Do open primaries really work?


10:25 am - August 6th 2009

by Don Paskini    


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Very impressive that over 16,000 people in Totnes voted to choose the Tory candidate for the next election in an ‘open primary’. Normally, about 100-300 people are involved in these kinds of selections.

Couple of thoughts:
– Open primaries give a huge advantage to people who have “proper jobs”. For example, in this case the candidate who was a doctor beat two people who were involved in local government. I think this is broadly a good thing, but it is worth having another look at how much campaigning candidates are allowed to do.

If local people are basically making their minds up on the basis of one leaflet per candidate, then parties might end up getting stuck with people who would, in fact, be pretty hopeless candidates and/or MPs.

– Apparently the cost of the whole thing was £40,000. That’s ok for a one-off, but not a good use of resources for parties to adopt as the main way of selecting their candidates (for that amount of money, you could get a full time campaign organiser, office, phone line, risograph etc.) It becomes more feasible if the cost per constituency can be got down to about £3-5,000.

One way to do this could be for local parties to agree to hold their primaries on the same day and send out the information together and let people choose which primaries to vote in. It would require a culture shift for local parties to work together in this way – but isn’t changing the culture and doing things differently what this is all meant to be about?

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Reader comments


The cost is virtually all in the postage and printing of materials, so yes, scaling up should reduce the cost. Broadly I think this is a good thing, with the biggest losers those who think the way to advancement is to go to Westminster at a young age and be gifted a safe seat.

2. Alisdair Cameron

parties might end up getting stuck with people who would, in fact, be pretty hopeless candidates and/or MPs.

They seem to make a good job of that all by themselves, without open primaries.
The best thing to be said for open primaries and it is a huge plus, is the loosening of the central party stranglehold on selection: no more parachuting in, no more rigged shortlists, and so hopefully fewer drones permanently on-message, the plague of which actually ossifies politics.

Please define “work”. What exactly are they supposed to achieve? Without knowing that, it’s impossible to say…

I don’t like primaries one bit, since I feel they undermine the principles of collective action and political association. Whether primary candidates are campaigning with one leaflet or many leaflets, they are engaging with those who vote for them simply as campaigners. By contrast, a party branch offers a means by which people who engage in these decisions will have an ongoing relationship with one another – and not withstanding parachuting – with those who they put forward to represent them.

Voting is, at the end of the day, just one tenet of our democracy along with political organisation an active media etc. Primaries seem to make voting the be all and end all, and dispense with the idea of people voluntarily getting together to push a particular agenda.

I would also be interested to see – at least once the novelty has worn off – whether outsiders like the candidate chosen will be able to mobilise local activists in the way they will need.

Finally, I think we should be careful that our ill-feeling towards much of the professional political class does blur into a general (self-)hatred of politicos, and a fetishisation of outsiders who are presumably untainted by organised politics.

“parties might end up getting stuck with people who would, in fact, be pretty hopeless candidates and/or MPs”

Only hopeless in the current system. Open primaries would change politics from the old boys network and ‘you scratch my back’ style politics to a more open and transparent system. MPs expenses, for instance, would no longer be an issue (any MP who tries to hide their expenses will be voted out in the primary at the next election, replaced by one who stands for openness). It would return to being a house of Commons, not a house of Politcal Elite.

We actually would have ‘whiter than white’.

All good points in the post.

@4 – but Reuben, MP’s don’t – or shouldn’t – somehow “belong” to party members or activists.

That seems a little optimistic, Mark. Remember, the short-list of candidates was still chosen by the party. It’s not like people are going to be able to nominate their own candidates, only chose from the selection offered.

However, I do quite like the idea of being able to vote for the least electable candidate for all the parties I oppose… I’m not sure if that’s the intention though.

I think this is a good post, and it is an idea that I can see supporters from across the spectrum getting behind. However, it might not go down so well with those MPs (as mentioned above) in the Old Boys’ clubs.

Good post although I’m going to be pedandic in a friendly way (hopefully!)

“Open primaries give a huge advantage to people who have “proper jobs”.”

I think the current mood gives those people an advantage but *normally* it would give an advantage to those who’ve been able to build a profile for themselves outside of the election. In this case the leader of a council and the Mayor of Torbay had the advantage of being politically known in a way that the GP couldn’t have been.

Of course they might be controversial and lose anyway but the anti-politics mood isn’t going to last forever – particularly if people get their fingers burned.

Also – I have sympathy with Reuben’s position but remember the candidates are all members of the party and have approved for the final list (there were more than a hundred applicants who were whittled down to three by the local party). It’s a way for the local party to find out which of their preferred candidates can perform best with the electorate.

Open primaries are deeply undemocratic, as Stuart White has demonstrated a couple of times over at the Next Left blog.

Closed primaries, yes those are to be welcomed…but open primaries go too far and actually undermine the democratic process which requires political parties to be private associations of sufficiently like-minded individuals choosing candidates for themselves.

I was lucky enough to discuss this topic with a PPC: http://beardedsocialist.blogspot.com/2009/08/open-primaries.html

I personally am in favour of anything that gets people involved, rather than it being done purely by the local party members who may not be all that representative of the electorate in that constituency.
I’m yet to be convinced by the counter arguements so i remain in favour

@11 “I personally am in favour of anything that gets people involved, rather than it being done purely by the local party members who may not be all that representative of the electorate in that constituency.”

Of course they may not be that representative of the electorate in the constituency. Political parties are not there simply to duplicate the electorate. They are voluntary associations whereby like minded people can act politically.

In terms of talking about getting people involved, it is worth considering both the breadth of popular participation but also the quality of the participation. Primaries allow lots of people to cast secret ballots, diminish the extent to which organised activists can collectively excersize power. Both are crucial to a democracy – unless we want politics to be just another market.

@6 “but Reuben, MP’s don’t – or shouldn’t – somehow “belong” to party members or activists.”

CJCJC, im not saying that *MP’s* belong to party members. Once they submit themselves to election they ‘belong’ to the constituents at large. However canditutres do belong to parties and the people that constitute them.

Reuben, excellent points, especially in 12. I’m also concerned about the instrumental effects of primaries (even closed primaries), however.

It might seem attractive for the left that we could organise in favour of particular candidates, engaging directly with the electorate in support of them as soon as they were on a party shortlist, rather than hoping they got selected. It could well be a catalyst for the left and a spur for greater organisation. (Indeed, working within parties, I’m in favour of this kind of organisation approach.)

But in the end, the result of organised factions being stronger than the parties they are part of is the reification of political culture, as parties become incapable of driving through change. Blue dog democrats being the obvious and topical example right now.

Because closed primaries accentuate the differences between candidates within parties, rather than their similarities, there’s also an argument that closed primaries would strengthen corporate lobby groups as they’re able to have a greater influence on the political process by donating to individual candidates who were willing to pursue their agenda.

Primaries allow lots of people to cast secret ballots, diminish the extent to which organised activists can collectively excersize power.

Good.

I don’t want “organised activists” exercising power, thanks.

Hi everyone,

Thanks for the comments. Quick responses:

2 – “The best thing to be said for open primaries and it is a huge plus, is the loosening of the central party stranglehold on selection: no more parachuting in, no more rigged shortlists”

It is still pretty easy to rig – you give people a choice of the favoured candidate and 2-3 idiots (as happens at the moment in the seats which the central party wants to fix).

5 – “[on the point about getting candidates who are hopeless] – Only hopeless in the current system”

The open primary system as in Totnes advantages people who can put together the best glossy leaflet about themselves. Those skills are not necessarily the same as those required to be a good MP.

7 – “I do quite like the idea of being able to vote for the least electable candidate for all the parties I oppose”

This is something that lots of people worry about, but I don’t think it is actually a problem. Even in open primaries, people are much more likely to participate if they support the party which is doing the selection. The time and effort involved in trying to get a bad candidate selected is astronomical.

I also think that the concerns about open primaries just selecting bland centrists are overdone – people will vote for a leftie or rightie who has a strong track record of being active in their local community or other qualities ahead of a lower quality candidate with more centre ground views.

One amendment which I would like to see which might help address Reuben’s point is to give organised activists more influence. e.g. allow candidates to spend more money than at present, but cap donations at a very low level such as £20/person, so that a candidate who is able to raise money from, say, 100 activists will be able to outspend someone who can’t. I also think that the role of organised activists will evolve if selections are done differently – and they still get a say about who should be on the shortlist.

I agree that parties are not representative, that’s the point. Too often grass-roots activists are very tribal, which puts many non-party voters off. Most non-politicians want to see politicians work more together, while Labour, Tory, Lib Dem and others all hate each other from the doorstep up.
If this can be addressed, it might help to get more people involved in politics, which i think is a good thing in itself

I’m not sure giving a narrow bunch of tribal loyalists too much power initially is a good idea. In the left you end up with a form of schizophrenia where the activists want someone strong, ideologically, while the upper hierarchy may want someone more electable and centrist – and thus you have a clash.

19. Mike Killingworth

First, congratulations to the Totnes Tories. I hope they realise they can never go back to selecting future candidates any other way without looking like pr*cks.

I agree that all the Parties should hold their primaries on the same day – the Electoral Reform Society would no doubt be more than happy to do the admin. If this were done, and you could only vote in one primary that would deal with the “I don’t want Tories choosing the Labour candidate” argument.

[16]

I also think that the concerns about open primaries just selecting bland centrists are overdone – people will vote for a leftie or rightie who has a strong track record of being active in their local community or other qualities ahead of a lower quality candidate with more centre ground views.

This drives at the heart of the matter. If, as Don suggests, the political philosophy of candidates is not important to most voters, is there not a risk that open primaries will further reduce the salience of politics in politics (if you see what I mean)? Maybe this is a good thing, I honestly don’t know.

One other reservation about open primaries – in some seats, they could reduce to a census of the various ethnic groups (think Southall and the love lost (not) between Hindus and Sikhs – sorry to bring this up again, Sunny) – in Totnes the losers presumably have accepted the result as fair, but one can imagine situations where people won’t…

“In the left you end up with a form of schizophrenia where the activists want someone strong, ideologically, while the upper hierarchy may want someone more electable and centrist”

I agree. But might not the attitude of activists change if they were seriously excersizing power.

I agree. But might not the attitude of activists change if they were seriously excersizing power.

It’s chicken and egg isn’t it? More people who are sympathetic don’t get involved because the hardcore activists are more dedicated and will try and dominate – which means you either end up with just the extremely dedicated and dogmatic there, or you end up with a centrally imposed candidate.

Not saying this is always the case – but I remember a conversation a couple of months ago at a Fabian event where this discussion came up, and someone from the audience (sounded old skool left) asked how it was possible to stop local events and elections dominated by the SWP lot.

the good thing about the primary system is that if enough people get energised to vote – they swamp out the hardcore minority.

Open primaries make it easier for populist politicians to get themselves into positions of power. They can also be easily manipulated by wealthy candidates; or at least fundraising for individuals’ selection campaigns tends to become even more pronounced. I don’t want to come across as conservatively defending the status quo, but open primaries in candidate selection are not problem-free.

I wonder about this. First, this is an American idea. Well American Politics means shinny, side parted hair, straight teeth and a little bit of celebrity thrown in for good measure. Arnold Schwarzenegger may be popular, but does that mean he would be a good governor?

Second, does this mean that the people who pick these people come from the political foam mouth brigade? You know the type, ‘those who want to end ‘PC’ jobs and initiatives, and then find out it is not so easy to put your ideas in place.

From memory ‘Private Eye’ published the story about the ‘English Democrat’ who was elected on a platform of stopping a gay pride march, only to be told that such a move was illegal and cost (again from memory) Sheffield a few quid. Of course, he was an ‘outsider’ from the political clique and therefore totally ignorant of the type of decisions that are necessary in local Government.

Government, both local and National, are entirely different from running a group practice. One of my bugbears in politics is the way people trivialise Government with pointless analogues. Sorry that it is left to me to point out but ‘Dad’ is not the same as ‘The private sector’, nor does ‘running a tight family budget’ or being able to spot the odd, ‘buy one, get one free’ qualify you to negotiate a complex service contract. The next time I read another insipid little leaflet chock full of little homilies implying that having two children means you understand the needs of seven thousand school age children throughout a catchments area, I swear to God I will scream.

Running a Government takes a whole lot of different skills and attributes. Is it better served with people with no experience in Government at any level? When a hurricane hits your city, who should be in charge of fema; someone who has extensive knowledge of how Government works or someone who was chairman of the ‘The Arabians Horse association’? Yes, by all means, stick to the politicos, but remember and keep eye open for an emergency.

24. Chris Baldwin

I don’t really care if they work. Parties belong to the members, not the general public.

Whatever motivates the Tories to push for this, I think everyone should get involved. Someone suggested that we should vote for the least elect able candidate.

I think that is short sighted, for two rather obvious reasons.

1. Such negative voting is likely to blow up in our faces.
2. Two such voting is wasted opportunity.

If the Tories were to invoke this type of thing in my constituency* I would have no hesitation in voting and I would be voting for the candidate I would actually want to win had it been the election. I would be voting for the person with the most progressive policies and experience and I would strongly urge EVERYONE who believes in progressive politics to do the same.

Here is the irony. Voting for the best candidate will strengthen the Tory Party, but at least if they win we will have had an influence in the type of people they elect.

There is no point in having some hanger/flogger elected in a marginal constituency, we need the best Tories we can find. Good strong candidates with clear vision and solid principles we can believe in.

So don’t let the scumbags become elected through apathy. Make every vote count. No outright greens/Labour/Lib Dems to split the vote, just vote for the candidate who you would want the Tories to win with.

*A bit unfair of me as my constituency is actually a toss up between labour and the SNP, but you get the gist of what I am saying.

Of course if everybody took Jimbo’s attitude – and I suspect many will in one way or another – we would end up wit heven less choice, even less diversity in our political landscape. Incidentally Tessa Jowell, in advocating for open primaries, put this forward as a plus point say that “Mass movements open to anyone … will always be pulled towards the commonsense centre.”

Given the current economic judgement that has come down upon the way we’ve been running things, the ‘common-sense centre’ is anything but what we need.

@15: “Primaries allow lots of people to cast secret ballots, diminish the extent to which organised activists can collectively excersize power.

Good. I don’t want “organised activists” exercising power, thanks.”

Seconded.

28. AnonyMouse

Looking at US primaries, I don’t think open primaries lead to more progressive outcomes. Instead, candidates have to spend more time running around trying to raise money – since it is expensive to build a profile. The one thing that can be said in favour of local activists choosing people is that they can go on their face-to-face conversations and knowledge of the candidates, rather than on media images.

Also, i agree with the commentators who say politics isn’t just about voting. It is about fighting for principles and ideas. I thus like the idea of a local party that has a good relationship with an MP – if that MP is willing to take on what they say; rather than an atomised system where voters who don’t knonw much about candidates vote in a beauty contest to choose a party candidate every 4-5 yrs.

It does strike me that a lot of criticism of the current party system comes from the misapprehension that we can somehow get “better” policy results from a different system of voting/selecting candidates. That’s not true. The only way to get better policy results is for people to take an interest in these issues and be willing to spend time organising and campaigning for them – both within their local parties and in pressure groups. I do worry that there are a lot of people who aren’t willing to do that hard graft

27 – “Incidentally Tessa Jowell, in advocating for open primaries, put this forward as a plus point say that “Mass movements open to anyone … will always be pulled towards the commonsense centre.””

Tessa Jowell talks a load of rubbish about most things, and this is a good example.

For example, if Labour had had open primaries to select all its candidates in the run up to the last election, then (a) most of its MPs wouldn’t have voted for top-up fees or the war on Iraq, and (b) many of those that did would have been beaten by left-wing challengers.

In my experience, the upper hierarchy don’t want candidates who are ‘electable and centrist’, they want people who they know socially and who share their views and prejudices.

Also, what the majority of people in Liverpool think is ‘the common sense centre’, and what people in Battersea think is ‘the common sense centre’ are rather different.

Sure, lefties (and righties) might have to find ways of expressing their values in a way which engages and persuades more people rather than just those who are already activists – but that is surely a plus point?

John McDonnell in Hayes and Harlington and Ken Livingstone across London would absolutely walk it if there were primaries in their areas to choose a Labour candidate, no matter the opposition. Whereas, I suspect, Frank Field might well get beaten in Birkenhead.

All good points. I been well pwned:).

Bloody good idea if you ask me.

To bring the costs down – and by the way to stop the corporate fiddlers getting too powerful restrict the allowable funds for campaigning to a certain small amount – ask people if they would prefer to vote online of via postal ballots.

Perfectly feasible to do so, and it can be encrypted such that it will be still secret.

Even if this takes away the parachuting in of candidates who are simply party leadership followers it is worth it.

#32 It doesn’t take away parachuting of candidates.

All you have to do is restrict the shortlist to, say, the candidate you want, an international terrorist and a sex offender, whilst finding reasons to exclude the candidate you don’t want. Which in cases where parachuting allegations have been made is pretty much what happens now (given that there is no actual mechanism for parachuting candidates in and every PPC still has to have the support of their local party, in Labour at least).

I think Dan is right about this not necessarily meaning all the resulting candidates are centrist. It might however mean that where candidates have unusual views on particular topics they have vicious public campaigns run against them by people in their own party, which woud then damage that party’s chances in the election proper. But my main concerns are still the big picture long-term concerns about weakening ties between those in parties and making it more difficult for elected governments to drive through change.

33. AnonyMouse

Tim makes a good point. If figures in the same party have less loyalty to a common manifesto or programme it is more difficult to get progressive policies through. Open primaries in the US have resulted in a situation where a small no of conservative Democrats can stop the president’s health reform plan going through [one which the vast majority of ordinary Democrats and probably the majority of the electorate favour].

34. Alisdair Cameron

@ AnonyMouse (34). Yup, but the progressives are in a minority power position (at least within New Lab). Using your kind of scenario in the UK, a small no of progressive labourites could help impede stop the PM’s welfare reform plan(i.e. workfare/indentured labour) going through…

But isn’t that a short-termist view? Are we really unambitious enough that we think the limit of the left’s potential is stopping New Labour rather than being in the majority power position ourselves?

16. don paskini. A GP won. Perhaps people want MPs to have some experience and not just be glorified students. The two best foreign secretaries post WW2 were E Bevin and Lord Carrington and the best secretary of defence D Healey who actually fought in WW2- all had worthwhile experience before entering politics. Healey said war told him the difference between theory and practice – I think he was a beachmaster at Salerno or Anzio. Perhaps if we wish to have a high speed train system it would be good idea to have an MP who has designed and/or built one.

I would suggest that a reason why change does not occur is because most MPs have no practical experience .

27. Reuben. V Cable warned of debt in 2003. Soros and Buffet have also warned of debt. JP Morgan which developed many derrivatives pulled out this market a few years ago because they saw the dangers.

The problem with this financial crisis was the warning of the few wise heads were ignored. Hunt sold Foxtons in 2007, Berkely sold out and as did the founder of Redrow . Obviously Brown was deaf and blind to the warnings.

I would suggest that a reason why many people are indiffernt to politicians is because they can see politicians lack any wisdom or sound judgement because they do not have any worthwhile experience. India actually complained about Milliband’s trip, calling his conduct insulting. I cannot see Carrington making that mistake.

Why is it Labour cannot recruit an MP with significant combat experience? Bearing in ind the number of conflicts Labour have indulged in, if the Secretary of State for Defence was former RSM/Colonel from the Paras, Royal Marines ,SF perhaps people would have more faith in them.Then perhaps Labour would make fewer mistakes. The one Labour MP with military experience, Joyce criticised his own party for chosing bureaucracy over bravery.

If Labour can recruit a few articulate foreman who were craftsmen, perhaps they could persuade a few more working class people to vote for them.

33, tim –

#32 It doesn’t take away parachuting of candidates.

All you have to do is restrict the shortlist to, say, the candidate you want, an international terrorist and a sex offender,

OK – but what it does do, no matter how ridiculous the idea, is give people a chance to vote for the terrorist or sex offender – and that would be sweet in my eyes.

The thing is, in my experience, you give people the ability to use democracy they will – only it is they who make the choice and not the party – even though the party will do a couple of back-flips wondering how they can promote and campaign for the terrorist or sex offender.

I would have thought that this had resonated with NuLab activists by now – or should we call NuLab activists ‘Yes men’?

34 Anon –

Open primaries in the US have resulted in a situation where a small no of conservative Democrats can stop the president’s health reform plan going through [one which the vast majority of ordinary Democrats and probably the majority of the electorate favour].

But those “Blue Dogs” are in hock to the very insurance companies who give them millions to run their campaigns – they are not stopping, or trying to stop the healthcare reform on conscience grounds – they are doing it because they are looking at the next big pay day – exactly the same as most of the GOP.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/#32277034 take a look at that link.

I don’t believe in forcing political parties to do anything in particular. But I do think open primaries will advantage those parties that choose to have them.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    : Do open primaries really work? http://bit.ly/MIHzN

  2. joe laking

    Nice tip of the hat to local cross party cooperation RT @libcon : Do open primaries really work? http://bit.ly/MIHzN

  3. Paranormal Guru

    Liberal Conspiracy » Do open primaries really work?: Liberal Conspiracy is the UK’s most popular left-of-centre .. http://bit.ly/WIGgo

  4. Liberal Conspiracy

    : Do open primaries really work? http://bit.ly/MIHzN

  5. joe laking

    Nice tip of the hat to local cross party cooperation RT @libcon : Do open primaries really work? http://bit.ly/MIHzN

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