Open Primaries – Crap idea

Right, I think I’ve stated my position fair and squarely on this issue then. Let’s get down to business of why?

I’d intended to pen this post but I’ve been pipped to it in many of the aspects I was going to cover by the venerable Luciana Berger over on her new blog who covers the main points well. So in addition to reiterating them I’d like to concentrate more on the dynamics of what would actually go on in such a case.

The argument for open primaries goes something along the lines of it engages the unwashed masses in politics by letting them choose a candidate for a political party as opposed to the opportunity they have at present to actually elect someone to be their MP which they get anyway every 4 or 5 years. So the question is what exactly does this add to the political process? Advocates like David Lammy MP will tell you it’s all about concert hall style speeches the likes of which politicos romanticise about from the 50’s and 60’s. Suddenly all these people who can’t be bothered even voting in elections that determine the future of our schools, hospitals, tax rates, defence, are suddenly going to turn up to listen to people talking ‘at’ them in some big venue and British democracy is suddenly saved from apathy and disengagement.

The other argument that I picked up on today was the statement that it cost nothing to knock on doors which is a lovely quaint idea of the way an open primary system would work but completely lacking the cold hard reality that is politics. We should also note that yes, financially it costs nothing to knock on someone’s door but it does cost time so those who’ve got spare time to indulge their political asperations are straight away at an advantage over the poor buggers of us that have to work long hard hours to feed our kids and pay our mortgages as opposed to, lets say, the independently wealthy.

So are we going to see a massive flood of people suddenly enthused to engage in open primaries? No. The Tories got a 24% turnout for their little headline grabbing stunt which puts in on a par with the turnout you’d expect in a local government by-election which are usually pretty miserable examples of British democratic involvement in action.

Who is it that open primaries actually benefit? I think we can assume it’s not the time poor wage slave average Joe type. Those ‘normal’ people we’re always on about not getting enough of in Parliament. Is it the single mother with two kids living off benefits? Probably not either. The “Party Political” structure isn’t perfect and it too can be criticised for having a middle class bias but if there’s one sure fire way of excluding working class people from entering Parliament then it’s open primaries.

Let’s run through the dynamics of this.

Constituency, let’s call it Walsall North as it’s mine needs to find some candidates for the next election for the three main parties. Barring a by-election loss in the 70’s, Walsall North has been a Labour seat for as far back in time as it’s likely to matter. Odds on, even in a really bad year for Labour, it will return a Labour MP and the majority of seats in the UK rarely change hands under our current voting system which means if you fancy knocking about the corridors of power representing the people of Walsall North, there’s not much point standing for Tories or the little Libdemmers round here.

So pretty much, in a seat like this, it’s all about the Labour open primary and anyone with designs on the seat will be going for the Labour nomination. We’re going to assume there’s some sort of qualifying criteria like actually being a member of the Labour Party and so the only real difference amounts to lots of people choosing the candidate versus local party members. Those lots of people, not necessarily being Labour supporters so we hit our first obstacle. What stops large swathes of voters or an organised operation by another party picking a really crap candidate in an attempt to damage the prospects of that party in a particular seat?

Then we have to address how people put themselves forward and campaign with particular reference to costs involved. Assuming just anyone can put themselves forward then the ballot paper is going to get very long indeed. What is the timescale involved in such a process? This is important because it takes a bit of time to knock on 30-40 odd thousands doors in a constituency after people’s support. Which brings us to the most important element. Campaigning.

If a candidate wishes to obtain, let’s say our hypothetical Labour nomination for Walsall North then they’re not going to knock on everyone’s door because they can’t – at least on their own. Even if the old style concert hall address is being set up then how are people going to know about it to come along? We’re back to the main focus of political campaigning; publicity. Anyone who has ever done campaigning knows it’s not easy and it certainly isn’t cheap. We rightfully have limits on spending during election campaigning in this country but they’re not exactly hard to circumnavigate. Advocates of open primaries think that there can be effective controls on spending but anyone who witnessed the Tories key seat strategy at the 2005 General Election will tell you what absolute rubbish this is. Guess what? The Tories won seats off Labour where they outspent us massively. Whether you like it or not, money talks in politics and it doesn’t matter if you tell candidates they can’t spend more than X amount of money during a 4 week primary campaign if they’ve spent half a million quid on campaigning in the two years prior to that, and spend it they will. Especially if they happen to have backers with deep pockets.

Which brings us nicely on to our next subject.Who’ll be behind the candidates with the chequebook? We don’t have to look far to realise where this leads. A quick glance across the Atlantic to the US and we know. The lobby firms. Big companies with vested interests all willing to bankroll candidates. British democracy isn’t perfect by a long way, but it’s a damn sight better than anything that we’re likely to get copying the Americans.

That’s not to say that money is the be all and end all of the situation. Exposure doesn’t necessarily require vast sums of money because some people will be able to achieve publicity without it although odds on, these people will then attract the money as a good bet by those currying for favour. We’re talking celebrities here folks. From those with national exposure down to the local celeb or even journalist type who are already in a position to command personal publicity in their own right. Odds on they’re not going to be particularly poor working class people either if they’re in that line of work.

There’s a final group of people who open primaries would benefit. Although again, they’re unlikely to be poor or working class but those who work in ‘the business’. PR people, marketeers. People with the technical savvy involved in publicity.

So just so we can recap. Open primaries benefit the rich/independently wealthy, celebrities who can get publicity and professional PR and marketing people. Anyone who complains about the current stock of people sitting on the green benches might want to consider how much they’d like them being populated by people from those backgrounds instead.

The Party Political system isn’t broken. It’s taken some heavy knocks recently which haven’t been essentially its fault, more that of a select minority of politicians whose actions have tarred both others and the Party Politics system in general.

Party Politics isn’t about a select group of people sitting in smoke filled rooms secretly deciding the fate of the prols at the door (The Labour Party banned smoking in meetings years ago). Anyone who wants to take part is free to do so if they wish and only in exceptional cases would an application for membership be turned down of which there’s a full right of appeal process. The point is that in general people aren’t paying up to join political parties so they can be involved in deciding candidates.

There’s a valid argument about why people should pay to become party members to have a right in selecting a candidate. However we have to look at how and who would run primaries?

Assuming it were run by individual parties who have to somehow be able to ballot everyone in a constituency and more importantly afford to do it. This is not cheap and someone’s got to pay for it somewhere along the line. There’s not a party in the country that could afford to run open primaries in all constituencies, it’s simply too costly so we either end up with it being run by someone like the local authority on their behalf which equals council tax monies being spent on what I’m sure the right would describe as a waste of taxpayers money (of which I’d actually agree in this case as I’d rather it be spent on stuff that benefits society like youth services and schools) or the state nationally bunging the political parties enough money to run them which equals state funded parties and well yes, someone’s got to pay for that too. However unlike the present system where those who wish to participate can sign up and pay their dues to a political party, the whole population ends up paying so probably a small minority of voters can do the same.

What we must also realise is that in our multi-party system we can’t discriminate against any party if they were to decide to run an open primary for their Parliamentary candidate. So although there is obvious attention given to the main two parties, what is there to stop a minority party, and lets pick a horrid little one at random, say the BNP from saying they want an open primary and dear Government funding person, can we have X amount of thousands of pounds to run one and mail everyone in the constituency while we’re at it? Wonder how a load of ballot papers and freepost candidate literature for the BNP would go down in David Lammy’s constituency?

Right, that’s enough food for thought for tonight. I may well come back to this issue when I’ve got a bit more time.

I’ll also note that I asked David Lammy MP via Twitter if he would put himself up for an open primary. He didn’t respond.

A final note for those in any party advocating such a system but expecially to my fellow comrades. Anyone can go out and campaign for a political party. I don’t think any party excludes people from campagining for them because let’s be honest, all parties are desperate for help doing things like leafletting and knocking on doors. If selecting candidates doesn’t require party membership then short of perhaps the people who want to be candidates (who we’ll presume will have to be party members to put themselves forward) and the terminally meeting obsessed masochistic. What’s the point in being a member anymore? How do you think membership of political parties and their funding streams are going to be affected by all this?