The Tories have have sent ballot papers to all 69,000 voters of Totnes in an open primary to select their Parliamentary candidate. This idea has been knocking around for a little while but this is, I think, the first time the UK has seen this open method of candidate selection.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Totnes is an interesting choice as it is the constituency where Anthony Steen, disgraced trough scoffer, has been deselected by his beloved Conservatives. It's also the scene of the Greens' secret council by election victory this Thursday (that's right two in one day, nice).
It may have been chosen for the trial as it is Tory heartland where they have understandably lost a lot of trust with the electorate and this might be an attempt to redress that problem.
An impressive 300 people turned up to the candidates' hustings to hear what the three Tory hopefuls had to say for themselves. Frankly I'd have liked to have been there just to see how the whole thing worked. It intrigues me.
Part of me wonders whether this is an attempt to copy New Labour's democratic reform agenda. It was possibly the only genuinely radical thing Labour did and served as a symbol of how Labour differed from the Tories. The London, Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, plus directly elected Mayors were real developments in the democratic make up of the UK's political system. They also masked the fact that Labour's broader agenda offered very little indeed.
If the Tories can brand themselves as the party that's experimenting with more open democratic systems that could be a very useful way of appearing more radical and above all modern than they actually are. Alternatively it could simply be an authentic attempt to address the historic dip in turn out and support for political parties.
Are they a good idea though?
On a gut level I really like the idea of open primaries. It's a system that forces a party to be more focused on those who elect them than internal party maneuvering. In one sense it's also an extension of democracy, particularly in safe seats where the decision on who represents an area in Parliament is essentially taken by the tiny handful of people who decide the nomination for the locally dominant party.
There are some problems with the system though. Firstly the cost is prohibitive. The Totnes process will surely be costing more than twenty grand. Multiply that three or four hundred more constituencies and you're talking about eight million pounds, just for candidate selection, at a time when party finances are low to say the least. Totnes is likely to serve as a symbol but doesn't indicate the start of a new method of candidate selection.
That high cost might actually be an incentive for those who can afford to use this method. After all in the US it's only the Democrats and Republicans that have genuinely mass participation primaries and this reinforces their positions as the two 'real' parties. If you had a situation here where, say, two parties had that kind of approach all the others would appear to be minor players and have their chances dented.
There's also the question of the ability of organisations to promote a clear political agenda, something that could become more difficult if the candidates tend towards those who offend the least number of people. Why should Labour voters have a say in which Tory is the candidate after all?
What it does do is show a certain self-confidence that your ideas can withstand public scrutiny. It does demonstrate a leap of the imagination to regard your party as public property that all citizens should have a say in. That's a leap few hacks would be willing to make, but it could be one the public might welcome.
Leaving aside cost I wonder what effect open primaries might have on organisations like the Green Party, Respect or the Socialist Party. It would certainly be a reality check. I suspect it would pull them towards the centre, sometimes in a positive way but often to their detriment too.
It would also force those parties towards genuinely mass politics and to become far less insular which could only be a wholly good thing. Of course, it would dilute the 'purity' of the ideological creeds which would certainly be an interesting experiment. Never gonna happen of course, but I'm enjoying the speculation.