A Straw poll on primaries

Progress have launched a campaign for Labour to adopt primaries, following on from David Miliband’s Tribune article last week. To mark it, they have quickly whizzed out a short paper by Will Straw (pdf), who I am shocked to discover is now 29 (I have to admit that I still think of him as a horny cannabis-frazzled 17 year old who got stung by a Mirror journo and I’m convinced this happened yesterday). A few brief thoughts on the paper:

  • Will has a positively Jack Straw-esque command for spin. Feeling that he can’t get away with the standard definition of open and closed primaries, he comes up with an option of Labour adopting either semi-open or fully open primaries. In fact, his fully open version is what I recognise as either semi-open or semi-closed system while his semi-open system is closer to a closed primary (Wikipedia has a list of definitions). The arbitrary change in terminology probably has more to do with a concern with not wanting to advocate a system that could be described as “closed” than anything else.
  • Straw appears to approve of what he terms “meaningful electoral reform” but nowhere does he address the objection that both the Labour and Tory hierarchies seem to be shouting about primaries as a distraction from proper electoral reform. The objection that any open list or preferential voting system would do everything that a primary system would do, only more cheaply and inclusively, is not listed as one of the main criticisms of the primary system despite the fact that it is the most compelling.
  • At no point does he address the rather thorny issue of cost, which is surely the biggest single objection to rolling out the system. To be fair, he does refer to ‘cost’ once – when he advocates using online voting. There are very strong reasons to object to online voting (disclaimer: while I agree with ORG when it comes to e-voting, I am somewhat more sanguine than them about e-counting) and we should oppose it for primaries as much as for the elections themselves. Sorry, but there is no way that would be an acceptable way to keep costs down.

Fundamentally, although addressing some internal Labour preoccupations, this paper fails to address the main objections to primaries: why bother when “meaningful” electoral reform does so much more, so much more cheaply; and how will it be paid for. I will give him credit where it’s due however: unlike the Tories, he does at least quite rightly argue that the focus for primaries should not be marginal constituencies where primaries will act as little more than an opportunity to promote the party’s candidate, but in the more moribund seats (Straw defines this as constituencies where the CLP has fewer than 200 members) where primaries most certainly WOULD have a meaningful impact on increasing participation. He’s right: if you are serious about using primaries as a means to democratic renewal that is where you should start.

1 comment

  1. James,

    I disagree that an open list system would achieve everything a primary system would do, because Open list isn’t truly eliminative. Supported individual candidates are helped by the Open list system, but unpopular candidates aren’t hurt in the same way they are in a primary one. If not enough candidates can gain the popularity to ‘push’ unpopular candidates far enough down the list, a candidate in an Open list system can be incredibly unpopular with the electorate yet elected with ease.

    You might argue that the eliminative purpose of primaries is not a good thing anyway — which is fair enough — but open list achieves different things to primaries, and is overall quite a different approach.

    Incidentally, I wrote this in response to Tim Roll-Pickering’s argument for primaries to be extended nationally. I hope you don’t mind my stealing an argument from an early blog post of yours on the subject:

    “The problem with Primaries is that it can only ever essentially be a two party solution. The Liberal Democrats could have difficulties in fielding enough candidates to ensure a multiple to choose from in each constituency, and smaller parties would find it absolutely impossible. In other words, primaries would lead to a more entrenched division between the ‘big two’ and everyone else in our electoral system. It strikes me as clumsy, as well as expensive.

    On a mass scale, it would be very expensive, not only for the parties (or the government, were funding provided) but also for the candidates. In order to ensure equity, incredibly tough spending caps would have to be introduced on primary campaigns.

    It would also increase the amount of time needed for campaigning in the buildup to each election, a needless headache for many sitting MPs and a drain on potential candidates coming from disadvantaged circumstances.

    Longer campaigns could also ensure a bigger role for influential interests within the campaign process.

    Combined, this could narrow the social inclusion among candidates in elections, which happens enough already. It could further cement the two-party duopoly, whilst resulting in parties so broadchurch, and candidates so consensus-based, as to create the ironic effect of lowering choice despite increasing participation.

    I’m unsure about electoral reform in general, but given no choice I’d far rather an improved voting system than trying to mandate primaries, which is clumsy and fraught with problems.”


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