Why openupnow’s open primaries won’t work

Openupnow.org is yet another organisation that has jumped on the current political bandwagon for open primaries.It looks a great campaign, but… and it’s a very big but, it’s very badly thought out.

The idea of open primaries is very seductive, emotionally I think they are brilliant. The open primaries between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, not only gripped the USA, but they gripped the rest of the world, even people who wouldn’t normally be interested in politics. But the UK, isn’t the USA and there are lots of reasons and barriers as to why open primaries won’t work in the UK. The campaign strikes me as very naive and I’d question how much experience the contributors have of real life grass roots politics in the UK. The problem is that well-meaning people read and listen to the political news of mainstream media and take it as the truth. In fact journalists very rarely have any real insight into how political party selection processes work. And when they do have ‘sources’ it is nearly always selection candidates who have an axe to grind.I’ve personal experience of Labour Party selection processes having seen and helped run them as party worker, participated as a candidate and helped friends through the process. I’ve also got direct knowledge of how Conservative Party selections work.

One of the clues is that even Open Up’s basic assumptions are wrong. It says ‘That’s why we want the people, not the politicians, to select who stands for election.’ That’s kind of what happens now. In none of the three main parties do politicians select candidates.The media might like to portray constituency selections in both the Conservatives and Labour being manipulated and controlled by senior politicians, but in actual fact this rarely happens and even if they do try then it’s still local members who make the final decision.

Just some of the reasons why open primaries can’t work in the UK include:

Cost to the taxpayer

An open primary means every voter in a constituency has an opportunity to vote. That means putting in place quite a complex system of either postal votes, ballot stations or both. The cost per constituency would be approximately £40,000 or almost £25m for the whole country. That’s for one party to do it. Even if the political parties ran their primaries simultaneously the cost would be higher than the £40,000. One of the drawbacks of running them simultaneously is that it would be intensely confusing for voters and make it extremely difficult for candidates to achieve any sort of real recognition or engagement. If the three main parties ran them separately the cost would escalate to £75m and then we’ve got the additional cost of all the minor parties.

No political party could sustain this level of cost and there is already enough controversy about how parties fundraise without forcing them into trying to raise even more. The only alternative that I can see is state funding and I can’t envisage any public enthusiasm for that. Even if the public was willing to accept state funding of political parties I’m not sure that spending that sort of money on primaries would be the best way to use it.

Cost to the candidates

Anyone who has been through a selection process will be able to tell you how expensive it is personally, both in time and real money. And that’s only to campaign and influence a few hundred local party members. If you open it up to an entire constituency then the cost and effort becomes phenomenal. How do the well meaning souls at Open Up propose that this is paid for? The fact is that most of them have never done it. It would give a massively unfair advantage to candidates who are wealthy enough to fund it themselves, which is hardly good for opening up politics. Even more disturbingly it would give lobbyists, pressure groups, trade unions etc enormous scope for ‘packing’ the Commons with their placemen and women. Candidates could be bribed into supporting or attacking specific policies, giving the ordinary voter even less influence.We will end up with a House of Commons that is less representative of the country as a whole.

Less engagement in politics

All political parties are suffering from falling memberships (not just in the UK, but in many countries). One of the most important decisions that most grassroots members can make is to vote in selecting who their parliamentary candidate will be. It’s a rare and precious right and is one of the reasons why members are willing to tramp the streets in all weathers delivering leaflets and knocking on doors. What open primaries do is to effectively disenfranchise the very people who do the most to improve grassroots public engagement in politics. Open primaries won’t lead to more engagement and interest in politics, it will to less.

Fixes a problem that doesn’t exist

Open primaries are an American idea that were designed to solve specific issues with the political process in the USA. In the US they don’t have the same organised political structures that exist and campaign all year round. Instead they come together around elections and focus on candidates rather than parties. That’s partially because of the clear division in the US constitution between the executive, legislature and judiciary. In the UK we don’t have a written constitution that makes that split. We vote for the party that will from the government. Open primaries in the US were also partially a response to the graft and corruption associated with Tammany Hall politics.

We don’t have the same issues in the UK, so the open primaries solution won’t fix it. Politics in the UK does have issues and does need help and solutions to make it work better, but open primaries aren’t it. Open Up could have been a great campaign if they’d put the same energy and resources into campaigning for improvements to the British political process that would make a real difference, instead of just jumping on the latest fashionable political bandwagon.


About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.
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  • http://www.openupnow.org Becky Hogge

    Hi Stuart

    Thanks for engaging with the campaign – it’s much appreciated. I’ve pulled out some of the questions you’ve raised for a blog Q&A we’re doing on the Open Up! site later this week, but if you’d like to engage more directly, just leave a comment in this post:

    http://blog.openupnow.org/2009/10/20/questions-ask-vernon/

  • http://mill-industries.com Eric Mill

    Disclaimer: I am a US citizen, not UK. But I have friends who work in and care about the UK government and democracy.

    Your first couple points don’t make much of an impact for me. Cost shouldn’t be a concern here; primaries are expensive, but vastly worth it.

    Your third point about disengaging local party activists is interesting (I wouldn’t have thought of it) but the potential rewards of engaging the citizenry at large is too important to put the interests of a small group ahead of a large one. Party activists here in the US work as hard (or harder) during the primaries as during the general election. It’s more doors to knock and more people to get involved in the campaign; it only grows the political machine of modern US campaigns.

    Primaries in the US are a response to a complicated set of factors, more than just Tammany Hall, and have only opened up gradually over the last century, state by state. At this point, we’re sticking with them and people are never going to give up their right to choose their candidates.

    The basic win of having a primary is for your MP to be vulnerable to political pressure from either side. It gives both the left and right a voice and leverage in guiding a politician’s behavior, and that’s a valuable tool in any democracy, US or otherwise.