Daily Archives: 26 July 2009

“Open Source Politics” in Totnes?

The Tories’ open primary experiment in Totnes intrigues me. Douglas Carswell describes it as “credible attempt to create a new system of open source politics.”

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.

The trouble with “Rennardism” (clue: it isn’t the leaflets)

I find myself in danger of ending up on the wrong side of an important debate. I’ve written before about how Chris Rennard’s departure as Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats is a chance for the party to rethink how it campaigns and last week speculated whether our heavy dependence on “ground” campaigning makes it harder for us to find a more diverse selection of candidates. I hope however people don’t think that I agree with the more crass analyses out there suggesting that the party’s problem is that it delivers leaflets.

Irfan Ahmed suggests we can just switch to emails and achieve the same thing for less. Charlotte Gore asserts that “the most attractive candidate to the electorate nearly always wins irrespective of resources.” Stuart Sharpe seeks to prove this with graphs. But I have to say that when it comes to winning tactics, I’d much rather have Costigan Quist, Stephen Tall and especially Neil Fawcett running my campaign.

Regarding Stuart Sharpe’s “proof,” one is compelled to ask: where is your control group? Of course there isn’t one, nor is there likely to be one since no party would risk the political cost of sitting out a by-election just to satisfy this little theory. There are several factors at play in how a political party does in an election. The number of leaflets delivered is just one of them. But to assume that all you need to do is look at a) where the parties where doing according to public opinion, b) how many leaflets each party delivered and c) the result and extrapolate the marginal effectiveness of delivering a leaflet is simply laughable.

To quote a cliche, Coca-Cola spends literally billions on advertising each year yet doesn’t noticeably increase its market share. Is that billions of dollars wasted? No, it is the price they pay to retain their current market share. In Norwich North, the Lib Dems had several factors pointing against them: the Tories were in a strong second place locally and doing extremely well against Labour in national opinion polls; anti-politics feeling is at an all time high yet and the beneficiaries of that were always going to be predominantly UKIP and the Greens; the Lib Dems’ base in the city was concentrated in the south and thus all local resources up until that point (with the exception of the Broadlands bits) had been concentrated elsewhere; both locally and nationally, the party is established and no longer a repository of protest votes. Despite all that, I can honestly say the we did remarkably well. There was no anti-Labour squeeze to speak of and the Lib Dem vote held up remarkably well despite all those Tory squeeze leaflets.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’m completely uncritical. I remain of the opinion that branding Rupert Read an “extremist” was counter-productive as well as unethical, despite the fact that the more I read about the man the less I like. I do question whether the result was really worth what it cost to achieve it (notwithstanding Neil’s sound points about training and development); the main reason the party invested as much as it did in the campaign was that Broadlands and Norwich South are much stronger prospects and a bad result would have harmed the momentum in both of those seats. This preoccupation with the Greens, too, seemed to be more about their comparative strength in Norwich South: if they had leapfrogged us in the North it would have been a story that Read and his comrades could have used to split the vote in the South and keep Charles Clarke in power. Now they have a bad process story of their own to contend with. Whether that local advantage was worth the substantial national investment is a moot point but one which, frankly, I’m not in a terribly strong position to draw any real conclusion about.

By contrast, the idea that we won Leicester South, Brent East, Romsey, Dunfermline and Fife West and all those other past victories (never mind all those other close second places) due to the relative merits of our respective candidates is, with no insult whatsoever intended to the candidates themselves, completely laughable. They weren’t won by leaflets alone either, but the leafleting was a sine qua non.

No. If you really believe that the problem with “Rennardism” is rooted in our on the ground tactics, you are profoundly missing the point. Far from it, in my view the problem is that this form of campaigning is too successful and has become an end in itself. The problem is that the party has become far too comfortable in making these little gains here and there and more or less abandoned anything like a strategic vision – for either the party or the country – altogether.

There’s plenty of “vision” in the party’s pre-manifesto, published this week, but the launch of this was an interesting case in point. Just like last year’s Make It Happen, the launch was not terribly well handled, with Nick Clegg making some ill-advised comments and local parties and candidates left ill-prepared to deal with any enquiries about the new initiative. As I said earlier in the week, I strongly suspect that the two are inter-related: if someone was spending time working out how local candidates were supposed to be presenting new initiatives like this, they might come to different conclusions about how they are presented nationally.

One of the reasons I suspect the party centrally no longer provides pre-release briefings of major launches like this to candidates is the effective merger of the parliamentary party’s press operation and the federal party’s. Since then, however much better our press work has been (and generally I think it has been), it has been running to serve the front bench agenda and not really focusing on the wider party’s needs at all. During the leadership election, I remember hearing Clegg talk a lot about the need to invest more in a regional media strategy. It hasn’t happened.

The party has become good at producing these professional looking single-issue websites like A Fresh Start for Britain but it isn’t clear what campaign objectives they are supposed to achieve. Where’s the sign up box? Why no interactivity? Why no tools to make it easy for people to disseminate it via social bookmarking, twitter or even email? Why did the PDF version take days to appear and then only in a print-ready 5mb format? The whole thing, along with Take Back Power, screams afterthought and sourcing out.

My time on the party’s Federal Executive was mostly spent fighting trench warfare over things like getting decent funding for the Campaign for Gender Balance. I have no doubt that those battles in turn have delayed any progress we could have made to encourage more BAME candidates. Some things like the decline of Liberal (Democrat) Youth (and Students) (never mind the nonsense that happened earlier this year; the writing has been on the wall for years) required the party to take remedial measures, but those remedial measures never happened – mainly because they would have cost money. Yet I still maintain that all of these would have been sound investments for the party – both financially and in more intangible ways – in the longer term. What they would have cost however was the equivalent of a handful of target seats in the short term and thus were always resisted.

I have my concerns about how the party campaigns on the ground. I do think that the party is relatively complacent about unethical behaviour (although this is exception and not the norm) and I deplore the pettyfogging culture that it engenders. But in terms of what works, the last thing in the world you can criticise Lord Rennard on is his tactical nouse. Distrust anyone who tells you otherwise; they simply don’t get it. It is his strategy we need to move beyond.

UPDATE: Liberal England makes the very sage point that it is “Rennardism” wot won it for the Tories in Norwich North.