Opinion: The Lib Dems should make open primaries a coalition demand

82813332_89f5e4ceb0_zThe Liberal Democrats are likely to make proportional representation for local government elections a red line in 2015 coalition negotiations. Needless to say, for any liberal this is a thoroughly good and idea that will transform local government. Given neither party is likely to budge on national PR, it is a good way to implement radical reforms which might actually be accepted by either of the other main parties.

But we’ve missed a trick. We have failed to capitalise on the increasing desire for open primaries amongst the other political parties. This is another radical reform which the other main parties would actually accept- indeed, welcome. The Conservatives, for example, are testing selecting more candidates through open primaries, including their candidate in the Clacton by-election. Open primaries are the future, and as a constitutional reform the other parties might very well accept they should form a major part of any coalition negotiations we participate in next year.

Open primaries are elections in which any voter can choose the candidate of a political party for public office. This candidate then goes on to stand for that party in the actual election which decides who takes office as the public official.

Changing to this method for every Parliamentary seat would be an extremely radical move. Most parliamentary seats in the current system are cast-iron safe for Labour or the Conservative parties. There’s hardly any chance at all they will change hands. But parties holding such seats almost always choose their candidates by a vote of their membership. Given party memberships, which are in long-term decline, rarely amount to more than a few hundred people per seat, such elections mean the majority of MPs quite simply do not face competitive elections amongst the general public. Ordinary voters are effectively disenfranchised and must join a party and vote in selection contests to have any meaningful say in who becomes their MP. This complete travesty of democracy has gone almost totally ignored by the general public, though it is the bread and butter of political professionals.

There are also numerous reasons to think open primaries will make better MPs. Open primaries will make a professional political career more difficult by forcing candidates to have more experience doing things voters actually approve of. We could expect to see more local activists, professionals, businesspeople, and simply those who may not fit in well with their party leadership but who appeal to its electoral base. In other words our MPs would be more representative, more rounded and less docile to their party machines.

To my knowledge, the Liberal Democrats do not have a policy on open primaries. This would add to the problem of the need for a careful consideration of the form it would actually take if we were to suggest it in coalition negotiations. We would need to work out when we wanted open primaries to be held, how they would be funded and what the rules for campaigning would be. Nevertheless, this apparently minor change has a wide measure of cross-party support, and it would result in considerable changes to our political system as part of a general transition towards a genuinely democratic politics.

Photo by Matthew Bradley

* Robin McGhee is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Kensington.

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28 Comments

  • We don’t need to “make it a coalition demand”. We just need to do it…

  • Adam Robertson 5th Sep '14 - 4:31pm

    The idea that we should make open primaries a demand in coalition negotiations after 2015, has to be taken at face value and nothing more than that. I agree with Robin, that this is a good idea, but Labour or the Conservatives, may want to run a minority government or may even have a majority. There seems to be this attitude from the top of the party, that both main parties may want to talk to us after the next election if there is a balanced parliament. This may not be the case.

    I agree with Robin, that open primaries, are the way forward but as Thomas Long has said, we can do it now as a party. It seems to be quite autocratic to enforce other parties to do it, when we are not doing it ourselves at the moment. The Leadership will not want open primaries, as they may have grassroots people with principles, which will not bode well for any balance of power situation. Personally, I think we should have less elitism within politics, as a whole.

  • STV for local and national elections is what is needed. That gives the power to the voter on election day. Much better than open primary and other gimmicks.

  • How would you propose this would work – are you forcing the other party to a coalition to change their internal procedures, or to write a law which is then imposed on ALL parties? This would have major implications on minor parties (from UKIP through Greens and TUSC to very minor parties) who you would also be forcing to have Open primaries when it may well be totally inappropriate or affordable for them to do so. It seems to me that increasing the barriers to entry for new parties is neither Liberal, nor Democratic.

  • stuart moran 5th Sep '14 - 4:49pm

    I don’t understand this article at all?

    Firstly, if it is such a good idea can you tell me how many LD’s are being selected in tho way? Your party criticises the Tories unconstitutional issues but they have held at least 2 of them

    I assume that you want to make these primaries compulsory? I am not against the idea at all but surely it is up to individual parties to decide how to select their candidates? Does it apply to all parties – do the MRLP have to have anti do this as well?

    I don’t agree that it is a minor change and it is likely to be expensive to do if every party did it in every seat – who pays?

    I think open primaries should be encouraged but in no way should they be compulsory

  • David Evans 5th Sep '14 - 5:05pm

    Robin, “The increasing desire for open primaries amongst the other political parties.” Do you think that the public (a much more important group than political parties) have the least interest in open primaries, and how they would react if we told them we insisted on them rather than say ‘abolishing the bedroom tax’ if we were negotiating with the Tories or say ‘not reintroducing Trident’ if negotiating with Labour.

  • Richard Church 5th Sep '14 - 5:13pm

    I would love to take part in a Tory open primary, and choose the most unelectable candidate they put forward. I sure as hell wouldn’t like Tories to be choosing my Lib Dem candidate.

    For this to work, and to prevent Tory voters choosing our candidates, you would have to introduce voter registration of affiliation to political parties, as they do in some US states. You would then have to run an additional polling day in each constituency, doubling the costs of a general election. Do you insist all registered parties take part? What is they say no, or only submit one candidate? Who would fund primary campaigns? Cash-strapped parties? or will only the rich be able to run primary campaigns?

    Is there another country in the world that holds American style primaries? That’s a genuine question, because I can’t think of one.

    Primaries are a distraction from the need to a fair voting system by the Single Transferable Vote, in which voters can choose within as well as between parties. Primaries are a unique product of the American constitution, and they are one import that just won’t work here.

    If we want to extend voter participation in the selection of people for public office, how about directly electing the Prime Minister? While we are about it, the title ‘President’ might be a little more appropriate.

  • Stephen Donnelly 5th Sep '14 - 5:15pm

    I don’t have any problem with political parties choosing to select candidates in this way, but would be opposed to any suggestion that they should be forced to do so. The final decision is in the formal ballot, after a campaign where candidates are testing in various ways, and the choice is given some consideration by the public over a period of time.

    Open primaries may be open to influence by pressure groups, and give an advantage to those who perform well on a public stage on a single occasion. They may also favour short termism, and work against those who slowly build support in a community through hard work. If the selection is made at a single event, those with children, heavy work commitments or mobility problems may be less likely to attend. n the US the primary is often more important than the final election, and it would be very hard to argue that has strengthened democracy. I do not think the Liberal Democrats should use them, or advocate them.

    Clever idea for the Tories to use it in Clacton as a way of putting themselves back in the game. I bet they do not use them in any seats with sitting Tony MPs though!

  • Hmm. I am sceptical. This looks like a kludge that is trying hard to patch the system and work around the fact that safe seats exist, when perhaps the phenomenon of the safe seat would be better tackled directly.

    I maintain that we should stick to our guns on an open list system of proportional representation, if there should happen to be another opportunity. We should then move for an early election under the new system. But, the strong likelihood is for there to be a small Labour majority in 2015, so we may end up waiting for some time.

  • Simon McGrath 5th Sep '14 - 6:13pm

    So instead of the people who will be working to get a LD PPC elected all sorts of people with no allegiance to our party (or allegiance to another party) get to decide?

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '14 - 6:36pm

    The public perception of coalition over the last 4 years is perhaps one of divided government – each side trying to take all the credit for successes, and blaming the other side for all the unpopular moves.

    Might a different arrangement be feasible in the next parliament? Some kind of division of governing responsibilities between the two largest parties?

  • “We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up, in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last general election.”

    Coalition agreement, pg 27.

  • Tsar Nicolas 5th Sep '14 - 9:15pm

    All-women open primaries?

    Hmmm . . . .

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Sep '14 - 11:09pm

    Open primaries are the destruction of the right of free assembly. It means that if I and a group of people get together and say “This is our aim, this is our spokesperson”, the state forces other people on us to take away our right to say who we are. The right to exclude anyone who does not agree with your aims from participating in what your group of people freely decides for itself is an essential part of freedom to organise. Open primaries take it away, they are something any decent liberal should oppose.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Sep '14 - 11:19pm


    Ordinary voters are effectively disenfranchised and must join a party and vote in selection contests to have any meaningful say in who becomes their MP.

    The solution to this is the Alternative Vote system. AV takes away the need to vote for party X in order to avoid splitting the vote of people who like X’s ideas and so letting in Y. With AV, if there is someone who is sympathetic to the sort of thing X is about, but thinks the official X party hasn’t chosen a good candidate, that person can stand as an independent. X voters, if they want, can put that person 1st and the official X candidate 2nd. Those who think on balance the official X candidate is better can put the unofficial X candidate 2nd in case that candidate does get the majority of X sympathetic votes. Either way, the transfers mean that the unofficial X candidate doesn’t “split the vote” and so let in Y.

    The people of this country had the chance to break the power of the established political parties by voting “Yes” to AV in the May 2011 referendum. They voted two-to-one against it.

  • Keith Sharp 6th Sep '14 - 8:04am

    Open primaries are shot through with deficiencies, many of which have already been posted so I won’t repeat them.

    I will though repeat, in order to endorse, the point made by John Tilley — which is that our established party policy of STV electoral reform is the way to resolve the lack of voter choice/party hegemony. It is excellent that the party has so firmly adopted Local Government STV for 2015, because it keeps reform on the agenda. As for Westminster, who really knows? The failed AV referendum may still be recent, but if we have an effective four-way election next year, the mind boggles at the possible bonkers results that FPTP could produce.

  • Robin McGhee 6th Sep '14 - 11:58am

    Some responses:

    Thanks to those who pointed out open primaries were in the coalition agreement. Had I known this I would probably not have written this article. I’d be very, very interested to hear why no effort at all has been made to implement this given cross-party support.

    Some people seem to have taken this post as supporting first past the post in some way. To emphasise, STV is the genuinely democratic solution and that should of course be our policy. My suggestion for open primaries is just something which could be attained more easily in a coalition agreement next year. Naturally, I’d prefer a deal which introduced STV.

    Also, I don’t actually support open primaries for all seats- that would be hopelessly impractical as well as undesirable. I support open primaries for incumbent parties in safe seats: where the general election is a foregone conclusion, open primaries provide real choice for voters.

  • Keith Sharp 6th Sep '14 - 4:45pm

    Robin:

    The trouble is that primaries will help bolster the FPTP argument, as a (supposed — I’d say illusory) way of ameliorating its deficiencies.

    I see you only want primaries in safe seats — but how will what is a safe seat be decided — and by whom?

    Let’s stay with what we know is right — STV for all public elections in the UK. Don’t let’s muddy the water with ‘messy little compromises’. We know where that gets us…

  • Maria Pretzler 6th Sep '14 - 5:22pm

    My main worry is about selection by wealth, a problem which is already serious, which, I think, this process would exacerbate considerably.

    Assuming the whole procedure (for 650 seats!) is paid from the public purse (not a small feat in a time when all parties, rather short-sightedly, IMHO, want to outdo each other in criticising ‘the cost of politics), the much more troubling issue is the matter of the open primary campaign. I am linking an article, from Labour List, which is instructive since it discusses the cost of getting selected by a constituency Labour party (which almost certainly ought to be cheaper than running a whole-electorate constituency selection campaign). http://labourlist.org/2014/09/it-shouldnt-cost-so-much-to-be-a-candidate/

    In my view, this would mean that we have a situation where the whole system is even more heavily rigged in favour of those with considerable independent means.

    For this reason, I am very strongly against this idea, although I also agree with most opposing arguments already brought up above..

  • Tony Dawson 6th Sep '14 - 6:15pm

    @Dave Page:

    Did I really read that “the majority of MPs quite simply do not face competitive elections amongst the general public”? What do you call a General Election in their constituency?”

    In half the constituencies in the country, the best name for the process is ‘a procession’. The result in each such constituency is known before the campaign starts. But open primaries are just plain silly populist nonsense.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Sep '14 - 1:34pm

    jedibeeftrix

    That is a matter of opinion.
    I for one like FPTP, and am more than happy to see its (admitted) deficiences ameliorated.

    Its main deficiency is that if your opinion is not the majority opinion where you live, you get no representation. How would you propose to ameliorate that deficiency?

  • There is an issue with smaller parties. In the 90s the U.S. Green Party primary was typically won by Ralph Nader, a well known consumer activist and non-member of the Green Party who was in no way bound to advocate their policies. What Matthew Huntbach says is true.

  • Simon Banks 9th Sep '14 - 3:08pm

    The Tories are not holding open primaries. Not in Clacton, anyway. They ask people to apply to vote, and who knows how the lucky winners are selected?

    If we push for open primaries, we need to think hard about the money issue. It’s primaries above all that have made wealth rule all in American politics.

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