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Open Access • Party Membership • Reform

Open access politics

Theo Bertram - 07 October 2013

With falling party memberships and a narrowing gene-pool of candidates, parties need to open up.  Supporters should be able to sign up and vote online just as easily as they are able to buy something on Amazon

I am a great optimist about technology but if you want to get people excited about voting there is no substitute for great leaders or bad Government. A combination of both, like Labour had in 1997, really hits the sweet spot.

The Internet can make a difference to the success of parties in connecting with new voters - and perhaps a significant one - but if you’re unelectable, technology won’t change that, no matter how smart it gets.

There are already some good prescriptions for change. Tory MP Douglas Carswell, a genuine radical, makes a great case for the Conservative Party to become more like Spotify. I agree with most of his proposals but I don’t buy the idea that mass membership movements, like the Pirate Party in Germany or Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) in Italy, have created a secret online recipe for political success that will revolutionise politics.

I don’t mean to dismiss the strength of those movements: both may be struggling just a little in the polls right now but they have been hugely innovative and effective.

The Pirate Party has won regional seats all over Germany and reached nine percent of the vote in Berlin. Its ‘Liquid Democracy’ empowered its members to make policy with great fluidity, creating a highly engaged and active membership, especially among young people.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Grillo’s movement shot to over a quarter of the vote in this year’s February elections, helping to kick out politicians that many thought would never be unseated and bringing many more voters to the polls. Their anti-politics message and flat structure turned online supporters into activists and activists into representatives on an unprecedented scale.

However both the Pirate Party and M5S were significant online communities before they ever became political machines. Grillo’s blog was one of the top ten blogs in the world. The German pirates started life among the millions of users of The Pirate Bay. They are not political parties who started to use the Internet: they are Internet movements who started to use politics. The way they work and their structures are just not compatible with more traditional, mature political parties.

If Justin Bieber or Stephen Fry, who each have millions of followers online, wanted to start their own political movements then these would be the perfect case studies, but for Ed Miliband or David Cameron they’re not much use - they don’t show us how to turn a political party into a mass online membership movement.

However, like I said at the beginning, I am a great optimist that the Internet can make things better. And as Labour reviews its internal structures, there are some things it could do to make itself more open, accessible and electable. Labour can borrow a little of Douglas Carswell’s radicalism without being rightwing.

The thing that gives us the opportunity to change is Falkirk.

In July, the police were called to investigate the selection process of Labour’s candidate for the constituency of Falkirk in Scotland. The whole thing was a mess. Tom Watson, the General Election coordinator, resigned for reasons still unclear. Unite, the most powerful union in Britain, was accused of vote-rigging. But within a matter of weeks, the police concluded there was nothing to investigate. Those who made the most serious allegations withdrew them, and those accused were cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal Labour Party inquiry. No one seems to know what really happened and all that was left was a big stink.

In response, Labour’s leader Ed Miliband announced a review of the way Labour’s internal processes work, proposing wide-ranging reforms, from the way the unions finance the Labour Party to the introduction of an open primary for the selection of the London mayoral candidate.

My advice to Ed and his team is that technology can help. It can’t make the smell go away but it might help get some fresh air in.

There is a great scene in the first Hitchcock film version of The 39 Steps where the hero, while hiding from the police, finds himself onstage at a selection meeting of a political party. Desperate not to reveal that he is on the run, he gives an impromptu speech of endorsement to the candidate which is met with huge approval. I naively liked to think this is how parties might select candidates. That someone with great charisma could just turn up and change your mind with a single impassioned speech.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that, but I still like the idea that anyone ought to be able to turn up and get selected on merit without needing to have a spent a year buttering up the local party chiefs.

The most obvious step is the introduction of open primaries. An open primary in Falkirk would not only have deepened the electorate (so it would have been harder to fix the vote) but widened the gene pool for candidates too.

Whatever else went wrong in Falkirk, part of the problem - reflected in the selection of candidates in safe seats throughout the country not just for Labour but the for the Tories too - is that it is very difficult today to become a Parliamentary candidate unless you have at least a semi-professional background in politics or have devoted your life to the local party. It also helps if either you or someone on your behalf invests a lot of time and money in shoring up the seat. For the Labour Party, this usually means you worked for the local council, a union or a politician. Candidates with little or no political experience don’t really get a look in - and everyone knows it. Within the Labour movement, we can pretend there are political differences between the left and the right but the reality is most of the candidates have some kind of professional background in either unions, councils or Westminster.

There is nothing wrong with those candidates: they are often the best people for the job, but they shouldn’t fear having to compete against someone with no political background or winning votes from voters they’ve never met. However, for as long as the electorate that selects a local candidate consists of a small and hard to reach number, it will continue to be only those with the right connections - and critically only those who know how to play the game - who can win. That needs to change. Open primaries, with supporters able to sign up and vote online just as easily as they are able to buy something on Amazon, could help.

Some grumble that selecting candidates by open primary will mean those with the deepest pockets for campaign budgets will win. I don’t think that’s true but if it is a concern then a simple cap on expenditure should fix it.

Others worry that online votes would exclude great chunks of Labour’s electorate. But given we do our shopping online - in higher proportions than anyone else in the world - the UK is pretty well connected. It’s an area where the UK might take a lead. In any case, online should just be one option for choosing a candidate: you could still turn up and vote.

The other complaint is that the paid-up membership should be rewarded by being the only ones who can vote for candidates or the leader. However, with dwindling membership figures in all parties that is just an argument for fewer people voting. Higher volumes at lower costs (not lower volumes at higher costs) is typically what succeeds online.

Ed Miliband has already said there will be an open primary to select Labour’s next candidate for Mayor of London. Just how open remains to be seen but the French socialists struck a good balance in their process to select Francois Hollande. 2.6 million people voted in the French socialist primary, and in the process all they had to do was donate at least one Euro and pledge their support for the values of the left: "freedom, equality, fraternity, secularism, justice, solidarity and progress".

London’s a good start but it should become an option available to every constituency. After all, it’s what members want: 50 percent of Labour members and 53 percent of Union members said they would like to take part in open primaries, according to a recent poll by Labour Uncut.

To make open primaries truly effective, the Labour Party needs to embrace supporters who do not wish to become full members. There are now significantly more Twitter followers for both the Conservatives and Labour than formal party members (even when you strip out those who follow both). Labour should make it easier for these online supporters to engage in the party and even help to choose future candidates.

With falling party memberships, a narrowing gene-pool of candidates, and a big stink that needs shifting in Falkirk, it’s high time for Labour to try something just a little radical.

Theo Bertram is a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and is now Google UK Public Policy Manager

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Party of the Future , Theo Bertram , Opinion , Campaign , Election , Pirate Party of Germany , Piratenpartei Deutschland , Pirates , Piraten , Five Star MoVement , MoVimento 5 Stelle , M5S , Beppe Grillo , Ed Miliband , David Cameron , Labour Party , Labour , Lab , Conservative Party , Tory , Tories , Cons , Douglas Carswell , Tom Watson ,

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