Rumours that the state might pay millions of pounds for political parties’ candidate selection processes could be the final straw for the public, says Damian Hockney. “David Lammy’s recent call for ‘Primaries’ for the London Mayor elections was worthy of Marie Antoinette in one of her less thoughtful moments,” he says. “These exercises in central control will not fool anyone. And if the state were to pay for this process, then the tumbrils might finally roll.”
It is scarcely conceivable, but discussions about how to fund “Primaries” appear to be serious. These are ‘intra-party’ elections enabling voters to participate in the selection of candidates and have a long history in US politics. And what’s worse, it appears that all and sundry are focussing on what amounts to the state paying vast sums of money for the main parties to have public candidate selection processes. So we would all pay for three party hacks from each of the “main” parties to be put before us in a prelim election. And the parties then pretend to us that we are making “the decision” and tell us that they are listening and are involving us in the process. Extraordinary.
Most thought it was just the Silly Season. London MP and Minister for Higher Education David Lammy MP made a suggestion which certainly would not pass any test of commonsense. Primaries for the London Mayor elections. Of course it’s not so silly for the political elite – the big parties put a few tame people in front of the electorate before the actual Mayoral contest. ‘You choose the candidate’ they cry (without, of course, adding ‘from the shortlist of party hacks we will put before you’). Naturally, the way it would be done in the UK would reinforce central party control – the only real change being that the whole process bypasses local activists and local party structures, so of course making the centre more powerful. There is little doubt that party managers are just waiting for the day they get all that lovely state dosh and won’t have to bother with members at all…
Like a lot of bad ideas, this is a joint Tory/Labour one – inspired as it was by the alleged ‘success’ of a Tory primary in Devon for Totnes’ next MP. The fact that Lammy’s article began with the phrase “something is stirring in the British electorate” makes it worthy of Marie Antoinette in one of her less thoughtful moments, and is an indication of how far we still have to go to make politicians grasp that the wheels of the tumbrils are being oiled and some voters are fondly fingering the blade of the guillotine. The answer to something stirring is not more control by the centre. Or more elections. Or making local activists yet more depressed and demotivated.
So let’s take a look at the uncosted nightmare of ‘primaries’ in the context of London (and UK) politics, how much the Totnes experiment could cost for London Mayor. And in a future piece, I will suggest in fact what the politicians really should be doing to the London Mayor elections if they want to engage people in politics again. Remember, even with the millions of pounds worth of endless coverage, the London Mayor elections have never attracted half the electorate.
First, just put the recent primary in Totnes into perspective for electioneering across the whole country in a General Election. “The price of success” has a new meaning with this one. Not many people have ever written to every voter in a typical parliamentary constituency and worked out how much it actually costs. The postage alone (just one mailshot, no follow-ups) exceeds the amount that a candidate is usually allowed to spend if done in a General Election campaign itself. This means that no candidate can properly and efficiently mailshot the entire electorate for their constituency during an election campaign. And then of course there is the cost of the printing, the envelopes etc…So with the exception of the dull limited censored flimsy version the state allows you to mail once during a General Election campaign through the Royal Mail, it’s not possible to put your own material out in this way actually during a campaign, addressed to every voter. With the Totnes primary costing £40,000 just for one constituency – way way more than you could spend on an election itself – there is no way that parties themselves could even consider doing this everywhere. It is an expensive and eccentric one-off, designed for publicity purposes.
Doing a primary like the Totnes experiment in every constituency in the run-up to a General Election itself would cost a party something in the region of £26 million. A drop in the ocean for Obama, but it’s an impossible sum for a UK party to spend just for a preliminary selection process and hardly likely to be raised for such an exercise before the beginning of a General Election.
£3 MILLION PRIMARY
Let’s then now look at the logistics of David Lammy’s suggestion about adopting this type of thing for London Mayor. 5 million voters, using the similar system in Devon (which cost the Tories about £40,000) would mean that the total for London for each party would be £3million. So who is going to pay? The parties absolutely do not have the cash. Nor do they have the manpower and membership in London to deliver even a tiny fraction of what would be needed. Just take a look at party memberships in London and you’ll get the picture. 20,000-odd for the two main parties, the majority of whom are inactive? That’s broadly right. And let’s not forget – spending allowances during the campaign itself are a fraction of that: for London Mayor it is less than half a million pounds. The idea of spending six times the budget of your London Mayor candidate on a prelim would bust the bank before any nomination papers had been circulated. Unless you and I were to be dragooned into paying for it.
The official Mayoral election candidate booklet itself is also censored and is so tedious in style and presentation that it is barely read, except by those already decided and part of the process. It is State Publishing at its very worse. It has nothing to offer a candidate by way of serious advertising or promotion.
So – will the taxpayers foot this colossal bill, as is being rumoured? You need to factor in that “in the interests of democracy” the smaller parties would probably be banned from taking part in state largesse for such a thing (some spurious grounds will be invented to raise the threshold against them), but even then that’s almost £10 million. Some reading this have also had experience of handling situations where millions of votes are cast (security, storage, legal challenges, staffing for the count, hiring venues…) – you can’t just ask 5 million voters to send their little forms off to the homes of David, Gordon and Nick so the guys can count them on the kitchen table. Ever seen a million items of mail? Or even 100,000? This exercise comes at an enormous cost. And is a legal minefield.
And if you are not going to do it properly, why bother?
MONEY MONEY MONEY
David Lammy talks about campaigning for these primaries and appears to hark back to some dimly remembered era when crowds of thousands jostled and swayed to hear Tory or Labour candidates on the hustings – “that’s the spirit Major Attlee”…”good old Winnie”. He says: “Candidates would have to campaign across the capital, building momentum, borough by borough, community by community”. Hmmm. Are you going to force us? I remember the by-election in which David Lammy was elected. Precious little building momentum there. Few activists from any party involved. Barely any public meetings. A typical example of modern city politics – almost non-existent, with few people involved or interested. Can you imagine if they’d had a primary first for each of the main parties in Tottenham?
As all party organisers know, real campaigning is done now predominantly by the millions of pounds worth of free advertising given by the newsrooms of state radio and television to the state’s three favoured parties. All during major elections. Do we really think that crowds are going to gather in their thousands across London to hear the tiny differences between one unknown councillor and another from the same party in a lame primary which has been given only coverage in a small ad in the local paper and a notice at the community centre? Sadly, the crowds might turn out if it’s the combined and collected political wit and wisdom of an X Factor winner versus the bloke that does the weather and that nice girl with the nice earrings that does the news. But that’s another story.
Town hall meetings or hustings are now just a peg for the free media coverage of those candidates, nothing else. In fact, in a total inversion of the past, these events are often staged simply for the purpose so that the media can cover something happening. But those in attendance are practically all either party members, or people who belong to pressure groups who are looking for, yes, media coverage. Every single event is analysed afterwards in terms of media presence, impressions, seconds of coverage, appearance…In the most recent Mayor election, candidates from the “main” parties made clear they would not attend events if the media were not present. Will the media really donate vast amounts of media coverage to these primaries, in the way they do (unwillingly and badly) during the London Mayor elections themselves? And if not, who will turn out for these primaries? The (ever decreasing) party faithful of course. All will be talking to themselves while the public are only vaguely aware.
And there is something very important to remember about this: the media is not happy about covering people who are not known already (“civilians” as against celebrities, in the parlance). It is a curious thing – but definitely understandable in terms of viewing figures, and a cardinal rule in tv – that broadcasters firmly believe viewers hit the remote when someone appears on the screen they don’t know. Unless they are very beautiful or odd or saying/doing something outrageous. Or unless they are being built up by a particular programme and groomed for celebrity. The attitude may not necessarily apply to readers of this site, but it may be fair to say that the broadcasters have a point. And so tv is quite happy to put on Boris or Ken prime time because both are well known. But they are very wary of devoting loads of time to, say, Victoria Borwick or Warwick Lightfoot*. There is little room for a political Susan Boyle to emerge (as a politician first). However much they might have to say for themselves and however ultimately interesting or challenging. And in case you think I am being dismissive of just political opponents, then I firmly include ‘Damian Hockney’ in that list of those civilians the media would be wary of covering…
Real Primaries depend upon the US process of raising and spending vast amounts of money to give those candidates the space and media focus to achieve status and recognition. Recognition in circumstances where they might at first be ignored by networks and other media. That is what the process is all about. Money to place your case before the people and make you and your case recognised and understood. Your face on tv every night in ads telling people about your platform and programme. “Oh how boring.”? Well possibly, but it can’t be more boring than the tedious and repetitive state radio and tv coverage of the last Mayor election in London. And advertising works. Short bursts of image and impression, carefully planned and executed. Why else do market leading companies in every sector of the economy spend so much money on it? Why does the vast majority of the money raised by all political campaigning in the US go on short burst tv advertising? Why did Obama spend a quarter of a billion dollars on tv alone? For fun? Primaries in local and state politics could not be staged today in the US without enormous budgets. Never mind those for the presidential contests, which run into hundreds of millions for tv spending alone.
And let us not forget as well, the media coverage of London Mayor by state radio and tv in the UK may pretend to be journalism, but it is in fact obligatory advertorial or promotion coverage for the state’s three favoured parties, and which specifically bars in the rules any others from meaningful coverage. It has enormous value, handed to the “main” parties free every night. Basic lessons in propaganda centre on the role of the electronic media, critical mass of appearance and of the impression created (rather than the specifics of what is said). Since 1940 in the USA and 1953 in the UK, this has been completely accepted by all parties who stand a chance of winning. We can no longer pretend that the vast coverage for the state’s three favoured parties on tv during campaigns is not advertising. It is advertising (or advertorial feature) masked as editorial coverage and kept outside the spending rules. It is propaganda for a state agreed group of parties which directly damages others who wish to play a role in the process, the more so as they are barred from taking part or indeed paying to be included in this advertising. Endless state propaganda on behalf of the favoured parties ensures the perpetuation of this position, it does not reflect it. If Mars and Nestle were allowed to advertise their chocolates on UK television but Cadbury were completely restricted to half a minute a month at 2am, ask any of those companies what that might mean for sales…yippee for two and pull out of market for the third.
But broadcasters hate devoting the valuable time when they could be giving us a welter of far more important celebrity chefs and talent show winners instead. These people are going to fight tooth and nail against covering a host of unknown ‘civilians’ every night, giving them a platform to make a substantial media case for their own brand of Tory/Labour/ LibDemmery.
A good friend who is a campaign fundraiser in the US pointed out to me last night that the Seattle Plastic Bag Tax vote which has just taken place and which she was involved with has raised more money for advertising, leafletting and townhall meetings than both Tory and Labour candidates for London Mayor are allowed to actually collectively spend on their campaigns! And in the US, they are allowed to advertise, and spend that cash, not simply sit dependent upon the feeble (but nonetheless valuable) coverage of a bored state radio and tv network drumming up dull nightly advertorial type stories. Stories which ensure that any challengers from outside the political class are not heard. And which make it boring and stifle diversity.
KNOW YOUR PLACE
Known as the BBC to most of us, state radio and tv regulates on behalf of its bosses (the state, in the final analysis) the media coverage for London Mayor through guidelines which it dusts off each time there is an election. These guidelines effectively divide the candidates into two groups (sometimes three, after all we do still love our class structures in the UK), but the real division is between what amount to the state’s ‘upper class’ parties (Tory, Labour and LibDem) and the state’s ‘lower class’ parties (the rest). The state’s upper class are effectively given all of the meaningful coverage (if you add up the numbers of seconds on state radio and tv during the official campaigning period, it is over 99% of the total) and they are allowed unlimited access and coverage; the state’s lower class parties are rationed by state radio and tv to tiny grudging numbers of seconds carefully stage managed in advance to give the illusion of inclusion and equality (equality, that is, between the BNP and Greens, let’s say, right down to the numbers of seconds). As late as possible and buried as far away as possible from viewers and listeners.
But it also leads to dull and pap coverage. There is no reference to news values in the news programme coverage of the state’s three upper class parties during an election, otherwise there would be considerably less of it and without fail the coverage is ‘feature’ or advertorial style. And such overwhelming and nightly coverage is the lifeblood for candidate recognition, generating awareness. The state’s three upper class parties are given vast quantities of what amounts to free state advertising during a London Mayor campaign, while smaller parties are effectively barred from the airwaves because they are barred from access to media by the rules and they are banned from advertising to compete on a level playing field with the upper class parties. This huge amount of pap coverage is a complete reversal of what the original legislation 60 years ago was meant to reflect. The legislation was designed for the era where there was no coverage! None at all. For anyone. Not for Winnie nor for dear Major Attlee.
This advertising is worth more in just a couple of days in £££ media value as perceived by PRs and product promoters than the entire budget the candidates are allowed to spend themselves. Can anyone seriously imagine what would happen if the coverage of London Mayor in news programmes was genuinely proportionate to news values. There would be small amounts of it and on many broadcasts not a mention at all. The already dire turnout would slip to disaster proportions, and this is accepted by all media advisers to all the major parties.
Depending upon how this situation impacts on you, you may have a positive or negative view of it. But one thing is certain. Primaries do not fit into this structure at all and the total lack of similar coverage for the Tory 2007 ‘primary’ is a foretaste and reflects the confusion which state radio and tv had about handling such a concept. And of course had a hand in the disastrous turnout. OK, voters had to use a premium rate telephone line to record their votes…but of course, so do the tv talent shows which clock up millions of votes in London. The concept of having to deal with ‘balance’ between a series of unknown councillors is a terrifying prospect for the media and a new rulebook would be needed which they are really not about to write. They can just about cope through gritted teeth with the inconsistencies of the London Mayor election and the fact that they know they are not reporting news but PR. But as a result, they cover it so badly and with such tedious results that they really do not want to add another longwinded tiresome ‘local’ election into their schedules. Because for it all to have effect, it has to be done every night for weeks. The impact of drip drip coverage, building up the story, creating characters known to all over a period. For each party. “Imagine, darlings, all those civilians on our screens. Ugh.” You can hear the tv people saying it. And then frantically trying to come up every night with something newsy about the candidates.
And of course that turnout in the 2007 Tory ‘primary’ should make clear exactly what we might be in for if this is done and left to traditional campaigning methods: they put a celeb (Boris Johnson) up against a few local politicians in a Londonwide vote and got only 20,000 people bothering to vote – out of an electorate of 5 million – a quarter of one per cent… As said earlier, if you are not going to do it properly…
Totnes turnout was about 25% but there was wall-to-wall publicity for it locally and it was novel and of course the Tories spent shed loads of cash on it – but three out of four still didn’t bother. It would take millions of pounds worth of publicity and hype by the London media to make this idea work across the capital and even to get the voting into double figures. Actually, it would take tens of millions to do a proper build-up, unless you simply co-opt a group of celebs to do the job and occupy all the candidate positions.
If we want Primaries, they would entirely change the face of our political system if done properly. And if done badly, they would saddle us with another tortuous process and deal one further blow to a tottering system. They cannot be done well by the parties’ own resources. Primaries would mean allowing people to spend money on advertising. They would mean ending the cosy relationship between state radio and tv and the three state upper class parties. And of course, shock horror, they would lead to serious and real challenges for top jobs. If you believe that Bush or Obama “bought” their election, then you may baulk at the implications. And in a way, the system is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Condemned by fear of real challenge, most of the parties are content with the continuing decline in involvement and interest – better, they reason, to win with 25% of a 24% turnout (ie, the votes of 6% of your constituents) than face an upheaval in which you might lose your seat.
David Lammy talked about ‘something stirring’. Indeed it is. It’s called a hornet’s nest and the politicians themselves are doing the stirring. I’ve said what I think is wrong about this idea, so in the next piece I will say what I think should be done to make London Mayor (and Assembly) elections more relevant and more likely to galvanise the voters.
* Victoria and Warwick were two of the candidates who stood in the Primary to represent the Conservative Party for London Mayor in the 2007 Primary. They are both so energetic I would have thought that they each know 20,000 people who could have voted for them and won them the election…