Vince talks to Voice Part 1: Open primaries

Twenty minutes after Vince finished speaking yesterday, I was sitting in a room with him,  his wife Rachel Smith eating delicious egg sandwiches.

We only had a few minutes to chat, but we covered a fair bit of ground.

I did the geeky party hack thing and started by asking him about his ideas for the party. I mean, he was talking about open primaries, wasn’t he, when he said this?

Our sister Liberal Party in Canada, under Justin Trudeau, leapt from third to first in a ‘first past the post’ system every bit as unforgiving as ours.

I have turned to them for advice on modernisation on how we can apply their successful model here.

The Canadian liberals engaged all their registered supporters – their voters – as well as their members in leadership elections and candidate selection.

They became a new party; a movement.

Building on our own traditions, we must address how we in the Liberal Democrats can become a movement for those who are alienated by the Conservatives and Labour.

He reckons it’s worth a try to connect with more people:

Thats what they have done in Canada and I think we should be willing to look  at things like  that, actually. There are all sorts of sensitivities around the thing , they have been tried in other parties here and weren’t really followed through in the spirit that they should have been. We see it in the US. It has a big downside but it is one way of engaging with large numbers o news people and we have potentially millions of supporters in the country and I’m wiling to come forward with ideas like that and get other people to knock them down if they don’t think they’re feasible. The default position is that we have to do something.

It’s certainly a good idea. It’s only really practicable in a small number of our top targets, but when you are fighting to overturn a tiny majority, could getting more people invested in your candidate at an early stage make the difference? One counter-argument, though, is that marginalised groups may not do so well, which might compromise another aim, of making the party more diverse.

What do you think of the idea? He talked of it as a “pebble he threw into the pond.” How far will the ripples go?


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Mick Taylor 13th Mar '18 - 7:37am

    What have we got to lose? Mind you there were lots of other things the Canadians did too and some of them are much more controversial. Maybe LDV could ask a leading Canadian Liberal to write about the whole package.

  • Chris Bertram 13th Mar '18 - 9:18am

    There are big differences between the North American political systems and that of Britain. We don’t have registered supporters in the same way that they do. The best we have is our canvass returns, and they are (a) prone to going out of date quite quickly, and (b) somewhat incomplete, to say the least. How to get round that must be the first question.

    The other aspect of this is the expense. The Tories tried an open selection once, in Totnes. This is how Sarah Wollaston was selected to be their candidate, and of course she was elected. IMHO she is one of the better Tory MPs, as it happens. But it’s telling that the Tories haven’t tried it again anywhere else. And if the richest of the national political parties considers it too costly, then what chance do we have of making it work?

    All of which probably looks very negative. In fact, I’m all in favour of trying to engage our supporters in some way (the best way being to convert them into sub-paying members, of course). But the method needs to be cost-effective, and it needs to be very carefully considered. I suppose we could do a £3 membership special offer, limited time only, like a certain other political party. But that could have unintended consequences …

  • Unlike Canada we are not the third party, but the fourth. Unlike Canada we are operating at 7% of the electors, whereas in Canada the lowest the Liberal fell was to 18%, and at the start of the election were just over 20%. The big switch in votes only occurred in the last fortnight and were mainly NDP to the Liberals. I think we can take it as read that half the Labour vote aint going to switch to us next time. I suggest this is more heads in the cloud thinking.
    We must keep out feet on the real ground and not day dream.

  • Peter Martin 13th Mar '18 - 9:44am

    @ Chris Bertram,

    I think £3, in 2105, gave individuals supporter status, and also a vote in Leadership contests, rather than membership of the Labour Party. That £3 was jacked up to £25 the following year for the election contest between Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn. Someone obviously felt it hadn’t been a great idea in the first place.

    Somewhat ironically, the move to change voting rules, during Ed Miliband’s period as leader, was pushed through by the right of the Party as a way of weakening the influence of the Unions. They’d previously had a chunk of votes in an electoral college. The left went through the motions of opposing it but when it was clear they didn’t have the numbers, it became just a token effort at best. Or maybe they realised it perhaps wouldn’t turn out to be so bad after all?

    In any case, all parties do have to decide who they want as “supporters”. For the Lib Dems that has to mean that you’ll have to tell some that they should either go off and join the Tories, the Labour Party, or even UKIP. Otherwise there will be, as you say, unintended consequences.

  • David Blake 13th Mar '18 - 9:46am

    I suspect the reason why the Tories haven’t tried the open primaries more widely is because they might throw up independent-minded people like Sarah Wollaston. There is pure hatred for her in some parts of the Tory Party.

  • “Our sister Liberal Party in Canada, under Justin Trudeau, leapt from third to first in a ‘first past the post’ system every bit as unforgiving as ours.”

    Curiously, Trudeau made a pledge on his campaign trail.
    ‘that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.’
    So three years on, where is that Trudeau pledge to replace FPTP with PR, up to?

    Vince: “ I have turned to them for advice on modernisation on how we can apply their successful model here.”
    Well it’s obviously the same model that Clegg used, which is to make a pre-election pledge, and then renege on it.

  • People do need to realise the different position the Liberal Party in Canada holds compared to the Liberal Democrats here. The Canadian Liberals are viewed as the natural party of government, and have held national power for the majority of the past 100 years. Surely Liberals here realise the power of party infrastructure, public perceptions of relevance, voter memory governance, past voting habits etc etc, that just aren’t here in the UK for the Liberal Democrats

    By all means learn from the Canadian Liberals, but don’t expect their electoral succuss to be emulated here given the radically different situation of the party here (not just now, but pre-2010 aswell)

  • Chris Bertram 13th Mar '18 - 10:46am

    theakes: “Unlike Canada we are not the third party, but the fourth.” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Fourth in Westminster at the moment, but the “third” party do not have any aspirations outside Scotland. We should expect to overtake them in the near future, partly because of our regrowth, partly because they have peaked and will decline.

    In terms of party membership, who knows where we are? The Tories won’t release membership figures, but it’s widely suspected that their individual numbers are well below 100,000. They survive on the largesse of donors, but that’s not sustainable in the long term.

  • @Chris Bertram

    The Conservatives’ of use open primaries is way more extensive than Totnes

    Tania Mathias was selected for Twickenham via open primary for 2015, unseating Vince Cable should be an obvious one to point out. Marcus Fysh for Yeovil, Anne-Marie Trevelyan for Berwick-upon-Tweed are also very relevant to the Lib Dems, and as was Nicola Blackwood for Oxford West & Abingdon for 2010.

    After Sarah Wollaston, Kwasi Kwanteng is probably the highest profile Conservative MP selected via open primary.

    But there are scores of others.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Mar '18 - 10:59am

    “The Tories won’t release membership figures, but it’s widely suspected that their individual numbers are well below 100,000. They survive on the largesse of donors, but that’s not sustainable in the long term.”

    Aren’t they relying ever more on Russian oligarchs…?

  • A great idea in theory…… in reality….. ?

    Who’s going to pay for it ? Would it involve paper candidates, all women short lists all BAME short lists ?

    Or will it be a bit more of DONATE DONATE DONATE…. ?

  • When Justin Trudeau became leader of the Canadian Liberals support for them went up to about 40% but was 25 – 29% at the start of the 2015 election compared to 39 % for the NDP. However, the Liberals gradually overtook the NDP because the NDP leader did not shine in the campaign and Trudeau won an absolute majority at the 2015 election. The Canadian Liberals had been in decline for some years and were criticised as out of date !

  • John Marriott 13th Mar '18 - 12:44pm

    For Progressive Conservatives (to give them their full title) v Liberal Party in Canada read Tories v Labour in the UK. Like the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada the UK Lib Dems emerged from the 1970s into the 1980s and beyond as the ‘new kids on the block’. Do NOT compare the Liberal Party of Canada with the Liberal Democrats here. So, just because, like Corbyn’s Labour Party, the Canadian Liberals rediscovered their mojo, you should not assume that the UK Lib Dems can do the same.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Mar '18 - 12:53pm

    A very good thing Vince is looking at new ideas.

    I am not very keen on Trudeau.

    He decided no Liberal candidate could ever try to bring in a bill, or vote on one to reduce the abortion limit, which does not exist under the almost unique and in my view grotesque law in Canada. Whatever one’s feeling on this it is a conscience vote, in other words it was before. I could not stand for election as a Liberal in Canada as he would bar me, some open primary.

    I much prefer the very open and democratic us.

    Yet there is a problem there o the right.

    A Nazi is attempting in Illinois to become a Republican nominee, he has been disowned by the leaders of the local party, but there is no party membership in the us, only registred voters, and he registered as a Republican, even though he has been associated with extreme right wing groups since the sixties 1

    Be careful Vince.

  • @Lorenzo Cherin

    “”””but there is no party membership in the us, only registred voters””””

    That’s not quite right.

    Being registered as a Republican, Democrat, 3rd Party or Independent is when you declare your affiliation to a party (if you want to) at time of registering to vote (if your state keeps an electoral register at all and requires residents to register to vote in order to vote) which is then made public on the electoral role (and influences if and how you can vote in state primaries; the rules of which vary from state to state). This obviously doesn’t exist in the UK

    But unlike what you said, you can also join a party (which is done at state level since that is actually how political parties are organised in the US). And unlike in the UK it is free to do so, though donations are solicited. Joining the party means you receive information from the local party, and enables you to attend and join local committees. So similar to the UK.

  • @Huw Dawson

    That’s a matter of debate. Party members are best placed to identify which candidate is most likely to win. And to win as a Liberal Democrat (or Green or UKIP) is very different to win as a Labour or Conservative candidate. Especially now, Liberal Democrats are only going to win on the back of hard graft and strong support from their local party’s hard graft, something that is of less importance (but not no importance) to Labour and Conservative. So detaching the selection process away from the local party is risky, since casual supporters, or those who vote in an open primary, may well choose a candidate they like on paper, but actually doesn’t have the ability (or time) to win when it comes to election, and successful Liberal Democrat candidates will need very high ability and an awful lot if time to win. Though that said, a lot of party members don’t really understand that and have very little clue how candidates win elections on the ground.

    However, an open primary does have a benefit in that it does launch a candidate to the whole constituency in a big way that a local party selection can’t do. This can reinvigorate and add into local party campaigning infrastructure and kick off tremendous momentum 2 or 3 years before the election. It’s actually probably best suited to constituencies with a large core liberal vote of say 20% of real liberal voters, where local party infrastructure has fallen back over the past decade and haven’t returned a Liberal Democrat MP in the last 2 or 3 election cycles, but had done pre-2010.

  • nvelope2003 15th Mar '18 - 2:41pm

    John Marriott: The present Canadian Conservative party is not the same as the former Progressive Conservatives but the new name for the party that replaced them which I think used to be called the Reform Party. The word Progressive in this context referred to the former Progressive party which merged with the old Conservative party many years ago. The Progressive Conservatives were virtually annihilated about 20 years ago and did make a modest recovery but seem to have disappeared after many of their supporters went over to the current Canadian Conservative party which is more to the right.

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