One of the things I’ve been seeing a lot recently is the repetition by people who should know better of the idea that what we need in British politics is primary elections. It started with the Tories, who are more prone than most to a disease that affects almost everyone in Britain — fetishising the United States, especially those aspects of it we don’t really understand, to the point that they want to make cargo-cult versions of everything American — but I’ve recently seen it being brought up, apparently seriously, on Lib Dem Voice of all places, where it’s been suggested that open primaries should be compulsory and that we should demand this in future coalition negotiations.
Now, I have no problem with parties choosing to use primaries if that’s what they wish to do, but compulsory open primaries would be such a ludicrously stupid idea it’s hard to know where to begin.
Firstly, the Lib Dems already have a policy that would, were it to be enacted, solve all the problems that primaries supposedly solve — STV. Advocating two mutually exclusive solutions (and you can’t have both) to the same problem would make no sense whatsoever.
There are no problems that primaries solve that wouldn’t be solved by STV, and they have a large number of problems that they bring about. If you have compulsory primaries, how are they administered? Who pays the cost of the primaries and, if the government, how can you avoid that being in many cases effectively government subsidised partisan campaigning? Do you let the Bring Back Birching, Legalise Marijuana and Close All Schools Party run a “primary” with only one candidate? If not, how do you force them to get a second candidate when they only have one member? If you do, how do you stop the Tories also running a primary with just one candidate?
But the most important problem is that it is solving the wrong problem. The problem we have at the moment is that people aren’t getting their voices heard when it comes to who represents them in Parliament (a problem which STV would solve). Primaries don’t solve that — they instead give people a voice in deciding who represents *a particular party* in *an election campaign*.
Political parties are private organisations, and should have the right to run themselves as their members see fit. I do not think George Osborne or Ed Balls are particularly good candidates, but that’s because I’m not a member of those parties. I do not, and should not, have the right to impose someone who thinks more like I do as the Conservative or Labour candidate. The Conservative candidate should be chosen by the Conservative Party — that’s what being the Conservative candidate means. Of course, should any party choose, voluntarily, to open their selection process up to the public, that too is their right, but if Labour say in 2015 that they are putting Gerald Kaufman up as candidate in my constituency because he is the person they think best represents what the Labour Party stands for, what right do I have, as someone who is not a member of that party, to say they should put up a different candidate?
It is the absolute right of private membership organisations to choose representatives who actually represent them, and not to have people who don’t represent their positions foist upon them. If you don’t like your Tory MP, the solution is to vote for a party other than the Tories, not to make the Tories devote time and resources to campaigning for a candidate they don’t believe represents the Conservative Party.
And if voting them out doesn’t work, because you’re in a safe seat… then we need to get in a voting system that lets you do that. And that, not copying the Americans and getting it wrong, is what we should be devoting our campaigning time to.