I am a bit dismissive about their experiments with “primaries” thus far (most of the Tory candidate selections which have been labeled as “primaries” have in fact been caucuses). The reason for this is that I’ve seen very little evidence that they have done anything significant to increase participation. Certainly, non-members have been able to participate, but it has generally been in the hundreds. Swapping one self-selecting group for another doesn’t amount to much. Doubling, even trebling, participation in candidate selection is almost meaningless in the face of such mass alienation from the process.
The Totnes experiment is different because all 69,000 voters in the constituency have been sent a ballot paper. At a stroke it means that the major problem inherent in the caucuses – that the people who turn up could be dominated by a single group of entryists (whether they are a political, ethnic or religious grouping) and thereby select a candidate that is less likely to find favour amongst the wider electorate – is gone at a stroke. There certainly will be Labour and Lib Dem members participating in this ballot, but the majority of people who do will belong to no political party. The winning candidate will therefore have already won a constituency-wide test. All things being equal, that will give him or her a significant advantage over the other candidates.
Could this system be used to revive political participation nationwide? I think it could, yes. If the top three parties were to do this in every constituency, the way elections are fought would change dramatically. For one thing, I suspect it could do a lot to increase ethnic diversity. As an alternative to all-BAME shortlists – widening participation instead of narrowing it – it has to be a winner. But it would also work in more subtle ways by making seats less safe.
Let’s say a really strong Lib Dem candidate were to emerge in a safe Labour stronghold. Would people, having got to know that candidate in the primaries, automatically revert to their tribal loyalties come the election itself? More than that, the candidate him or herself would be able to use the primary to build their own supporter base. We do see this sort of upset occur in the US in a way that is much less common in the UK.
There are questions that need to be answered. For one thing, to what extent should candidates be free to campaign during the primary contests? I would imagine that in the case of Totnes, this being the Tories, candidates would have a pretty free hand. But how do we prevent the system from giving the rich such a major advantage, thereby leading to a less diverse Parliament? As with UK elections, for the system to be rolled out nationwide we would surely need some kind of spending limit.
There is also a question about where all the candidates will come from. The big barrier, certainly in the Lib Dems, would be the candidate approval system. The party simply doesn’t have enough approved candidates to have a even a two-way contest in every single constituency. Should we lower the bar for candidate approval, in essence allowing any party member to stand? If so, how would we prevent non-liberals from getting selected as the Liberal Democrat candidate? Indeed, one of the main things we see in the US more than the UK is a convergence with the two main parties ending up almost indistinguishable in terms of broad political philosophy – certainly at a local level (nationally, things inevitably become more distinct, but even so the Democrats and Republicans amount to little more than two sides of the same coin). There is a danger that this will lead to vision-less, pandering politics. Politicians will be more responsive to the electorate, yes, but will be unable to actually say what they mean because they will be in the thrall of every single opinion poll.
Despite all that, I’m sure that these problems could be overcome and no doubt some will argue I have overstated them. Fundamentally, the higher the level of political participation, the less pronounced they will be (for example, if there were more people engaged, less wealthy candidates would have an easier time fundraising). However, there is one problem that I can’t see getting resolved any time soon: the cost.
I’m surprised there has been so little discussion about the cost of the Totnes primary. It must be costing the Tories around a pound per constituent to hold this contest. Even if they had managed to bring it down to 50p, that is still about £35,000 to hold just this primary. For a national party that is chickenfeed, but to roll it out nationwide would cost at least £20 million. Even the well-funded Conservatives will struggle to raise that amount of money ON TOP OF the amount they need to raise for electioneering locally and nationally (not to mention the costs of each candidate in the primaries). Where US states use open primaries they are at least part funded by the taxpayer, but the Tories would surely be ideologically oppose to such a subsidy. One thing that would be unarguable is that this form of state funding of political parties would do more to entrench political parties and make them a part of the state than almost any other version. You certainly couldn’t fund every single party to run primaries in this way so what would your cut off point be, and how would you prevent it from entrenching the established parties at the expense of everyone else?
Assuming you didn’t fund open primaries out of taxpayer money, and couldn’t afford to hold one in every single constituency, how would you choose which seats got a primary and which seats didn’t? Limit it to target seats? In which case, the whole “open” nature of the system would be undermined. It would only be open in places where the election was already competitive. In safe seats, the electorate would remain just as shut out as ever. A more imaginative approach would be to fund open primaries in safe seats held by political opponents, but it would be a risky strategy (and it is certainly not the approach being adopted in Totnes).
What I can’t see, with the best will in the world, is how such a system can improve on having single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. STV works by effectively combining a primary with an election – you don’t just get to choose between parties but between candidates within parties on the same ballot paper (of course this depends on the parties themselves playing ball and providing the electorate with a choice, but there is some evidence in Scotland which suggests that the parties which did field a broader range of candidates did better). You don’t end up with a group of candidates who all argue for the same thing because the system recognises that the electorate is not an amorphous whole but a group of individuals with a diverse range of opinions. Instead of all elections being won by the lowest-common-denominator, minority views are allowed representation as well. And the enormous cost is saved, to be spent on other things or even not raised in the first place.
Ultimately then, while I can see that open primaries have real merit, it is hard to see how even the Conservatives can afford to roll them out on anything like a national basis. Without safeguards, they could just entrench plutocracy and lowest-common-denominator politics. It is hard to see how this can be a real practical solution to a nationwide malaise. And everything the system purports to do can be done much more cheaply and simply by changing the electoral system. The question boils down to whether you see the future of UK politics as lying in competing parties setting out broad visions for how the country should be better or narrow communitarianism. For better or worse, that is the debate we should be having about electoral reform, not an argument about reform versus the status quo.