Thoughts on primaries and electoral reform
I’ve read a lot of articles recently about “primaries” to select candidates for political parties – most from Labour Party sources – but not all – a surprisingly convincing argument is made by current bête noire Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph article A primary objective: make MPs answer to the people . There’s also a far more comprehensive list of web resources to be found on the Progress website, where supporters are also invited to sign up in support of Primaries.
So have I been converted ?
Well what I have recognised is the need for a change.
It can of course be argued that parties are for members, and that they alone should choose the candidates. Yet in many seats they aren’t just selecting the candidate they are “de facto” selecting the MP. I’m not sure how many people do this but a look at tonight’s results from the St Alban’s Conservatives’ reselection of MP Anne Main MP shows the problem – 144 votes to 20.
A grand total of 164 people potentially deciding the next MP – although the sheer absurdity of that may well ultimately decide that they do not.
It’s also clear that there are other things that may need to change. If we accept Hannan’s figure that 70% of seats are effectively “safe” – then that means that approximately 35% of the electorate – those who vote against the “safe” candidate – have no say whatsoever in the make up of parliament.
Ironically the voters for the safe candidate are also likely to have less say than other constituencies in who represents them – since they are more likely to have candidates from outside the area “parachuted” (why do they always use that word ?) in order to ensure that those likely to hold ministerial office are more likely to be elected.
So in theory primaries seem like a good idea – open up the contest, and make the selection of candidates more responsive to local electorates. I can see that – it makes sense, and I can see also that there are ways of limiting the expense – holding the polls on the same day – limiting the publicity that candidates are allowed to present, and there needn’t really be any need for pre-registering. It would seem that if all parties have their primaries on the same day, then you turn up on the day, give your number, and are given 3 ballot papers (maybe more) – of which you must return only one – you choose which to return.
I can see how this can work. There are however, so many imponderables :
If you did a primary like this and published the results you’d have a dry run for the election – an opinion poll to end all opinion polls because it would have the support of the returning officer. This WILL affect the real election.
The issue of when to have primaries will also affect the issue of when to have elections – because you will have to have primaries in good time before an election. This effectively means an end to the incumbent party deciding when to have an election – it means fixed term parliaments. Which presumably also means shorter terms – perhaps three years.
All of which is achievable if the will is there.
I’m not certain that the will really is there though, because for primaries to really deliver it will take a radical reshaping of the mode of Government we have. There won’t be the possibility of placing top candidates in safe seats anymore. So how will you decide cabinet posts ?– how will you ensure that the party leader gets a seat ?, or the deputy ?
Well these are things that I don’t know – but I’d suggest that it will need a transformation of the electoral system – Local MP’s being selected by primaries, but also MP’s selected proportionally to a list – by ballot of party members. This would allow for key candidates – the leader & potential cabinet members to be allocated top places in the list, and for lower places to go to candidates who preferred to go for selection to a list rather than locally – giving members in seats that are safe for opposing parties a chance at running for parliament, and voters in those constituencies a chance to elect someone in the party they vote for.
All in all quite a set of changes – and these are the ones just off the top of MY head – I’m sure that some of the political theory wonks have got all this stuff just waiting to trot out. I’ll be reading with interest.
But for now – my opinion is : Primaries – Yes ! – but only with accompanying radical electoral reform, and only with a dramatic shift in the collective will of the governing parties.
With the state of politics as it is now though this could be the only time to push through something as radical and new as this – and if Gordon Brown is to lead Labour to election victory, then embracing electoral reform, and making a real difference to the way politicians represent the people may just be the only way he will achieve that.
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