Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Primaries to stay in the UK?

Today saw the result of the first ever mass ballot to select a parliamentary candidate when voters in Totnes selected Sarah Wollaston in a postal ballot of all registered voters. (BBC News: GP wins Tory 'open primary' race) It marks the first time any part of the UK has had anything approaching US-style primary elections.

(A word of clarity. For a few years now some Conservative parliamentary candidates have been selected by open meetings of local voters billed as "primaries" but which are really closer to "caucuses", requiring active attendance at the meeting.)

The full result is at ConservativeHome: Dr Sarah Wollaston selected after 25% turnout in Totnes Open Primary, but the figure that interests me the most is the turnout. 16,644 ballot papers were returned, representing approximately 25% of the electorate. Whatever expectations were spun in advance, the raw figure means that the fears people had that such primaries would lead to rival parties trying to vote pack the results have been proved baseless. This experiment can be considered a success and primaries should be rolled out on a wider basis.

There is, however, one problem still to be resolved. The postal ballot was not cheap, costing some £40,000 and few local parties have that kind of money to hand. (Yes I know the slogan "there shouldn't be a price on democracy" but it's easy to say that when you're not the one paying that price.) Taking the process online is a possibility in the medium term, but at present there's no obvious simple way for all voters to verify themselves so as to ensure against voter fraud. But if that could be overcome - and I believe it already has been in other countries - then this could radically open up candidate selection across the board.


Michael said...

What if all the the candidates offered to the shortlist were essentially of the same professional politician caste the public have become so exasperated with - wouldn't this just give the illusion of choice to the voter, with the downside that when nothing changes the voter will feel conned and be even angrier than they are now?

I do hope this is the start of a new era of participation in the political process, and for the time being I shall try and let my optimism stunt my cynicism - but it has to be acknowledged that it also offers the political class (and their agendas) the opportunity to entrench themselves still further, whilst simultaneously convincing the voter that it was really them that voted for such a settlement.

David said...

The problem with Primaries is that it can only ever essentially be a two party solution. The Liberal Democrats would have real difficulties in fielding enough candidates to ensure a multiple to choose from in each constituency, and smaller parties would find it absolutely impossible. In other words, primaries would lead to a more entrenched division between the big two and everyone else in our electoral system. It strikes me as clumsy, as well as expensive.

On a mass scale, it would be very expensive, not only for the parties (or the government, were funding provided) but also for the candidates. In order to ensure equity, incredibly tough spending caps would have to be introduced on primary campaigns.

It would also increase the amount of time needed for campaigning in the buildup to each election, a needless headache for many sitting MPs and a drain on potential candidates coming from disadvantaged circumstances.

Longer campaigns could also ensure a bigger role for influential interests within the campaign process.

Combined, this could narrow the social inclusion among candidates in elections, which happens enough already. It could further cement the two-party duopoly, whilst resulting in parties so broadchurch, and candidates so consensus-based, as to create the ironic effect of lowering choice despite increasing participation.

I'm unsure about electoral reform in general, but given no choice I'd far rather an improved voting system than trying to mandate primaries, which is clumsy and fraught with problems.



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