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Primary colours: Should parties open up candidate selection to the public?

“MPs are not chosen by 'the people' - they are chosen by their local constituency parties

“MPs are not chosen by 'the people' - they are chosen by their local constituency parties: thirty-five men in grubby raincoats or thirty-five women in silly hats.” Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes Minister

This Tuesday in Liverpool, a roomful of Labour MPs, councillors and party activists discussed whether the party should introduce primary elections for the selection of candidates for parliament or other posts such as elected mayors. Primary elections have been used in the USA for decades, but until recently political parties in the UK have restricted the right to vote in selection processes to paid-up members and activists. But today, primaries are seen by many as a potential remedy for public disengagement from politics. The Conservatives are the only party to have trialled primaries so far. Before the 2010 election, the party held all-postal “open primaries” in two seats, sending registered voters ballot papers and Freepost envelopes. An impressively high figure of 25% and 18% took part in the two constituencies (Totnes and Gosport). The party also held over 100 “primary meetings” – with the public invited into the final selection meeting – though these had a much lower impact on participation. Primaries are also attracting wider international interest. The French Parti Socialiste recently launched a “citizens’ primary”, in which – for a symbolic €1 fee – members of the public can vote on who should represent the left in next year’s presidential election. Embattled Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has also proposed trialling primaries in the Australian Labor Party. At our event in Liverpool (co-hosted with Progress and ippr), three of four panellists – David Lammy MP, Will Straw and Councillor Jessica Asato – favoured introducing primaries, at least on a trial basis. They pointed to the low participation in many selection meetings (caused in part by declining party membership). Indeed Will Straw cited research that found an average of just 40 people took part in Labour selection meetings before the last election, though whether they were wearing silly hats was not recorded. And given the preponderance of safe seats, selection meetings are often effectively the forum in which MPs are chosen. There is therefore, David Lammy and others argued, a “democratic deficit” at the heart of the process that primaries could address. Primaries might also deliver a different kind of MP. As discussed in our recent paper on candidate selection reform, the public seems to have different priorities to party members when it comes to political representation. Ordinary voters favour local candidates and have less interest in ideology or loyalty to the party cause. This was borne out in the Conservatives’ two postal primaries, where local candidates triumphed over more established party figures. Arguing against primaries, Councillor Luke Akehurst set out several objections. For instance, he worried that they would undermine party membership further, by reducing the incentive to join. But others questioned whether participation in occasional candidate selection meetings was a major reason why people signed up. There was agreement, however, that Labour should not adopt fully open primaries, in which all voters can participate. Instead, Lammy, Straw and Asato favoured opening up selection to a new network of “registered supporters”, which will be created following the decision to open up party leadership elections to non-members who register as Labour supporters. Primaries are expensive too. The Totnes and Gosport primaries cost the Conservative Party £40,000 each. And having initially committed to providing state funding for 200 postal primaries, the Coalition now appears to have gone cold on the idea. But Will Straw argued that there are ways to reduce this cost, especially if the primary was restricted to registered supporters. A more damaging critique was that primaries might impose excessive costs on candidates, deterring people from lower socioeconomic groups and leading to a less diverse Parliament. Recognising this risk, Jessica Asato suggested that regulation of spending during primary campaigns would be needed. Means-tested bursaries for candidates, which the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation recommended last year, might also help. Primaries are not the remedy to all of the ills afflicting the British body politic. But in conjunction with other reforms they may inject a little more vitality into the system, by facilitating greater engagement of voters in the crucial democratic decision of who should represent them in Parliament. It is encouraging that political parties are addressing these issues, even if it is far from clear what the endpoint of this debate will be.

Political party
Institute for Government

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