the issue of when to have elections – because you will have to have primaries in good time before an election. This effectively means an end to the incumbent party deciding when to have an election – it means fixed term parliaments. Which presumably also means shorter terms – perhaps three years.

All of which is achievable if the will is there.

I’m not certain that the will really is there though, because for primaries to really deliver it will take a radical reshaping of the mode of Government we have. There won’t be the possibility of placing top candidates in safe seats anymore. So how will you decide cabinet posts ?– how will you ensure that the party leader gets a seat ?, or the deputy ?

Well these are things that I don’t know – but I’d suggest that it will need a transformation of the electoral system – Local MP’s being selected by primaries, but also MP’s selected proportionally to a list  – by ballot of party members. This would allow for key candidates – the leader & potential cabinet members to be allocated top places in the list, and for lower places to go to candidates who preferred to go for selection to a list rather than locally – giving members in seats that are safe for opposing parties a chance at running for parliament, and voters in those constituencies a chance to elect someone in the party they vote for.

All in all quite a set of changes – and these are the ones just off the top of MY head – I’m sure that some of the political theory wonks have got all this stuff just waiting to trot out. I’ll be reading with interest.

But for now – my opinion is : Primaries – Yes ! – but only with accompanying radical electoral reform, and only with a dramatic shift in the collective will of the governing parties.

With the state of politics as it is now though this could be the only time to push through something as radical and new as this – and if Gordon Brown is to lead Labour to election victory, then embracing electoral reform, and making a real difference to the way politicians represent the people may just be the only way he will achieve that.

August 14, 2009 Posted by | politics, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment


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