In an unknown corner of British politics, there is an institution that few know about and amongst those who do, few care about. It is called the Labour Party. And it has been having a debate about its future over the last couple of weeks in quite a fundamental way. This debate actually contains wider lessons about how those who are seeking a more open society, economy and politics will be confronted by those who want to protect closed cultures and vested interests.
Let me provide some brief background - skip a couple of paras if you wish. Labour is currently given a block of money per year out of the political funds of unions that are affiliated to the party (many unions are not - eg teaching unions - though the biggest unions are). This fund comes from something called the political levy - a voluntary arrangement that individual members are able to opt out of. Labour currently receives around £9million per year through this arrangement. The proposal is to cap the annual donation at £5000 (a cap that the party wants to apply to all donors of all parties) and then affiliate union members individually. This will, in the short term at least, severely impair the party's finances. Wake up at the back there - it gets more interesting from here.
Why on earth would Ed Miliband want to do that? There's a small matter of a local selection battle and alleged wrongdoing by Labour's biggest donor, the Unite union. That doesn't entirely explain it - who really pays any real attention to this sort of thing other than political obsessives? More relevantly, it would seem that Miliband is looking to embrace a more open form of politics. This is further evidenced by his exploration of primaries (as used in the US, France, Greece and Spain and, indeed, for a small number of Conservative selections prior to 2010). Primaries involve opening up selection votes to either registered supporters (closed) or the general public (open). The latter tend to be state run (they are expensive and you have to run then concurrently with all parties to minimise gaming).
Those who back party models that rely on supporters rather than just members, more open engagement with the public and primaries are the open politics advocates. Those who favour the status quo have a more closed outlook in the main. This is not a left versus right debate; it's open versus closed.
The difference between the two sides though is that advocates of open politics tend to argue that case: improves engagement, makes for a more responsive politics, candidates will be more diverse, politics would be more merit than acquaintance or faction based, politicians will be more independent minded etc. However, those who advocate a closed version of politics argue anything *but* the reality of their case. Here are some of the arguments fired in my direction after, in a personal capacity, signing a letter in support of primaries which appeared in Saturday's Guardian.
1. In primaries money talks.
(In the US this is clearly the case. However, this is easily handled by a strict spending cap. Next...)
2. You'd have to change the law to create a new voter category 'registered party supporter'.
(You wouldn't have to in the case of a closed/supporter primary. In the case of open primaries you would so you'd just change the law.)
3. People join political parties to have a say in selections.
(This is more asserted than evidenced. Besides I'm not sure that distributing power on the basis that someone wants it is any better than giving people wealth just because they desire it. An 'open' advocate would look to ask how to distribute rather than concentrate power.)
4. No one cares.
(This one is almost right - few do. But then, few people care about how a car is engineered but they do notice the difference between one that is expertly designed and one that isn't. It is absolutely clear that a good chuck of the electorate, if not the majority, have decided that politics isn't working. That won't express itself in constitutionalism - of course it won't but better democratic arrangements provide one means amongst other things of addressing concerns.)
5. It's against the history and traditions of the Labour Party (you can replace the 'Labour party' with any long-lived institution, market structure, or organisation).
(By definition, anything that is an innovation is challenging to the status quo. This argument's logic could be used to question the entire existence of a Labour Party - which presumably is in the business of change. If not, what's it for?)
6. You'd have ill-disciplined parties.
(Now we're starting to edge towards the truth. Basically, the existing model is about discipline rather than democracy.)
7. You'll bankrupt the Labour Party (again 'Labour party' can substituted here).
(There is more to this - the financial changes will be enormous. Money is the political means to defend the status quo. However, in France, the Socialist Party presidential primaries actually raised money for the party. You had to pay €1 to vote - and almost 3 million chose to do so . The party then also had a database for further fundraising/activist mobilisation. They won the election remember.)
What is interesting about all these arguments is that they all duck the real argument. Those who oppose this change want a narrow, controllable, disciplined phalanx of a party. They are willing to contemplate continued political distance between parties and the electorate to protect that closed culture. That is the real argument. It is absolutely arguable. There is nothing morally better about open than closed. But let's have the real debate rather than a series of diversions.
The broader message here for those who advocate open politics, society and economy is that the advocates of closed and vested interests will rarely take you on in a straight fight. There will be all sorts of largely unconvincing technical, legal, financial, practical obstacles placed in the way of openness - just to make it sound too risky and difficult. It is the accumulation of these small arguments that is often so devastating. Some have much to defend. The trick is to see these arguments in terms of the values that underpin them.
And, if all else fails, they will call you 'clever', 'educated', 'chattering classes', 'liberal elite', 'detached from real concerns'. Of course, advocates of 'closed' are often all these things themselves so we can see it as purely tactical. These advocates will do anything to avoid making the direct case for a closed politics, economy and/or society. In that, there is a hint about the strength of their fundamental position.
Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His twitter feed is @anthonypainter.
PostScript: I highly recommend Matthew Taylor's blog on institutions from last week (in response to a book I've just had published which looks at institutions and social justice amongst other things).