Labour’s attempts to block new voters and make them feel unwelcome is lunacy.
The election of a new leader for the Labour Party has sparked a lot of interest, in large part due to new rules for doing so.
The process of electing a political candidate is known as a ‘primary election’. In the UK, such votes are usually reserved for registered party members and known as ‘closed primaries’. This is in contrast to equivalent elections in the United States where, typically, anyone on the electoral role can vote for a party candidate, whether they are members of that party or not. These are called ‘open primaries’. Back here in the UK, the Conservative party have dabbled with open primaries for selecting some of their local MPs, most notably (and successfully) with Sarah Woollaston, the popular GP and MP for Totnes.
Labour have adopted a form of open primary for their current leadership election. You don’t have to be a signed up member of the Labour Party to vote for their new leader, you just need to subscribe to their values and pay £3. Thousands have done so.
Most political parties in the 21st century would kill to have people joining their ranks in droves. The Green Party’s biggest coup before the 2015 General Election was the surprise announcement of their record membership figures and the Liberal Democrats have repeatedly proclaimed the number of new members that have joined since their recent electoral battering. But Labour’s response to this surge has been to cry foul and purge.
Part of the reason for Labour’s response is that they fear foul play: there have been instances of councillors from rival parties registering, for example. This is undoubtedly mischief making but surely represents only a tiny fraction. Voter numbers for the leadership election reach the hundreds of thousands. It is hard to imagine enough Conservatives opening their wallets and lying (because they would have to declare support for the Labour Party and deny membership of another party) to make a serious impact. Labour officials should not waste much time hunting these people out but focus on converting these primary voters into general election voters.
Instead, it seems that they have gone out of their way to block anyone who has ever expressed an interest in another party. They complain that former Green voters and members of left-wing parties are registering en masse to vote for their preferred candidates. If these people were deliberating selecting candidates that they think will lose and then returning to their own parties for the general election then this would be an abuse. But it is not. They are voting for the candidate that they like. If their candidate wins then they will probably vote for the Labour Party in the next election. This is democracy.
A few trouble makers will undoubtedly slip through the net but with the deluge of negative rhetoric from Labour Party members, there is a far greater risk of putting off people with a genuine interest in seeing the best possible person at the head of the Labour Party. People like me, for example.
The problem, of course, is that lots of these new voters support Jeremy Corbyn who is more left-wing than Labour MPs and officials would like. It is hard to imagine them making such a fuss if a new, young Tony Blair figure had emerged and attracted thousands of former Conservative votes to swell Labour ranks. But if they don’t think Mr Corbyn is the best person for the job then it is incumbent upon them to find a better candidate, not engineer a better electorate.
The Labour Party did not get nearly enough votes to win the last election. If they refuse to accept the support of new voters then they will lose again.