Sunday, September 27, 2009

Primary Causes

Ian Williams: US emulation will lead to Labour self-immolation
September 24, 2009 Tribune

Considering primary-style elections to select Labour candidates is just the latest episode in the recent sordid history of unthinking emulation of the United States. The American political system is bogged in complete unwillingness to catch up with the rest of the world in healthcare and it is worth remembering why Congress is gridlocked – or rather lobby-locked. Primary elections are the primary cause of that.

The British emulation of US deregulation that brought about the financial crisis was a secondary effect of the primary system. American bankers pay even more than the health industry to candidates, and they bought deregulation from Congress – cheaply.

To be elected, an American politician must first win a primary election against other candidates nominally in the same party. Anyone who registers as the supporter of a party can vote: they do not have to pay dues to it or even pledge support to its objectives. In around half the states, there are open primaries. That means registered Republicans can pick Democratic candidates.

There is no party money available for primary elections, so it is up to the candidates to finance their own campaigns. In fact, in the absence of any serious party organization there are no membership cards, so anyone with a chequebook can run on any party ticket. For example, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a registered Democrat, until he decided he could win the Republican nomination more easily – not least because of his own substantial personal fortune. The biggest expense is buying television and radio time for candidates in the primaries.

Less well-endowed politicians have to raise money to compete in primaries. Unsurprisingly, they get their cash from people with money. So in the case of the swing vote of “fiscally responsible Democrats” sabotaging healthcare reform, this means after receiving backing from the health insurance lobbyists. When Senator Max Baucus introduced a healthcare bill last week that totally negated a public insurance option, let alone a single payer system, some lobbyists were bowled over with admiration – he had actually given them more than they had thought politically sustainable.

Senator Baucus proposes compulsory insurance policies that have to be bought from the very companies that give the US the most expensive and least assured and worst covered health system in the world. It must be totally coincidental that last year the health industry provided him with more than $1 million in campaign contributions. This would count as bribery and corruption in most countries, but it is just business as usual in the US and, it would appear, increasingly so in Britain.

Bill Clinton, when he was pioneering “Third Way” politics with his chum Tony Blair, made such fundraising his hallmark – not least because it freed what passed for the Democratic Party from its traditional supporters, unions, working people, and minorities, whom he dismissed as “special interests.” As we know, Blair learned his lessons and sadly Britain is halfway towards the American system. Labour reduced the role of party members and structures, so that the leadership could overlook their opinions and interests. Individual members deserted the party in disillusioned droves, traditional Labour supporters did not vote or, even worse, voted for the British National Party.

In order to weaken the trade unions’ representation, prospective peers, racing car magnates and sundry special interests were tapped for funds. Whereas union officials, local councillors and the like could once enter Parliament, the Labour leadership winnowed out lists to ensure that docile apparatchiks cruised into safe seats.

It is worth remembering that the leadership elections which took place among Labour Party members cost a lot of money – of course, there were more members at the time. Blair’s leadership campaign was in part financed by a magnate who thought he would be good for Israel and was rewarded with a position dealing with the Middle East. Imagine if the constituency were extended even further to all voters, as is being proposed now for parliamentary candidates. It could hand over candidate selection to the likes of Rupert Murdoch or anyone else with the cash to buy a megaphone loud enough to reach the voters. Forget door-stepping candidates: it would be door-stepping hacks, inventing scandals.

Since a primary election would not be an official election, would candidates be able to buy television and radio time to win support? It would be tantamount to returning to the era before the Reform Acts and would effectively put the candidacy for sale to the highest bidder.

Labour should abandon primary elections and get back to primary causes. It should be attracting back those disillusioned members and the only way to do that is to make membership more significant than joining a fan club for whoever the lobbyists have blessed as the Labour candidate, whether for Prime Minister or Member of Parliament.

Elections should be inside the party and they should be open and transparent, with clear rules on finance and the sources of finance for candidates, and rigorous guidelines against conflicts of interest. Labour should address the needs and wants of its natural constituencies if it wants to spur people into voting for it. Otherwise, look across the Atlantic and despair. It should be “Westward no”, not “Westward ho”.

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