Open Primaries: Right diagnosis, wrong solution

10 Downing Street

I was very interested to see the launch of the ‘Open Up’ campaign, with a very slick website and duck-house videos. I would expect nothing less given the people behind it including the immensely capable Becky Hogge, ORG’s former Executive Director.

There is as a whole swathe of campaigning going on at the moment calling for reform in one sense or another. This is extremely encouraging and welcome, it’s wonderful that people are speaking out and getting involved. More power to them.

However, I must take issue with Open Up’s proposed solution. I absolutely agree with their core argument that we need better and more diverse politicians. I think the poor quality of British politics and politicians is an absolutely critical issue at the moment.

In my view party political representative democracy is still the least worst option available to us. If we didn’t have parties we’d have to invent them. All lasting democracies develop groupings of some form another. But we urgently need to re-invigorate parties and our democratic institutions.

Interestingly the Speaker’s Conference in Parliament has recently been touching on these issues too. I took the opportunity to watch online the three party leaders speaking to the Conference: Cameron sounds more dynamic next to Brown but didn’t really say anything more significant. I felt Clegg was the most honest in admitting many of the people they need weren’t coming forward. He also argued that Westminster itself wasn’t the right kind of place to attract the people we need in politics.

We need better politicians

So if we accept that to improve our politics we need better politicians; then it follows that we need a more diverse set of candidates from a wider set of backgrounds. How are open primaries going to do that?

The argument is that because anyone can stand to be a candidate in an open primary, the barriers to ‘real people’ becoming candidates are lowered. People who aren’t party animals, more likely to be ‘mavericks’, will be more likely to stand. This is possibly the case but standing for an open primary then an actual general election doesn’t strike me as a low barrier, many will be put off by that. Furthermore there is no discussion of how to prevent the rich getting a head-start in winning an open primary.

This is one of several practical problems I see with open primaries. Another is that most parties cannot possibly afford to run open primaries where every elector in a constituency can vote for their candidate. The three largest parties are all in debt and the addition of this kind of process in every constituency would be beyond them let alone the smaller parties.

It would also be expensive for potential candidates, particularly if the primaries were truly ‘open’ allowing leafleting and canvassing across the constituency. Such primaries would further extend the length of time a potential candidate would need to dedicate to winning a Westminster seat. If a General Election goes to the wire (as this one looks to) then it can already be a two or three year unpaid commitment before we throw in a whole open primary process.

Finally there is a real risk of voter burnout once the novelty of open primaries has worn out. In a seat like Brighton Pavilion you could be looking at four or five primaries minimum then the General Election itself. There is evidence, particularly from the United States where some citizens vote on dozens posts and initiatives annually, that the more things people are asked to vote on, the less likely they are to vote. There can be too much of a good thing.

These are serious practical problems with open primaries which proponents don’t properly address, I’m not sure they can. There are also political problems with open primaries which mean they won’t deliver what proponents hope for.

Political problems

I believe open primaries will greatly increase the chance of politically naive candidates being selected. I don’t just mean innocent about the ways of politics (though that could be an issue that impacts on their effectiveness as MPs), but that candidates could genuinely not understand or know the range of a party’s policies before being selected.

Imagine a popular local figure gets selected for a party in an open primary then wins the General Election to become an MP by campaigning on, for example, health and policing. This MP is asked by their party whips to vote on a variety of issues in ways they don’t support such as education or civil partnerships. What do they do? Most parties use peer pressure and whips to enforce party discipline and ensure that policies are pushed through (if they are in government). If you vote for a candidate from a certain party shouldn’t you expect them to generally be in line with that party’s core values and policies? How will open primaries, when people of all and no party affiliation have a hand in selecting a party’s candidate ensure some compatibility with a party’s values?

We don’t want to see only the most loyal, grovelling party animals selected as candidates. Absolutely not. But we also don’t want people to become disenchanted because they voted for a certain party only to find the candidate isn’t really in line with what the party represents. Rebels have an important place in Parliament at critical times, but systematic rebellion (pre-planned or unintentional through naivety) is a recipe for chaos, not reasoned legislative work.

Open primaries also don’t alter the electoral reality of safe seats. Unless extremely ineffective or corrupt, most sitting MPs will have an inherent advantage in any selection whether it’s an open primary or internal party process. That’s just how it is, they have the profile and the contacts. Open primaries don’t neutralise incumbency, and we see in the US that it’s still reported as unusual for a sitting politician to lose their party’s selection through a primary if seeking re-election.

We need reform and a new political culture

We need a new culture of politics, one that is more open, honest and transparent. I admire the energy and passion of the Open Up campaign, but disagree with their prescribed solution. Open primaries will be prohibitively expensive for parties and candidates, will burn out voters, could result in candidates not truly representing the party label they stand for whilst failing to address the problem of safe seats.

Changing the culture in our politics requires a more open media, a redesigned educational system, a new constitution, reform of political funding, a recall process and most importantly — a system of proportional representation to elect members to both houses of Parliament. Call for open primaries distracts from these key requirements in the reform agenda.

I believe party politics has a great future ahead of it, if we can increase the number and quality of parties. We need smaller parties that can be more representative of specific groups in our society, more flexible, responsive and less hamstrung by the internal coalitions and simmering disagreement that the large parties of today represent.

This would force greater collaboration, more discourse as opposed to bombastic posturing and a richer, better politics for our country. What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Open Primaries: Right diagnosis, wrong solution”

  1. A really excellent summary of all of my own thoughts about the Open Up campaign and why open primaries are flawed! One thing pro-primary campaigners often forget is that in the US party membership is much, much looser than in the UK: you simply have to register to vote as a Democrat, Republican or other. In closed primaries, only registered Dems or ‘Cans can vote: which is effectively analogous to party members selecting the candidate.

    Another issue is that so much attention is being given to the electoral system: rightly so in some cases, such as your call for PR. But what about what happens in between elections? The real problem, much deeper than the electoral system because despite the deficiencies of FPTP it is still possible for smaller parties to win (albeit v hard), is that people just dont want to engage in politics. Even if you had a fairer electoral system, if people aren’t bothered about the outcome, they won’t care about the process. Giving us PR would be a massive step forward, but we need to be asking questions and coming up with solutions about how to make politics more interesting and relevant to the everyday lives of most people, so they have positive reasons to get involved in between elections as well as during them.

    Changing the structure of the universally boring local branch/association/party meeting would be one step towards that: maybe having more of a social life aspect to the events parties run; maybe simply asking more people to do stuff other than delivering uninspiring leaflets or having uninspiring conversations on the doorstep.

  2. Thanks Rayyan. You’re right that what happens between elections is vitally important. But with PR I hope we can build a better political culture between elections. Mix in some e-democracy tools and I’m hopeful…

    But I agree, anything to make political involvement more engaging has to be welcome. I must admit I skipped my local party’s monthly meeting tonight!

  3. Hi Jason

    I’m absolutely delighted that you’ve given some time to thinking about the open primaries campaign. And thank you for being so generous towards me and towards the Open Up campaign 🙂

    You’re absolutely right to highlight the fact that open primaries will come with a pricetag attached. There’s no easy way of addressing this, but it is worth saying that our democracy is worth investing in, and that if running the ballot was administered by the Electoral Commission and paid for by the state, I believe a case could be made that this was money well spent.

    A lot of people from within political parties have read the Open Up campaign as an attempt to destroy party politics, but I think that it’s far from obvious what effect open primaries would have on the public’s engagement with political parties. It’s an unknown, but evidence from Greece’s Pasok party suggests opening things up can re-invigorate party membership. And if new people come with new ideas, then in a society where most (but not all!) parties’ membership is in decline, surely that is no bad thing? The two parties certainly need to re-calibrate, and to move away from previous attempts at “triangulation” (Can you tell I’ve recently re-read the POWER inquiry?).

    And I had to smile when I read:

    “Changing the culture in our politics requires a more open media, a redesigned educational system, a new constitution, reform of political funding, a recall process and most importantly — a system of proportional representation to elect members to both houses of Parliament.”

    That is certainly the Jason I know, and the Jason I largely agree with. I wouldn’t want for a second to distract from these ambitions. Open Up is attempting to reach beyond the relatively modest amount of people who have been pushing for reforms such as these for many years to reach a mass audience, to amass a movement that the political elite, who continue to block these reforms, can no longer ignore. My personal hope is that, if we succeed in our call for open primaries, that movement will be ready and energised to push for even more reform.

  4. Thanks so much for your detailed comment Becky.

    First up I agree our democracy is worth investing in, no doubt about it. You’re probably right that the only viable way of running and financing open primaries would be through government or an agency (but I think the Electoral Commission wouldn’t want to get involved in the actual running as it muddies their watchdog role).

    “Triangulation” (the strategic race for the middle ground, often credited to Bill Clinton) is a symptom of our first past the post electoral system. Open primaries wouldn’t change that and they wouldn’t change how the big parties centrally formulate their manifestos to win marginal seats.

    There’s no denying that opening up politics, whether through open primaries or other means, is an implicit threat to the current ‘main’ parties just because they’ve got the most to lose and are emblematic of the current political culture.

    I agree that we need to move the ‘reform movement’ (or whatever we want to call it) beyond the usual suspects who have been banging on about it for years and years (e.g. Electoral Reform Society members). However, my view is that open primaries are the wrong reform to focus such outreach around. Proportional representation is a more likely candidate given the number of groups that support it (ERS, Unlock Democracy, Power Inquiry, LibDems, Greens, that Labour manifesto promise plus Gordon Brown’s recent nod to it etc etc).

    I had the pleasure of meeting politics students from Brighton City College this week. They were from all ages and backgrounds, a marvellous bunch who were really alive what’s going on. As I was in the process of writing my thoughts on open primaries I used part of the session to discuss the idea with them. Before expressing my own views they leapt in with concerns about fairness, costs and whether rich candidates would be advantaged. I can see why open primaries are attractive from the point of view of breaking the two party stranglehold. But I think to these students and most people, the inherent fairness of something like proportional representation is instinctively more attractive and clearly threatens the establishment far more than open primaries.

    So why not join the fight for PR first and we can continue the debate on open primaries later??? 🙂

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