A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Introducing Primaries will not Halt Electoral Reform

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on October 12, 2009 at 5:45 pm

By Rob Brown 

First I should say that I believe in democracy and hence I believe in shifting as much power as possible to the electorate; for me this means that electoral reform, primaries and a whole host of other reforms. The reason I address this is because a post by Julian Ware-Lane (who I tend to agree with on constitutional issues) suggests that the introduction of primaries will hold back the introduction of electoral reform.

Julian’s post is focussed on whether primaries are a good thing. That is not the aim of this post, but I must quickly say that the selective way in which primaries have operated in the last few months has been a disgrace; they should be considered and implemented in a way in which they engage everyone; not in a way designed to gain publicity for the resulting candidate.

There is an argument that some change can appease reformers and let constitutional conservatives regain a foothold. For example with the House of Lords, we were told that the original reforms were only the beginning, that soon we would be rid of all the hereditaries and see real movement on the idea of an elected Upper Chamber; no further changes have occurred and a dismally undemocratic House of Lords has become more active with a renewed mandate.  Essentially the argument states that a little change is worse than no change, that to reform we must go the whole hog at once.

I do not think the example or indeed the argument is relevant to this debate because electoral reform and primaries are independent changes, to change primaries would have no necessary bearing on electoral reform. In fact we now have an appetite for constitutional and institutional change among the electorate, this could ensure that once we see primaries run properly, momentum may be built up and the electorate could call for more change.

“We now have an appetite for constitutional and institutional change”


 Another argument, and one Julian makes in the comment section, is that there is no point establishing a system of primaries, if we are to move to a different system, with a different method of selection. There is an element of truth to this, if we were to turn to a system that had multi member constituencies, primaries would become unfeasible, and reduce the role of parties in elections too much. 

However I had my first lecture on political science recently, a point was made by the lecturer that I thought was particularly insightful. He suggested that a judgement in political science is only useful if it has a possibility of actually impacting change (or the lack of it). I would take this logic to a practical level and say that there is no point in suspending primaries in the expectation of the systems that make them untenable when those systems are not going to be adopted in Britain. The only way we will see electoral reform is if Labour win the next general election, which looks unlikely. If they win, then act on their policy and it does not get stopped by the various institutions (three major provisos) then we will likely see one of the following: AV, AV+ or possibly AMS all of which would, in my view, benefit from primaries. The likelihood of getting STV or something similar is tiny and hence makes the point about the irrelevance of primaries irrelevant.

I think primaries will let the public see that constitutional change does not have to be dangerous, since a referendum has been promised on electoral reform this is a particularly important factor. Primaries will enhance the idea of change, enhance the idea of choice and most importantly put power on the hands of the public. Primaries will only work if they become votes on policy and trust not votes based on name recognition or inflated campaign funds. They must be implemented for all constituencies, the major parties for that constituency should all organise them, although that could not be legislated for. Julian mentions cost, an argument I have little time for because the cost of not having primaries is safe seats for life; democracy is worth a bit of money.

“Democracy is worth a bit of money”


In conclusion I think it is clear that the introduction of primaries will not hamper the progress of other reforms, including a change to the voting system. I also don’t treat a change in the voting system as a sort of Holy Grail like many other reformers, it is no more important than the many other democratic changes we need. I want a combination of reforms; rather than aim for a fairer voting system, I would aim for greater devolution. Not just geographical devolution, but devolution of all power to the lowest sensible level. Primaries are integral to the choice the electorate want at election times, while the voting system needs changing, it must not prevent us from moving forward with democracy in other, more obtainable, ways.

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  1. […] of what I hope will be many posts on a current affairs blog ‘The Daily Soapbox’ please Click Here. It is about the extent to which the introduction of primaries will hold back electoral reform. I […]

  2. […] Brown commented in a recent post on the usefulness of Primaries in terms of furthering electoral reform, however, and it is this which I find most interesting, and wish to consider. Could it be that, […]

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