Tendance Coatesy

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Labour Party Leader Election and French Socialist Party ‘Primary’

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Hysteria in UK at Labour Party Leadership Open Election. 

Such is the cultural cringe of the British media towards the USA that journalists have restored to comparing the Labour Party leadership election to the American Democrat primaries.

The Guardian explains Corbyn to an ‘international’ (that us, US) audience by saying that, “Like Bernie Sanders in the US Corbyn is a reminder that voters today seem to crave authenticity and a challenge to to the status quo – even if, in the final analysis, that may not necessarily be an electable one.”

But there is a comparison to a political party a lot nearer to home, and, both culturally and politically, far closer to the British left than the American Democrats: the French Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste).

Looking at the PS  even more important than that the French Socialists  held their own first “open” elections to decide on its leader in 2011. 

The 2011 French Socialist Party presidential primary was the first open primary (primaires citoyennes) of the French Socialist Party and Radical Party of the Left for selecting their candidate for the 2012 presidential election. The filing deadline for primary nomination papers was fixed at 13 July 2011 and six candidates competed in the first round of the vote. On election day, 9 October 2011, no candidate won 50 percent of the vote, and the two candidates with the most votes contested a runoff election on 16 October 2011: François Hollande won the primary, defeating Martine Aubry.

To participate you had to:

  • be registered in the French electoral lists before 31 December 2010 (or for French persons under 18: be 18 at the time of the 2012 presidential election, or be a member of Socialist Party (PS), Radical Party of the Left (PRG), Young Socialist Movement (MJS), or Young Radicals of the Left (JRG); foreigners will be able to vote if they are members of PS, PRG, MJS, or JRG);
  • pay a contribution of minimum €1;
  • sign a charter pledging to the values of the Left: “freedom, equality, fraternity, secularism, justice, solidarity and progress”


Around 2,700,000 voters participated in the first round, and  2,900,000 voters in the second.

Results of first round:

 Summary of the 8–9 and 15–16 October 2011 French Socialist Party presidential primary
Candidates Parties 1st round 2nd round
Votes  % Votes  %
François Hollande Socialist Party (Parti socialiste) PS 1,038,207 39.17% 1,607,268 56.57%
Martine Aubry Socialist Party (Parti socialiste) PS 806,189 30.42% 1,233,899 43.43%
Arnaud Montebourg Socialist Party (Parti socialiste) PS 455,609 17.19%
Ségolène Royal Socialist Party (Parti socialiste) PS 184,096 6.95%
Manuel Valls Socialist Party (Parti socialiste) PS 149,103 5.63%
Jean-Michel Baylet Radical Party of the Left (Parti Radical de Gauche) PRG 17,055 0.64%
Total 2,650,259 100.00% 2,860,157 100.00%

About the only incident that sticks in the mind is that Martine Aubry accused the media of favouring François Hollande (More details here).

Nobody, to my recollection had a wobbly about the possibility of “infiltration” by the ‘hard left’ or right-wing.

This would indeed be something of a joke given that the present General Secretary of the Parti Socialiste, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, is a former cadre of one the hardest of hardest Trotskyist groups, the ‘Lambertists’.

The only real surprise was that Arnaud Montebourg, the left-wing candidate, and author of  Votez pour la démondialisation ! (an anti-economic liberal vision of globalisation, aimed at controlling finance), and a supporter of a new, radically democratic, ‘6th republic’, came from roughly nowhere to get 17,9%.

At the time Progress supporter Will Straw observed (Left Foot Forward. 2011)

 The French Socialist Party’s presidential primaries point the way ahead for British political parties, to the great benefit our democracy

The issue of primaries was discussed in a Progress fringe at Labour party conference. David Lammy, Jessica Asato and I spoke in favour with Luke Akehurst (and a number of people in the audience) expressing reservations.

Key points for the case against included concerns about the cost and whether primaries would actually re-engage voters in the democratic process. The Socialist Party’s (PS) experiment with primaries to select their candidate for President has given the clearest possible response.

On Comment is Free, political commentator, Agnes Poirer, explained that five million people had watched the final debate last Wednesday and wrote:

“It’s called primaries fever. It’s taking place all over France and should last another week. Although, in theory, only affecting the people of the left, even the right has showed early symptoms…

If a million people vote today, it will be a success for democracy. A bigger turnout would give an incredible legitimacy to the left’s candidate.”

In the end, 2.5 million people took part each paying a minimum of €1. In total, I’m told by a PS insider that the party collected between €3.2 million and €3.7 million – allowing for a significant profit once costs are taken into consideration.

Since no candidate took 50 per cent of the vote, there will be a run off this coming Sunday between François Hollande, who came first with 39 per cent, and Martine Aubrey, who secured 31 per cent. Ultimately the Socialists will end up with a significant war chest to fight President Sarkozy at the next election.

Even more significantly, the PS collected contact details for more than 1 million people making it far easier to mobilise large numbers of volunteers for the campaign.

As Daniel Hannan MEP understands:

“The eventual winner… will begin with a large corpus of emotionally committed supporters.”

The Conservative party, of course, experimented with primaries to select candidates like Sarah Wollaston in Totnes. Her independence has made them increasingly reluctant to fulfil the coalition programme commitment to hold 200 primaries ahead of the next general election. But democracy campaigners should hold them to it and push for primaries for the mayoral elections and for the selection of the elected police commissioners.

I would add that the Montebourg surge indicated that the best laid plans of France’s Progress types could come undone.

Unfortunately, despite only getting 5,63% of the vote, the lone French Blairite, Manuel Valls, is now Prime Minister!

If Progress seems to have conveniently forgotten its own recent past there is plenty more to think about here:

 wrote in 2011. (Institute for Government)

A novel experiment in democratic participation is under way on the other side of the Channel. Following recent rule changes, the French Socialist Party (PS) has offered all registered voters the chance to vote on the party’s candidate to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential poll.

The first round of these new primaires citoyennes (citizen’s primary election) took place this past Sunday, with around 2.5 million people participating. The top two candidates – Francois Hollande and Martine Aubry – now go forward to a second, decisive round next week.

This innovation comes at a time when the Labour Party has itself just taken a small step towards opening its own selection procedures to the public. The next time Labour selects a new leader or deputy, ‘registered supporters’ will be entitled to take part, although the share of the electoral college allocated to this group will be a measly 3%, perhaps rising to 10% later.

What could be drawn from this process? Paun observed,

First of all, the PS primary certainly managed to capture the interest of the public and media. There was widespread press coverage of the campaign – to the detriment of President Sarkozy’s profile – and up to 5 million viewers watched a series of high-profile TV debates. This level of exposure can only be positive for the party in the run-up to the 2012 présidentielles. But it is also a welcome development for the political system as a whole, since it has facilitated an open, public debate about the direction the possible next President of the Republic should take in key areas such as economic management.

Second, in terms of sheer turnout, the first round of the PS primary was seen as a success by most commentators. The PS has a similar membership base to the Labour Party – around 200,000 signed-up “militants”. The primary thus succeeded in reaching well beyond the party’s membership base, attracting over 2 million non-members to take part (though to put this in perspective, this represents a turnout of 6% of the overall electorate).

Third, the PS process offers an interesting model for determining who to involve in party selection processes. One objection to primaries is that they are susceptible to sabotage by opponents of the party, who could use their voting rights to back an extreme or unpopular candidate. The PS approach was to require those wishing to participate to sign a declaration that they support the “values of the left” – more akin to Labour’s decision to restrict participation in future primaries to “registered supporters” of the party than to the Conservatives’ fully open primaries held in Gosport and Totnes in 2009.

Fourth, in the PS primaires (as in the Conservative 2009 trials), an important safeguard was that the parties retained control of the nomination process. This was not a free-for-all in which any aspiring Président could throw their hat in the ring. Instead, candidates had first to attract the support of 5% of any one of five different constituencies within the party: MPs, national executive council members, mayors of large towns, or regional and departmental councils (with a requirement that a minimum degree of geographical spread).

Fifth, voters were required to attend polling stations in person on the day of the vote. This raised slightly the barrier to participation but also increased the sense that participation required a degree of commitment to the process. By contrast, the Conservatives’ open primaries were conducted by post (indeed Freepost), achieved a turnout of 19% and 26% in the two seats. So the French process engaged significantly fewer voters as a share of the electorate, but the degree of engagement was perhaps deeper.

Sixth, those wishing to participate had to make a contribution of at least €1. This nominal per-person fee raised a total of €3.5 million, enabling the PS to more than cover the considerable costs of the nationwide exercise – with over nine thousand polling stations established across France, and expensive electronic equipment purchased to collate the results. The high costs of primaries are one reason why British parties have used them sparingly so far. A user fee would be one way to overcome this problem that did not make recourse to public funds.

Seventh, another criticism of primaries (heard in both the French and the British debates, including at our event at Labour conference, co-hosted with Progress) is that they reduce the value of joining a political party, by reducing the specific rights that membership confers. This is contested, since party members enjoy a range of other rights and since many join to advance the cause rather than for the specific powers they are granted. But it does point to the importance of gaining the consent of members for such radical procedural changes. In the PS case, this was secured by means of a postal ballot of all party members in 2009.

Eighth, the PS primary opened out the selection process not only to non-members but also to some minors. Specifically, any voter who will be 18 come polling day next spring was entitled to take part, as were all junior members of the PS (from 15 upwards). This illustrates how primaries can be used as a place to trial other democratic innovations. In a similar way, the SNP recently announced that 16 and 17 year-olds will be enfranchised in the planned referendum on Scottish independence.

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  1. […] for UK’s Labour’s Leader also has a paltry participation rate compared to elsewhere. In the 2011 French Socialist Party presidential primary around 2,700,000 voters participated in the first round, and 2,900,000 voters in the second – […]

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