Positive Points for Open Primaries

totnesThe Conservative Totnes experiment with open primaries is an interesting one. The Tories opened the selection of their candidate to all local electors. They could choose from a shortlist chosen by local party members.

It’s an idea that’s fraught with risks and problems and, possibly most critically, expense. But it could be one of several answers to the problems of the democratic deficit that exists in safe seats as well as renew passion for politics. I think the system has these particular merits:

The wisdom of the crowd
Leaving local parties to select local candidates has always struck me as a peculiar process. After all, being a member of a political party doesn’t necessarily mean you make the best decisions. Equally, longevity of association with a party isn’t necessarily a mark of quality for candidates. Small, committed groups might not pick a person who best reflects the constituency but a broader groups of electors outside the party stand a better chance. The crowd moderates the clique’s urge for philosophical purity and looks more keenly at their other attributes. Honest, decent people rather than hardcore politics geeks stand a better chance of passing the test.

Empowerment of the disenfranchised.
Millions of people in Britain are essentially disenfranchised. In safe seats, a monkey in a red/blue rosette will win whatever happens and yet if you vote the other way your vote is essentially pointless under the first past the post system. Giving these ‘lost voters’ a chance to choose the presumptive winner (even if the MP is not from their party of first choice) means that they do at least have a voice, and perhaps a stake, in participating and hopefully greater faith in the result.

Central party machine is less powerful
Labour and Tory activists alike complain about the influence that the central party machine can exert on selections and are keen to maintain their independence. An open primary very effectively prevents a candidate being parachuted in. Of course, there is an irony in that local parties have to be content to give up their own power in choosing only a shortlist to limit the powers of the central party to impose a candidate upon them. But I wonder if some local parties wouldn’t accept that compromise.

Open primaries are potentially invigorating. Where politics is stagnant, they can stir in some air. I’d be content if Labour adopted a system along these lines for, say, 10% of seats that are unlikely to change hands and can’t see any reason why we shouldn’t experiment with some seats for the 2010 election, especially with such an exodus of MP post expenses.

4 thoughts on “Positive Points for Open Primaries”

  1. If memory serves, Jim Hacker also noted that open primaries would give power to the people. He was eventually convinced that a further advantage was more important: open primaries weaken the power of the central party machine over the eventually elected MP. A locally popular, rebelliously minded member may have less to fear when it comes to reselection in a system of truly open primaries.

    It is also worth noting the similarity between open primaries and PR systems with multi-member constituencies and open party lists. As Hanson and Walles point out, such a system also empowers the disenfranchised and, I suspect, would similarly weaken the centre. I hope this isn’t why our party lists are closed.

  2. Andrew:

    I’m becoming increasingly interested in multi-member constituencies for the Commons and starting to wonder if it’s actually one way of edging towards PR incrementally.


  3. In Sweden they have regional open-list PR. There is a ballot paper for each party. You pick up a ballot paper for the party you want to vote for and then list their candidates in your order of preference – proportional results and open primaries in one election – cheaper and gives far more choice to the electorate.

  4. I think open primaries are an interesting experiment but my concern is that the Tories use of them still won’t address the lack of diversity in the House of Commons and amongst their own MPs. It is Labour’s positive use of All Women Shortlists that have made the real difference here.

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