The principled case against primaries

10th November, 2012 2:48 pm

People keep talking about adopting primaries as a progressive move to take power away from our unrepresentative membership and give it instead to the wider public. Opponents need to engage with the arguments of principle rather than keeping quiet in the hope that the costs will make primaries impractical.

The major issue is how we see the citizen (apart from professional politicians, their employees and the rich) interacting with politics. I believe that our aim should be to encourage more people to become political actors in their own right. Others think that the only form of political engagement which can be fostered is the one-off action of voting in a selection or election. These are the Punk (grab a guitar and form a band) and X-factor (sit on the couch and vote) models of political engagement.

We know from experience that the larger the voting group in selections, the more having money and the ability to take time off work will count. We know that performance and presentation have become more important than a record of work in the community and the party. There were many good arguments for one-member-one-vote but it has made the group of selectable members narrower. The party is unable to control expenditure on selection campaigns, with spending of over £1000 becoming common. How rich would you need to be to win a primary?

Do we want a party whose members work for the election of candidates standing on collectively agreed party policies – or a collection of private armies owing allegiance to individual politicians who have won the right to put forward their own policies in our name?

If unions pump money and the time of their members into a candidate’s hard-fought primary campaign, they will owe them hugely if elected. Why would our big unions donate to the national party if they could build a much stronger presence in parliament through the primaries? Big business would also see the attractions.

The cost of primaries is not the crunch argument against them but there are certainly other ways we could spend the money on broadening democracy. There are wider problems of political alienation, but it is hugely difficult to persuade working people to pay £15 for membership because they simply cannot afford to gamble on it being worthwhile. But lots of people will sign up to be registered supporters. If we are going to spend a lot of the party’s money – or the state’s money – on broadening political engagement, why not subsidise membership to make it generally affordable again?

We all know there is a crisis of political engagement right across the democratic world. We cannot ignore that problem and pretend the party today is the party of 1945.

But before we abandon the broad-based party model, let’s have a serious debate.

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  • Serbitar

    The real trouble with primaries is that people will be expected to vote for men and women as individuals rather than representatives of political parties. Most voters rely on party manifestos and information promulgated by party mechanisms in order to glean what electoral candidates would do once elected without having much of a clue in respect to what kind of men and women these candidates are personally. Here’s the rub. If you ask the electorate to pick a preferred candidate to represent a political party from a list of strangers who are already all members of the same party the only way to differentiate between one candidate and another is on a personal basis and this is an impossible judgement for most voters to make unless one or more candidate stands out from the crowd or is known personally to the voter.

    I really don’t see the point in primaries when the candidates standing are for the most part unknown to the electorate beyond having some sort of political commonality. How can you winnow the wheat from the chaff when all and everyone is an unknown quantity. You might as well write the names of the candidates on bit of paper, mix them up in a hat,  and draw one name randomly to decide the winner.

    Personally I’d rather the selection be stochastic than a superficial beauty contest.

  • Serbitar

    The real trouble with primaries is that people will be expected to vote for men and women as individuals rather than representatives of political parties. Most voters rely on party manifestos and information promulgated by party mechanisms in order to glean what electoral candidates would do once elected without having much of a clue in respect to what kind of men and women these candidates are personally. Here’s the rub. If you ask the electorate to pick a preferred candidate to represent a political party from a list of strangers who are already all members of the same party the only way to differentiate between one candidate and another is on a personal basis and this is an impossible judgement for most voters to make unless one or more candidate stands out from the crowd or is known personally to the voter.

    I really don’t see the point in primaries when the candidates standing are for the most part unknown to the electorate beyond having some sort of political commonality. How can you winnow the wheat from the chaff when all and everyone is an unknown quantity. You might as well write the names of the candidates on bit of paper, mix them up in a hat,  and draw one name randomly to decide the winner.

    Personally I’d rather the selection be stochastic than a superficial beauty contest.

  • Serbitar

    The real trouble with primaries is that people will be expected to vote for men and women as individuals rather than representatives of political parties. Most voters rely on party manifestos and information promulgated by party mechanisms in order to glean what electoral candidates would do once elected without having much of a clue in respect to what kind of men and women these candidates are personally. Here’s the rub. If you ask the electorate to pick a preferred candidate to represent a political party from a list of strangers who are already all members of the same party the only way to differentiate between one candidate and another is on a personal basis and this is an impossible judgement for most voters to make unless one or more candidate stands out from the crowd or is known personally to the voter.

    I really don’t see the point in primaries when the candidates standing are for the most part unknown to the electorate beyond having some sort of political commonality. How can you winnow the wheat from the chaff when all and everyone is an unknown quantity. You might as well write the names of the candidates on bit of paper, mix them up in a hat,  and draw one name randomly to decide the winner.

    Personally I’d rather the selection be stochastic than a superficial beauty contest.

  • Serbitar

    The real trouble with primaries is that people will be expected to vote for men and women as individuals rather than representatives of political parties. Most voters rely on party manifestos and information promulgated by party mechanisms in order to glean what electoral candidates would do once elected without having much of a clue in respect to what kind of men and women these candidates are personally. Here’s the rub. If you ask the electorate to pick a preferred candidate to represent a political party from a list of strangers who are already all members of the same party the only way to differentiate between one candidate and another is on a personal basis and this is an impossible judgement for most voters to make unless one or more candidate stands out from the crowd or is known personally to the voter.

    I really don’t see the point in primaries when the candidates standing are for the most part unknown to the electorate beyond having some sort of political commonality. How can you winnow the wheat from the chaff when all and everyone is an unknown quantity. You might as well write the names of the candidates on bit of paper, mix them up in a hat,  and draw one name randomly to decide the winner.

    Personally I’d rather the selection be stochastic than a superficial beauty contest.

  • Serbitar

    The real trouble with primaries is that people will be expected to vote for men and women as individuals rather than representatives of political parties. Most voters rely on party manifestos and information promulgated by party mechanisms in order to glean what electoral candidates would do once elected without having much of a clue in respect to what kind of men and women these candidates are personally. Here’s the rub. If you ask the electorate to pick a preferred candidate to represent a political party from a list of strangers who are already all members of the same party the only way to differentiate between one candidate and another is on a personal basis and this is an impossible judgement for most voters to make unless one or more candidate stands out from the crowd or is known personally to the voter.

    I really don’t see the point in primaries when the candidates standing are for the most part unknown to the electorate beyond having some sort of political commonality. How can you winnow the wheat from the chaff when all and everyone is an unknown quantity. You might as well write the names of the candidates on bit of paper, mix them up in a hat,  and draw one name randomly to decide the winner.

    Personally I’d rather the selection be stochastic than a superficial beauty contest.

    • If we really wanted to introduce “true” democracy, encouraging independent and local MPs into politics, it would undoubtedly not be hard or expensive to do in this day of internet (for the web-enabled) and free local papers (for the non-enabled), but I suggest that the sad fact is there is no appeal amongst the already political to do so: the major parties are probably rather more comfortable with the familiar tick-tock of power and opposition than contemplating the “uncertainty” of reform that could create a parliament of largely non-partisan MPs and those who might actually listen to the debates and judge legislation on its own merit: it is far easier to have a crowd of pliant MPs who will vote whichever way their Whip tells them.

      • Serbitar

        In an ideal world a Parliament peopled by principled individuals who voted according to the dictates of their conscience might be possible, but not in a world as fractious and fractured as this where party politics dominates and few of us have personal relationships with the politicians that represent us or with those who aspire one day to fill such roles.

        I recently received a postal vote to elect a Police Commissioner. Four of the candidates on the ballot paper were affiliated to political parties (Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative and UKIP) with about eight others standing as independents. Not one single person listed was known to me – I have never met any of them, never spoken to any of them, never been canvassed by any of them, or read a personal manifesto written by any of them – and so I voted for the Labour candidate instinctively, making no other selection, hoping that the person fielded by Labour embodied the least worst evil of the choices on offer.

        My bet is that this will be the pattern everywhere and every Police Commissioner elected will be associated with one or other of the three main political parties. I do not expect that a single independent candidate, no matter how good, will be appointed to such an office because the only way electors can have any idea whatsoever as to what a candidate might do can only be based on the history of whatever political party they happen to be a member; in this sense unaffiliated candidates, no matter how admirable, remain unknown quantities whose future actions cannot be predicted and so destined to garner few votes as a consequence.

        As inevitable as it is sad because such an almost tribal political system will always end up excluding far too many of the capable and the worthy and including far too many tame apparatchik careerists.

  • Surely the clearest argument against adopting primaries should be the USA, where it’s helped fuel a culture of personality-over-policy. The public squabbling also damages the party and the candidate when they’re eventually chosen. And it’s also worth noting that the open primary system is ridiculously open to abuse – opponents of the party could vote for candidates they perceive as unelectable to improve their own party’s chances.

  • postageincluded

    Agreed on all points, David. Anyone who followed the inane spectacle of the Republican presidential primary would recognise how your “collection of private armies owing allegiance to individual politicians” lost the Republicans the election.

    It’s not as if factionalism hasn’t been a major failing of our party before! Who would propose such an inane scheme unless they had a political axe to grind? Some faction who are currently out of favour in the party and who want to use primaries as a way back into the driving seat…. By the way, you forgot to use a capital “P” in the word “Progressive”.

  • I actually think the primary system might make it easier still for the professional politico, with the resources and networks to reach a wider spectrum of people

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