Primaries – a better form of democracy?

In Totnes, the Tories have selected their candidate to replace the embarrassed Anthony Steen (who is resigning over his expenses claims). Instead of the usual process of a ballot of Party members, they held an ‘open primary‘. Every voter in Totnes constituency was sent a ballot paper and there was an open hustings. In the end, 16,000 people (25%) voted. The ‘non political’ candidate won over an ex-mayor and a councillor.

A resounding success, it would seem – and if the Tories hold the constituency with a greater swing than in other Con/Libdem races, then it will be seen as one.

However, it cost £40,000 to run. That’s about 58p per registered voter, or £2.50 per primary vote. To do the same across all constituencies at that rate would cost a party millions. In the US, the primary system is run using state infrastructure, which reduces the cost to parties, but puts it onto the taxpayer (and parties cannot hold such primaries without achieving a relatively high position in elections, which means that it helps to entrench the US 2-party system). In most US states, people will register their party affiliation when they register to vote, and this determines which primaries they can vote in, but this seems to me to be a far too cosy relationship between the parties and the state.

One way to recoup costs would be to make every voter make a donation to the Party. This is what the Italian left did a few years ago – anyone could vote in the primary for candidate to the Prime Minister’s office, but people not members of the coalition had to pay about £1 to ‘join’ in order to vote. This would reduce turn out, but it would also reduce the likelihood of people who support opposing parties stacking the ballot box in a spoiling move. It could be used as a recruitment drive – people who vote and pay, say, £5, get a year’s membership. Current members get to vote for free. Donations readily accepted. That sort of thing.

One objection, particularly from those who form the ‘grassroots’ of parties is that it used to be them who chose the candidates, and they would be in a better position to know what sort of person they were (if they are actually competent local politicians, if they had skeletons in their closet etc), as well as being the people who were most likely to be doing the slog work of knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, who are more involved in local political debate. Certainly there is some discomfort among some Tories.

Another, and one I have more sympathy for, is that it would lead to a more personality-based decision than it currently is. Candidates would no longer have to demonstrate that they were the most able to a small group of people who have experience of politics. Instead, they would need to impress more ordinary people. This could lead to more populist politics, more conflict within parties, and more people with no experience getting in.

Sure, there’s a problem with politicians who are settled into a position and become complacent. I agree that there’s an issue of a growing class of professional politicians. But going too far the other way is not much better in terms of considered debate and decision making at Parliament.

It may yet prove to be a short-lived gimmick. Alternatively, we could end up paying for it.

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