Opinion: Should we have primaries in Britain?

With the US primary season now in full sway, the question about whether or not UK political parties should hold primaries will inevitably be debated once again. Tory MEP Dan Hannan makes the case for over on the Telegraph Blogs.

In fact, primaries are now practiced in the UK by the Conservative Party, although only in a limited way – it is just one of the ways a Conservative Association may choose to select their candidates and the system more closely resembles a caucus system similar to the one used in Iowa as opposed to a full open primary system in that participants must attend a public meeting in order to vote.

It has had mixed results. Indeed, their much hyped open primary process for selecting their candidate for Mayor of London, which did more closely resemble a full open primary, ended up a bit of a damp squib. Only 20,000 votes cast in total. I don’t know the exact number of Conservative members in London but I would guess that means only 1 vote was cast for every 2 members in the capital. Given that the primary was open to non-members, that hardly looks like a hugely successful exercise in mass-participation.

Why has the Conservative experience been so patchy? Partly it is cultural; with widespread cynicism about politics, a lack of a co-operative media and no tradition of this type of participation in the past it is no easy task to get people excited by them. Partly it is institutional; the primary system used in many US states is underpinned by a state-run system of party registration and finance.

At the heart of this debate is the tension between wanting to broaden participation and quite legitimate concerns about preserving party integrity. In the UK, all parties fight a constant struggle against entryism. It has become common practice for extremist and ethno-centric groups to join en masse political parties with whom they share little or no beliefs in order to impose a candidate who will advance their agenda. Following a series of unfortunate experiences, the Lib Dems have tightened their own rules regarding how long people have to be party members before they are allowed to vote in candidate selections.

At the same time, there is a big push for parties to develop supporter networks of individuals who might not choose to join the party but who nevertheless will vote for it and may help with delivery, donate, etc. Parties must reach out beyond their existing membership base if they are to survive in the longer term, but how do they do so without diluting their identity and in doing so increasing widespread cynicism about politics and politicians?

It isn’t easy being the first, and I welcome the Conservative’s experimentation in this area, but I think they have learned the wrong lesson from the US. While the primary system is entrenched in the US and is not likely to be abolished any time soon, the evidence I’ve read suggests that while it has a certain value in the presidential race, it is significantly less successful in selection congressional candidates where participation is much lower. Its main function seems to be to price candidates out of the race in the first place. It leads to a breed of career politician that no doubt people such as Dan Hannan find appealing, but does little to inspire me. He claims to have never met a “low-calibre” American Congressman. Maybe, but I somehow doubt that the Democrat-dominated Congress would have been quite so supine as it has been in recent months if it contained a few more rough and ready, no doubt low-calibre, politicians of the type that our own system produces despite its flaws. Hannan does however have a point about incumbency.

The New Politics Network, which has now merged with Charter 88 to become Unlock Democracy (declaration of interest time: I’m an employee), published a pamphlet in 2003 exploring primaries called Broadening Participation: Thinking Beyond Party Membership. Within it are two intriguing ideas. One is that the membership of political parties could decide on a shortlist the candidates on which then get to duke it out in an open primary. The other, possibly related, would be for an open primary for electing party leaders. The Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) introduced such a system in 2004.

But for me, the Lib Dems have already largely hit upon the solution. We don’t merely support electoral reform, we support a system – the Single Transferable Vote – which allows voters to not only vote for the party of their choice but the specific candidate as well. This effectively combines the primary and election into a single competitive process. The experience in the Republic of Ireland is that elected representatives are only all too aware that incumbency counts for much less under this electoral system.

This is of course dependent on parties fielding more than one candidate and it is certainly true that in the 2007 Scottish local elections parties had a tendency to field a minimal number of candidates, which in turn restricted voter choice more than it could have. But in the longer term parties will always have an incentive to field more candidates as without them they will not be able to gain more seats. Having larger multi-member constituencies than the 3-member ones used in Scotland would help as well.

It would also allow parties to lower the drawbridge. A fairer electoral system may not stop entryism altogether, but it will create a greater incentive for minority groups to seek representation through legitimate channels.

Ultimately though, the challenge will remain for mainstream parties to become broad hubs of public opinion rather than minority sects. This is a greater challenge for the Lib Dems than for Labour and the Conservatives who, for all their faults, are already part of wider movements. The fact so few members of, say, Liberty, associate themselves with the Lib Dems is partly our failing. We must also take some responsibility for the fact that someone can even think of setting up a web-based campaign called Liberal Conspiracy without acknowledging that the Lib Dems should form an integral part of it. There is a large section of the British public that considers itself to be liberal, but they don’t see us as representing them.

One of Nick Clegg’s tasks over the next months and years must surely be to make the cause of liberalism and the party which espouses it inseparable in the public imagination. Too often in the past, the Liberal Democrats have sacrificed their identity in the cause of widening their appeal. The result has been a shallow supporter base. Unless we manage to square this circle then attempts to widen participation will threaten the party when it should be strengthening it.

James Graham blogs at Quaequam! blog and was Lib Dem Blogger of the Year 2007.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Liam Pennington 8th Jan '08 - 4:46pm

    Not sure how this would work – if you think about it, the only way this could transfer to the UK for, say, a PPC, would be for the candidates to visit every ward in a constituency, with each ward reporting their votes. Now with a membership of under 40 in my local party, I would not like to be any candidate who is told that Somewhereshire Ward has just voted, with 0 votes going to three candidates, 1 vote going somewhere else, and 2 votes somewhere again.

  • It would be time for members of political parties to tear up their membership cards if non members determine candidates.

  • Remember that primaries give lots of scope for candidates to attach each other and thus give ample ammunition to opponents to re-use those attacks in the main election. I think we saw some of that in the leadership poll, and it would be magnified across the board…!

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