Open Up: any candidate you like, so long as they are gleaming white.

Another day, another TWO new big ideas for solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system. Without, you know, actually solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system.

First we have Geoffrey Wheatcroft who proposes annual elections. Because, you know, the Chartists did. Imagine that. Political parties in permanent election mode – even more than they are now. I guess it is one of those ideas you either think is genius or stupid and no-one is going to persuade you either way. Needless to say, I come under the latter category.

Second, we have Open Up, a new campaign to persuade ALL the parties to hold Open Primaries in ALL constituencies before the next general election. Again. Once you have gone down the route of such mental decrepitude, there is probably no helping you.

I will however point out a little fact. On their FAQ, they state the following:

Of course, it will cost money to hold Open Primaries. But what price better government?[1] From the financial crisis to the expenses scandal, it’s obvious that our system must improve. As taxpayers we pay a lot now, and we’re going to pay more. We need the best people to be the stewards for our money and our future. Against this background the extra cost of Open Primaries seems very small.[2]

On top of this consider the costs of a General Election…where we don’t have a choice in our candidates:

o The Department for Constitutional Affairs estimated the cost of administering the 2005 general election in England and Wales was approximately £71 million in public funds. (House of Commons Written Answers for 25 May 2005)
o Spending for the three main parties in 2005 was more than £40 million. (Electoral Commission, “Election 2005: Campaign Spending”). This is in addition to the £71 cited above.
* Conservative Party £17,852,245
* Labour Party £17,939,618
* Liberal Democrats £4,324,574

[1] Is there any evidence, at all, that this will lead to better government? Where is it?

[2] Since they have given us some costs to look at, let’s look at the cost of holding primaries for all 628 constituencies in Great Britain (I’m excluding Northern Ireland here for the not unreasonable reason that the three main parties do too):

Sending a second class, franked, letter costs 25p these days. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that if they are mailing the entire British population of voting age (approx 40 million) they could get a discount down to 20p. That is still £8 million – nearly double what the Lib Dems spent in the last general election (including the unlikely to be repeated dodgy donation of £2.4 million from Michael Brown).

Assuming that the voters won’t be expected to pay to vote, and also assuming a LOW turnout of 20%, that adds another £2 million to the bill.

The cheapest I can find C5 manilla envelopes on Viking Direct is £24.99 for 125. Assuming that the party can get envelopes at HALF that cost, the total envelope cost (one to send out and another to get back) will be another £8 million.

So even before we get into paper, printing and distribution costs (which are much harder to estimate) we are looking at a low estimate of £18 million, or more than either the Tories or Labour spent nationally in 2005.

Throughout the summer I’ve heard vague assertions that if all this were done at the same time, these costs could be brought down, but even if they were halved that would still mean each party shelling out £10 million that most don’t have.

I’ve heard suggestions that primaries could be held on the same day as local elections with the ballots being held at polling station, but this idea couldn’t work for Open Up’s campaign who want candidates installed before next year’s local elections (it isn’t for that matter clear how it would work otherwise since local elections all take place on different days and it would mean essentially putting candidate selection into the hands of the state – a radical measure to say the least). I’ve even heard wacky suggestions of all the primaries being held online, along with all the scary potential ballot stuffing that would imply. Presumably Open Up wouldn’t be in favour of that as former ORG Director Becky Hogge is one of their key supporters.

Either way, there is no running away from the fact that what Open Up is calling for is an exclusive club in which only the wealthiest parties are allowed to participate. Any party not able to participate will be clobbered to death for hating democracy. Cheekily, they use the existence of safe seats as a reason for justifying their campaign. The idea that safe seats themselves might be the problem isn’t even entertained. In another video, weirdly, they claim that the Spanish electoral system is corruption free. Spain uses a form of proportional representation but significantly also uses closed lists – giving the electorate very little in the way of a choice in candidates. I’m not sure this is an especially wise assertion to make two weeks after the imprisonment of Francisco Correa.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to primaries, although I do think they are a distraction which in practice will have very little effect on the nature of our politics. I certainly think that the open primaries idea being spelt out by Open Up would lead to more identikit politicians, with Labour candidates under even more pressure to be Tory-ish and Tory candidates under pressure to be Labour-ish (and of course Lib Dems to be all things to all people), but since it has no chance of happening – less of a chance, I’d argue, than Gordon Brown introducing PR before the general election – why worry?

I worry because the anti-politics rhetoric that is informing this campaign (and others) is leading people up the garden path. Instead of embracing the opportunity to shout loudly for pluralist politics and for moving beyond politics meaning little more than voting every few years, people are grasping at ideas that don’t even amount to half measures. There are people out there who seem to believe in both primaries AND pluralist politics, but they have chosen to emphasise the former because somehow they imagine it would be easier to introduce – I will certainly concede that it is easier to explain. But this fatal lack of confidence seems to be leading us towards a system of politics where you have to be richer than ever to participate in and preferably entirely self-sufficient because that way you won’t have to ever claim for any troublesome expenses.

Open Up itself is overwhelming dominated by people with a PR or media background. In short they represent a subtler, more insidious form of corruption – the kind which has told us for years that citizenship is a defunct concept in a brave new world of consumerism. And now, proudly marching around with their Che Guevara t-shirts, they are here to tell us all to be good little revolutionaries and to embrace a politics which looks remarkably like shopping. Choice of whatever brand of washing powder you choose, all of which are exactly the same. It is the ultimate grand joke.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the party leaders’ contributions to the Speakers Conference today. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tell apart the establishment and the insurgents in this debate; they all seem to be arguing along the same lines and I don’t like any of it. Maybe I should just accept that my views are just too unfashionable to even contemplate.


  1. You can get C5 gummed manilla envelopes for around £12 per 1000 if you buy 50K.

    Not that that invalidates your argument. Open primaries are a stupid idea promulgated by and large by people who know nothing practical about politics.

  2. Even if UK-wide Open Primaries cost a quarter of my estimate, they would still represent a block to any political party other the big two.

  3. The political corruption cases now running in here in Spain can be reckoned by the dozens. Berlusconi’s Italy it is not. Spanish political corruption has been reduced; is being diminished by the curent wave of cases reaching the courts; but will still have a lot of diminishing to do when this wave has passed.

    As for OpenUp, I recall a defining quotation: ” If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck.”

  4. I’m not having a pop at Spain. I’m just saying they make for a curious poster child for political cleanliness.

    As yet, no senior official in a major political party in the UK has been locked up on corruption charges – and that’s even after Labour’s shenanigans.

  5. I’m not sure that they’re expecting the parties to pay for it. For me, the line “As taxpayers we pay a lot now, and we’re going to pay more” suggests that they think it should be paid for by the Government (or more likely, local councils with the Government promising and failing to meet the additional cost) but then that opens up its own problems in that all the minor parties will be seeking to meet whatever qualification standard is necessary to take part in this process in order to get the free publicity.

  6. Nick,

    It is vague, I will admit. But since they are claiming that this can be done without changing the law (see FAQ), my impression was that they feel the parties should just cough up themselves.

  7. “Is there any evidence, at all, that this will lead to better government?”

    — I can see how one would argue (erroneously, in my opinion) that it might lead to better representation and better legislators. I suppose you could argue that this would naturally lead to better government. But it’s a very thin stretch.

    In any case, it would almost certainly lead to far more drawn-out election campaigns, far more expensive election campaigns and make it harder for parties to help candidates from disadvantaged circumstances seek election. Primaries may sound like a neat, progressive idea, but it’s incredibly messy. The US system is certainly no advertisement.

  8. Well, many of us have spent huge amounts of our own time and money building up a local branch of the Liberal Democrats. Most of us do this through love of democracy, we don’t expect or get any material reward from it.

    So what the “Open Primary” system means, so far as I can see, is that anyone can come along and steal what we have built so long as they can gather a big enough mob behind them. Then what? Are we party members, having seen someone elected in a primary who has nothing in common with us, who may have views we detest, who has contributed nothing to making our party winnable, expected not just to see that person put forward as “us”, but also to run his or her campaign, do all the leaflets and canvassing etc?

    The people putting this forward are clueless idiots. Why isn’t this so obvious that people are laughing at them?

  9. It’s partly because of the electoral system, which allows mainstream parties a good deal of control over who a lot of the MPs in the House of Commons will be pre-election. It’s also possibly because of the problems parties are having nowadays with engaging with the public, maintaining membership levels (even the Conservatives have been in decline, apparently), and securing funding.

    I also think it’s something of a dodge from the Conservative party, to distract attention away from the question of electoral reform.

    I was surprised to see Vernon Bogdanor in support of Open Primaries — particularly because he supports STV, and actually sees them as a stepping stone. I took the opportunity, granted by Open Up, to participate in a question and answer submission. Here is a write-up about his responses:

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