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.
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?