Against Primaries

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.

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5 Responses to Against Primaries

  1. MatGB says:

    Well said. Also, enforced open primaries are unconstitutional in the US (freedom of association, an often overlooked essential liberty) and are only used, voluntarily, in somethign like 16 States? The LibDems use the equivalent of Closed Primaries, but membership (even support) of a specific political party is Sensitive Personal Data under UK&EU Data Protection Law (for bloody good reasons, hello eg Northern Ireland) so you can’t “register” as a supporter of a particular party publicly and the idea of forcing it on people horrifies me (so the US non open primaries aren’t viable).

    If a particular party, under Single Member Simple Majority wants to run an open primary (as the Tories did in Totnes) then that’s up to the individual party. I can see it being useful in “safe” seats in single member districts for the largest party only, so wouldn’t be averse to having grants for them in such cases (as I suspect they’d help with voter participation in the rotten boroughs), but they would be papering over the cracks of a broken system—if we can’t radically reform the system, then papering over the worst excesses in the safest seats would be acceptable, not no way should it be somethign we push for or trumpet as a key LD idea/policy. Just like bloody recall, it’s Not A Good Idea if we go back to multi-member seats as we should.

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  3. TAD says:

    The upside of an Open Primary is that it gives the minority a chance to moderate the majority, especially in a district where one party is essentially unopposed. In one party districts, the primary effectively *is* the election, because whoever wins is guaranteed to win in the general election. In a recent example in Mississippi, a hardcore ideologue was defeated in favor of a more moderate candidate who would have lost if it had been a Closed Primary. So the end result is that the district will have a candidate who more fairly represents *everyone*, rather than a hardcore ideologue who runs roughshod over the minority.

    Admittedly Open Primaries aren’t a perfect solution. Every democratic system has its flaws.

  4. Matt Burrows says:

    I´m not sure it was my piece you´re responding to, but I wrote an article last week in LDV that suggested Primaries. I´m pleased the primaries aspect has ignited a debate. I don´t think I said they should be compulsory but I think it might be an option to explore but it would take some working through. In my comments I expanded on how I´d like to see it work. There might need to be an intermediate stage between shortlisting and selection so that non-active members had a say. I agree there needs to be some form of affiliation; and that might include deliverers and voters that have supported us at previous elections. They have a genuine stake in who is selected. I guess this might be what could be an Opaque Primary. *If* it were done perhaps it could be tested out in Starred Seats. The´re´s not much point in doing it in un-worked seats and too much stake – at least initially – in target seats and ones in which we´re incumbent. It could lead to different candidates being successful. I doubt Sarah Wollaston would have been selected as Tory candidate under their normal method and she´s been one of their best in the 2010 intake. STV deals with the means of election but not who is entitled to vote in the selection. Increasing party members of all the main parties seem to be less typical of the public at large and perhaps one of the causes of the disconnect between politics and public.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No, it wasn’t your piece, which I didn’t see, which I was annoyed by, but the one saying we should make open primaries for all parties compulsory. I can see — though don’t agree with — an argument for voluntary primaries for those parties which wish to hold them, at least while we have FPTP, but making them compulsory would be idiotic…

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