A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Of Primary Concern

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, The Media on October 21, 2009 at 8:45 pm

David Weber

I have blogged on Primaries before, when it was hot on the political Radar following the Tories’ publicity scoop in Totnes, and thought then it was a very difficult issue that, unfortunately, did not avail itself to the normal simple practical level of analysis many policy questions do, but could have momentous future implications. In this respect it is a similar question to most constitutional reform ones, but unlike the electoral reform debate, a lack of such a wide variety of fields of comparison and popularity of debate mean that information is far less available and misinformation far more common.

Such as, for example, the application of the words themselves. The Tories have claimed to have been pioneering primaries around the country. However, though their recent initiative in Totnes did prove that they are at least capable of pulling off something akin to a real primary, most of the numerous events they have labelled as primaries have not actually been anything of a sort. A better term would probably be “Open caucus”.

I may be being a little cynical, but it strikes me that if you advertise something to Conservative party members, then those who turn up with registered places will be conservative party members.

To those who might feel this to be an unfairly semantic distinction, consider what the ‘it’ constitutes. A caucus is an informal meeting, in this case open to anyone who wishes to go and contribute. But meetings in conventional buildings have a limited size, far below the capacity needed to stage a primary for all constituency members. When contrasted with a primary vote conducted by post, the distinction is even greater: for there is not even any travelling distance needed to exercise one’s popular choice. Open caucuses are essentially a lottery as to who gets to vote and who doesn’t.

This aside, consider something further: these open meetings were publicised and advertised on the local Conservative website in advance. Now, I may be being a little cynical, but it strikes me that if you advertise something the most to Conservative party members, and make it possible to reserve tickets in advance, then the vast majority of those who turn up with registered places will be conservative party members. Thus even the description of lottery is too generous — what it really is is an open conservative party selection meeting, to which keen-eyed political independents might secure a place if they’re on the ball.

Now, this sounds like enough of a deconstruction of what looked like a series of noble endeavours by the Conservative party, but there is more. Firstly, even the open primary had a narrowed-down selection of constituency candidates — meaning there had been prior selection by the inner party. This would be anathema to, say, the US system, where the system is open to anyone who wishes to stand as a party candidate (and has the funds to do so, more on that later). Secondly, and also anathema to the US system, only registered party members could stand freely for selection (and quite possibly there were other requirements as well, I am not familiar enough with the internal Conservative party politics to comment, however). This contrasts to the United States, where a formal party organisation structure does not even exist — parties are truly open (to those who have the resources to compete within them, naturally).

But still, maybe, you could argue, there is something genuinely progressive about the idea itself, however flawed the application. And many would argue this to be the case, that primaries genuinely are a positive step in electoral reform.

The fact that primaries open up choice to the electorate is beyond doubt. Even closed primaries require fairly little effort to register for, and are not in fact a complete safe-guard against “opposition voters” attempting to swing the primary, if I remember my A level politics correctly. Open primaries make the debate far less formal and far more open to the vaguaries of the electorate. Party ‘leaders’ have to truly persuade, rather than simply lead; in order to get the type of election desired on the local level, they have to inspire their supporters to come out in enough force as to render any opposition movement redundant. As the political scene in the US indicates, they transform the nature of politics into something quite dramatically alien to a tightly-run system of party selection, as operates in the UK and most European countries.

The difference to PR, which is where most electoral reformers start to back away from the bandwagon, is that primaries have enormous potential to cement the two-party system even further.

It would also be fair to suggest that they weaken the party system, albeit in a rather different way to most electoral reformers seem to be in favour of. The party system becomes far more democratic and far more open to a diverse array of candidates geographically — the US is also an example of this. In a true primary system, where party registration is unnecessary to stand for selection or to vote for it, parties become “broadchurch” entities, where voters can shape them rather than simply elect them, and can secure a minority platform even within a majority party. Though this is technically possible in all systems, it is more of a rarity in British and continental politics.

Of course, the difference to PR, which is where most electoral reformers start to back away from the bandwagon, is that primaries have enormous potential to cement the two-party system even further, despite weakening internal party systems. The reasons for this are multiple.

One of them we have already seen — as they open up the party system to a demonstrable extent, many people would not see the point of third parties anymore. If a party is broadchurch and malleable enough to a minority force, then it often becomes a far more efficient way of entering the political system than the headache of setting up a third party, risking splitting the vote, and fighting an uphill media battle. The electoral glass ceiling is impenetrable enough within first past the post systems such as Britain’s, but the addition of primaries might well institutionalise the two-party system for good — particularly if they are legislated for the two largest parties.

For there could be serious practical objections to any attempt to legislatively extend primaries beyond the main two parties. The first is simply financial. Primaries cost a serious amount of money, and if parties cannot pay for this themselves, then the only alternative is what would amount to de facto funding of the political party process, something I imagine the Conservatives might strongly back away from.

Even if one could ensure that all political parties received independently run primary elections for their selection procedures, the electorate would find themselves inundated with elections. This would raise multiple concerns about media reporting of the primary process too, for if party selection processes are being interfered with to ensure fairness and transparency, the call will immediately be made to do the same for the media’s reporting of it.

Then there is the question of how small parties would cope with a lack of demand for primaries in the first place. For ever constituency contested, there would have to be a minimum of two willing to stand for candidacy. Attempting to create primary elections in every constituency to compete with mainstream parties could squeeze the number of constituency elections small parties are capable of fighting, and thus damn them either for not having sufficient candidates to satisfy primaries, or not being able to contest the optimum number of constituencies.

Rob 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, despite the practical limitations on the scope for legislating for primaries, they satisfy both the criteria of improving the electoral system, and boosting interest in further, more comprehensive electoral reform?

As we have seen, despite practical considerations, the germ of an idea in theory looks to be a hugely beneficial, corrective of a democratic deficit that exists in safe constituencies, open to greater voter choice and, critically, participation. I clearly agree with Rob of the need to treat the idea of primaries seriously, and that the recent attempts to suggest them have been lacking and, possibly, cynical.

I also consider his argument, that primaries could be a way of cementing interest in electoral reform, to be a compelling one. It is certainly true that it cannot be stated with confidence that introducing primaries would “kill off” the idea of electoral reform, as it would move it high up on the radar, and be certain to stimulate debate, of a quite new kind in British politics, which would be impossible to call. I perhaps think that it is a risk, and that a Conservative government in power could be looking seriously at the prospect of arguing primaries as a way of influencing the electoral reform debate in favour of its own interests, as I have blogged before.

One thing that I perhaps feel very strongly that those on the left (which I make the assumption, perhaps erroneously, that the author of the previous article might broadly include himself with) should feel very cautious about the long-term implications of primaries, in terms of the basis of electoral politics. Now, the left in general, and I am probably stereotyping quite dangerously here, have tended to stress the important of social equality of access and opportunity, particularly recently, with the movement of politics away from the post-war consensus into more liberal territory over the last few decades. Not just social mobility, but an equal start for all groups in society to attain the same opportunities, has been an important theme. The levelling of a playing field that might be tilted at birth, if not culturally loaded against certain social groups.

This explains why argument for electoral reform has tended to be greater among those on the left than those on the right until recently, for the basis of our electoral system is already individualist in structure (with constituencies being directly, individually represented in theory, with no institutional mechanism of party driving the process). Granted, there is a lot more to the debate than this — the system also invariably results in governments to whom the idea of electoral reform is politically undesirable, and the predominance of conservative governments in the latter half of the 20th century doubtlessly also has something to do with the predominance of the debate among the left.

But it is equally undeniable that the broad structure of the debate has tended to be a contrasting of PR against the current system, despite the fact that there are many more nuances to it which often go ignored. Hence the confusion of the media as to exactly what the Alternative Vote is, with Simon Heffer pronouncing it to be a grand plan of Gordon Brown to stay in power through PR, a nonsensical argument. And most systems of PR, and even other alternative systems such as STV, fundamentally change the individualist dynamic of the electoral system, either subjecting it to collective correction in the form of a party mechanism (PR systems), or securing far more moderate outcomes within which collectives can play a more dynamic role (STV).

Both of these corrections enable one crucial thing: they greatly increase the ability of collectives (parties) to ensure greater social access for under-represented social groups. They greatly increase the scope for corrective representation, though naturally they do not guarantee it, for I am sure that certain parties, such as the BNP, would not be interested in furthering this goal. But even there, one could argue that a PR or Moderate Representation system would correct the nature of political representation through the BNP, as one could argue that fascists and racists are under-represented in our national parliament. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is an argument one rarely hears from advocates of PR.

So it is understandable, and in fact natural, that those broadly on the left should favour electoral reform in the direction of PR or similar alternatives, for it has enormous potential to ensure greater social access and equality of opportunity through the political system. The effect of primaries, however, could be in the opposite direction; for primaries open a huge can of worms when it comes to social opportunity and the electoral system.

Firstly, primaries greatly lengthen the election process, immediately adding a burden that will fall disproportionately onto candidates who come from the most disadvantaged circumstances. Though one could argue that this might potentially increase the willingness of parties to direct resources at securing representation of these sort of candidates, this strikes me as grasping at straws, and having far too much faith in the nature of parties, particularly if they were opened up American-style.

Secondly, primaries are problematic from the campaign finance perspective. If you impose strident caps upon individual candidacies, then it is difficult for the primary to be a meaningful one, as candidates will struggle to make themselves heard. In this case, it is quite possible that candidates from disadvantaged circumstances will still disproportionately suffer, as in an election of style and not substance, they could quite forseeably find it hardest on average to appeal to a broad base. Indeed, one could make the case that such candidates would need to spend considerably more than more conventional candidates to receive the same chances, meaning a simple cap upon campaign spending would not be sufficient to level the playing field.

Of course, allow candidates to spend freely in an effort to make the primary process more meaningful and debate-driven, and you have all of the strings that come attached with high-spending primary campaigns, last year’s US presidential primaries being a good example, with Barak Obama backtracking from a campaign promise concerning campaign spending. Another alternative could be complete party funding of primary candidacies, which is problematic from two angles: it would deliver parties an inordinate amount of leverage over the supposedly independent campaigns of the candidates, and it would be unfeasible to think of legislating to such an intrusive degree — and it is incredibly unlikely that all parties would take up such an approach.

And even if neither of these drawbacks existed, there would still be the problem that, in a US open-party style system of primary selection, the process would become far more mainstream and parties would have fewer resources to use the selection process to correct social deficiencies of representation, meaning that the electoral process would become more closed off to candidates from disadvantaged circumstances, and thus disadvantaged social groups would be fighting an even more uphill battle to secure political representation. Thus the problems with primaries appear not only practical but also ideological, and could conceivably have long-term consequences for representation, opportunity and collective opportunities within the electoral system.

  1. […] be fair, I believe his response to the first question is quite reasonable. Though, as I blogged on The Daily Soapbox, a spending cap could well be utterly insufficient in terms of helping disadvantaged candidates and […]

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