In the wake of the MPs' expenses fiasco lots of ideas are in the air about how to reform not only the expenses system but the wider political system. One idea getting some air time is the idea of open primaries.
Open primaries, as I understand the term, means that the selection of party candidates for elections is determined by the general public as well as by party members. The idea is bad because it is both highly illiberal and undemocratic.
Why is it illiberal? Well, consider a case which has some parallel. Over the past weekend the Church of Scotland debated whether or not to allow an openly gay man to become a church priest. This was, properly, a decision for the church members, not the general public. The Church of Scotland is defined by certain religious beliefs. It is properly up to the members of the church, who have these beliefs, to decide what is or isn't compatible with them. It would be quite inappropriate for people outside the community of belief to decide what follows from these beliefs and, therefore, to have a say in whether an openly gay man may or may not be a priest of the Church of Scotland.
To give the wider public this power would, in effect, be to dissolve the church as a distinctive community of shared belief. It would strike a fatal blow to one of the basic freedoms of a liberal society: freedom of association. Freedom of association is meaningless without the right to disassociate from those who have different or contrary beliefs to one's own. And key to that right of disassociation is the right to limit participation in crucial areas of church decision-making to members of the church.
Political parties are also communities of shared belief. I am not a member of the Labour party because I prefer the colour red to the colours yellow, blue or green, but because I have certain values and I judge the Labour party to be the best (if highly imperfect) vehicle for bringing these values to bear on the political system. In choosing candidates for an election, party members choose someone to stand up for these values, make the case for policies that reflect these values to the wider public, and act on them if elected.
Under an open primary system, however, party members would lose the ability to choose candidates who reflect the distinctive values of the party to which they belong. If an open primary system works, it means that candidates are chosen who reflect the values of the public at large. The political party thus loses the ability to stand candidates who offer ideas to the public who express its distinctive values and beliefs. What, one might say, is then the point of having political parties? The open primary effectively undermines political parties as communities of shared belief. As such, it is also a fundamental blow to freedom of association.
That's why the open primaries proposal is illiberal. But why is it also undemocratic?
A healthy democracy is one that presents voters at elections with real choices. Political parties, as communities of distinctive shared belief, are the main institution we use to frame choice. Under an open primary system, however, meaningful choice would be under threat. If the open primary system works, then all party candidates will end up looking pretty much like the median voter. Elections will become contests between centrists, and, given the absence of real policy or philosophical difference, will be determined more by issues of personality. That is bad for democracy.
Of course, any competitive electoral system generates pressure on parties to move to the centre to maximize votes (or, in the case of the our present, dysfunctional electoral system, to move to the centre in a small number of swing constituencies). But one check on this is that candidates and party platforms do have to address the views of party members as well the median voter. Under an open primary system that check on across-the-board centrism would be removed.
There is good evidence that one of the reasons for things like falling electoral turnout in contemporary democracies is precisely that parties do not offer voters sufficient choice. The open primary, ostensibly a way of putting the political system more in touch with the voter, would be likely to accentuate this in the long-term and so actually risks worsening lack of interest and engagement in the political system.
So, open primaries: illiberal and undemocratic. A populist measure, not a genuinely democratic republican one.