Open Primaries: Right diagnosis, wrong solution

9:20 am - October 22nd 2009

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contribution by Jason Kitcat

I was interested to see the launch of the ‘Open Up’ campaign, with a very slick website and duck-house videos. I would expect nothing less given the people behind it including the immensely capable Becky Hogge, ORG’s former Executive Director.

There is as a whole swathe of campaigning going on at the moment calling for reform in one sense or another. This is extremely encouraging and welcome, it’s wonderful that people are speaking out and getting involved.

However, in my view party political representative democracy is still the least worst option available to us. All lasting democracies develop groupings of some form another.

Interestingly the Speaker’s Conference in Parliament has recently been touching on these issues too. Clegg was the most honest in admitting many of the people they need weren’t coming forward. He also argued that Westminster itself wasn’t the right kind of place to attract the people we need in politics.

We need better politicians
The argument is that because anyone can stand to be a candidate in an open primary, the barriers to ‘real people’ becoming candidates are lowered. People who aren’t party animals, more likely to be ‘mavericks’, will be more likely to stand.

This is possibly the case but standing for an open primary than an actual general election doesn’t strike me as a low barrier, many will be put off by that. Furthermore there is no discussion of how to prevent the rich getting a head-start in winning an open primary.

Another problem is that most parties cannot possibly afford to run open primaries everywhere. It would also be expensive for potential candidates, particularly if the primaries were truly ‘open’ allowing leafleting and canvassing across the constituency. Such primaries would further extend the length of time a potential candidate would need to dedicate to winning a Westminster seat.

If a General Election goes to the wire (as this one looks to) then it can already be a two or three year unpaid commitment before we throw in a whole open primary process.

Finally there is a real risk of voter burnout once the novelty of open primaries has worn out. In a seat like Brighton Pavilion you could be looking at four or five primaries minimum then the General Election itself. There is evidence, particularly from the United States where some citizens vote on dozens posts and initiatives annually, that the more things people are asked to vote on, the less likely they are to vote. There can be too much of a good thing.

These are serious practical problems with open primaries which proponents don’t properly address, I’m not sure they can. There are also political problems with open primaries which mean they won’t deliver what proponents hope for.

Political problems
I believe open primaries will greatly increase the chance of politically naive candidates being selected. I don’t just mean innocent about the ways of politics (though that could be an issue that impacts on their effectiveness as MPs), but that candidates could genuinely not understand or know the range of a party’s policies before being selected.

Imagine a popular local figure gets selected for a party in an open primary then wins the General Election to become an MP by campaigning on, for example, health and policing. This MP is asked by their party whips to vote on a variety of issues in ways they don’t support such as education or civil partnerships. What do they do?

Most parties use peer pressure and whips to enforce party discipline and ensure that policies are pushed through (if they are in government). If you vote for a candidate from a certain party shouldn’t you expect them to generally be in line with that party’s core values and policies? How will open primaries, when people of all and no party affiliation have a hand in selecting a party’s candidate ensure some compatibility with a party’s values?

We don’t want to see only the most loyal, grovelling party animals selected as candidates. But we also don’t want people to become disenchanted because they voted for a certain party only to find the candidate isn’t really in line with what the party represents. Rebels have an important place in Parliament at critical times, but systematic rebellion (pre-planned or unintentional through naivety) is a recipe for chaos, not reasoned legislative work.

Open primaries also don’t alter the electoral reality of safe seats. Unless extremely ineffective or corrupt, most sitting MPs will have an inherent advantage in any selection whether it’s an open primary or internal party process. That’s just how it is, they have the profile and the contacts. Open primaries don’t neutralise incumbency, and we see in the US that it’s still reported as unusual for a sitting politician to lose their party’s selection through a primary if seeking re-election.

We need reform and a new political culture
Changing the culture in our politics requires a more open media, a redesigned educational system, a new constitution, reform of political funding, a recall process and most importantly — a system of proportional representation to elect members to both houses of Parliament. Call for open primaries distracts from these key requirements in the reform agenda.

We need smaller parties that can be more representative of specific groups in our society, more flexible, responsive and less hamstrung by the internal coalitions and simmering disagreement that the large parties of today represent.

This would force greater collaboration, more discourse as opposed to bombastic posturing and a richer, better politics for our country.

Jason Kitcat is a Green city councillor in Brighton & Hove and Head of Technology at Netmums.
He blogs here. This article was first posted on his blog.

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Reader comments

I keep want to start this comment with ‘good’ or ‘nice’ or ‘great’ but none of these

seems strong enough, or appropriate enough for what you just posted.Just fantastic

and mindblowing blog keep it up..!!!

I couldn’t agree more, i said back along when Lammy fell in love with the glitz of Obama’s appointment that open primaries don’t feel like a solution. This post really fleshes out that feeling.

Once again it’s an issue that feels like it would be made better through STV, but time and again we’re seeing that in reality what is urgently needed is a reform of the houses to fit this more representative reality.

3. Leonard Hatred

I basically agree, and open primaries strike me as so much gimmickry, but I do wonder who exactly all these “better people” we need in “our politics” are and where they can be found. Do they even exist? Answers on a postcard.

Thanks for all the comments.

@Leonard ‘Better’ of course is a subjective term. However I hope most would agree that the level of self-interest and closed-mindedness from some MPs of all political colours would be easy to improve on. I see great people working of integrity in social enterprises, in charities and local government who put their values ahead of naked personal greed. Wouldn’t they be better?

5. Leonard Hatred

Don’t worry, I agree with you on that. But I do wonder whether the people in charities and local government are there because they don’t want any part of Parliament, or because Parliament definitely doesn’t want them. Principles are an expensive thing to have when the needs of the party are at stake, afterall.

I’d add “strengthened local government” to your list of reforms, by the way. Parliament, by its very nature, can never be as responsive to the needs and concerns of people as councils and other local institutions can.

I absolutely agree. For me “a new constitution” includes a significant rebalancing of power and authority between central and local government.

As for candidate MPs, it’s a bit of both — Parliament doesn’t want them as it upsets the current status quo — but also running for a seat is expensive in time, career and money terms. Which may well be why those who do succeed end up trying to line their pockets!

“This MP is asked by their party whips to vote on a variety of issues in ways they don’t support such as education or civil partnerships. What do they do?”

That is actually the point. You want to mix up this situation a bit. We don’t want party voting blocks but local representatives approaching each policy with a fresh pair of eyes and challenging it regardless party line. It is not as if the current situation delivers any predictability. Parties tear up manifesto pledges like wrapping paper after an election. Stopping them from enforcing current party lines will be advantageous.

Of course, I don’t think parties should be forced to have open primaries or any specific selection procedures. I just think those that do will benefit democracy.

Nick, wouldn’t it be better to have smaller parties with a greater diversity of policies? That way you’d get the freshness and variety of thinking you’re after… but without the chaos of MPs making it up as they go along, quite probably in opposition to the publicly stated policies of their party?

If parties want to have open primaries, of course they are free to do so. The Tories will be holding one soon in Brighton Pavilion to replace David Bull who stepped down as their candidate. I’ll be watching in fascination.

Smaller parties are certainly possible. Or perhaps, no parties at all. The mass party is essentially a mid 19th and 20th century phenomenon, one suited to a particular set of government institutions and corporate media. In the future, having a party affiliation might have more costs than benefits.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Jason Kitcat

    Thanks to Sunny @pickledpolitics my piece arguing against open primaries is now live on @libcon, see

  2. RupertRead

    Jason Kitcat's new post is right, I think: 'Open Primaries: Right diagnosis, wrong solution'

  3. Jason Kitcat

    Thanks to Sunny @pickledpolitics my piece arguing against open primaries is now live on @libcon, see

  4. Tweets that mention Liberal Conspiracy » Open Primaries: Right diagnosis, wrong solution --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Kitcat, RupertRead. RupertRead said: Jason Kitcat's new post is right, I think: 'Open Primaries: Right diagnosis, wrong solution' […]

  5. Now can we please talk about something else? « Freethinking Economist

    […] fist of it.  A lack of typing speed, perhaps.  And a really excellent long discussion of the downsides of open primaries.  This strikes me as an excellent point: There is a real risk of voter burnout […]

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