Tuesday 26 May 2009

Why open primaries are a really bad idea

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.


Anthony Painter said...

Fine. But Stuart, you don't address the notion of closed primaries (which I have advocated for a while- with strict limits on expenditure.) Every consituency has hundreds of people who have declared themselves to be party supporters. They have associated themselves with the party in so doing- 'freedom of association'- why not involve them in selections? Should we really be questioning whether their values are really Labour values? I have no idea whether they are centrist or not- no research has ever been done. But I do know that they have an active interest in Labour politics and so in the candidates that are selected.

If you are arguing that local selections controlled by self-selecting cabals of a few dozen local activists is a better way of selecting candidates then I have to strongly disagree with you. That is a system that is eminently open to capture- by all sorts of groups from all sorts of perspectives but it just takes a relatively small number. Democratic and liberal? Anything but.

Stuart White said...

Anthony: my post is clearly addressed specifically to open primaries. I agree that closed primaries are much less problematic and may be better than the present system.

Anthony Painter said...


Robert said...

It does not really matter labour will find a way of having the person it wants slipped in, we need to ensure that local constituencies have the final say on whom works for them not Blair or Brown which is what happened in my area last time.

Unknown said...

A thought provoking article.

However, the way the Tories have it working is ( as I understand it ) that the local party still has right of refusal of whichever candidate is selected by open primary. This would go some way to invalidate the "you would only get centrists" argument if implemented by other parties too.

I tend to disagree with the point being made by analogy to the Kirk - it is a poor analogy: with prospective MPs, the general public will be being asked to vote for such candidates, whether or not the public belongs to any political party.

An interesting and thought provoking article nevertheless.

donpaskini said...

Hi Stuart,

Interesting, but I don't think your concerns about open primaries are the main ones.

Your hypothetical "median voter" is going to hold very different views depending on where they live - so an open primary in Oxford or Camden is going to be very different to one in rural Sussex or Cornwall. I also think that supporters of a political party are vastly more likely to take part than people who don't usually vote for it.

Additionally, people don't just vote for the person who is ideologically closest to them - other qualities like track record in serving the local community, their background etc. are likely to be more important.

And crucially, the "median voter" isn't going to go and vote in an open primary. The Tories get about 100-200 people to take part in their "primaries", and if the means of election involves going to a meeting to listen to speeches and vote, the numbers aren't feasibly going to be much higher than that. The only way to get higher turnout is by having ballot boxes all over the place, but no political party here can afford that (it would be a terrible waste of resources).

So my concern with open primaries is rather different. At the moment, it is feasible to communicate with the entire electorate in a party selection (about 300-1000 people). In contrast, it just isn't possible or worth the effort to try to contact 60,000 people, and it is hard to work out where the supporters of your party live (unlike in America where the information is publicly available).

Of these, hardly anyone is going to turn up randomly - it will be either existing activists or people who one or other candidate has contacted and persuaded to come along.

So the optimal strategy for candidates is to win the support of people who can get lots of voters along to a meeting to go to vote.

This means that faith groups, community groups, and any others with large mailing lists in a particular geographical area become really important. Getting the backing of the local evangelical church or mosque becomes much more important than at present. I also think there are no real ways to prevent candidates spending large sums of money on trying to win - spending limits are really easy to get around.

Having access to the voter ID data for the constituency also becomes a much bigger advantage.

MatGB said...

The big thing I don't get in this vogue for 'open primaries' is that no one advocating it seems to have done their homework.

Int he US, in the small number of states that use Open primaries, all voters that register to support your party and those that have not registered to support a different party get to vote in the selection. In other words, only the swing voters and your own voters get to vote.

How would that work in the UK—make everyone declare their preference on the electoral register? No thanks, it's daft in the US where there are only 2 main parties, but over here?

Also, primaries are paid for out of taxpayer money, yet still get piss poor turnout.

We have closed primaries (at least in the Lib Dems and I'm told Labour), but the cost of taking part is covered in the small minimum membership fee. It's not a small elite who decide the candidates, it's all the registered members, and joining is dirt cheap. It's a non issue and an unworkable non-starter, concentrate on stuff that's worth fighting for, like the referendum on electoral reform we were promised in '97 and that got my then support.

Anthony Painter said...

Don, I hate to say it but your numbers are completely out. The average Labour membership is way below the minimum that you state. In a constituency where there are 200 members (not untypical), a normal selection will involve around 100 or so of the members. A group of around 15 or so can effectively control the outcome- they will all influence two to three people (sometimes people who have been recruited just for the purposes of influencing a selection.) I just don't think that's healthy at all.

MattGB, the Labour party does not have anything resembling a primary at all. It doesn't even have anything resembling a caucus. I can't speak for the Lib Dems. We couldn't adopt the US system here so it's a non-starter. However, we could adopt a closed primary system where registered Labour supporters (of which there are a considerable number in each constituency- 1000 or more in many cases) could take part. That would test candidates' wider campaigning experience, broader appeal AND bring outsiders into Labour party processes which is healthy.

Open to abuse? You bet. But is it more open to abuse than a system where you just need 50 votes or so bag a safe seat? Absolutely not. However, there would have to be serious spending caps- I don't see why these are impractical- it's obvious what candidates are spending.

Sunder Katwala said...

I am not convinced by Stuart's argument. I particularly think the idea that it "would strike a fatal blow to one of the basic freedoms of a liberal society: freedom of association" is overstated.

That could be argued if a law were to be passed determining how political parties must be organised, including how they should select their candidates. I don't think it could hold if, for example, most members of a party thought this would be in the interests of the party and its cause. There might be an empirical question of whether such a move had broad support within a party; but in a case where it did so, the freedom of association idea would surely support their choosing to invite outsiders to participate in various ways. (It is true to say that there are insider/outsider and/or some activist/member/supporter tensions and dilemmas here: I am not convinced they are necessarily zero-sum.

As Anthony says, whether the "Labour community" is only to be identified as "party members" can be debated when party membership is under 200,000 and party identification is many times that. Fabian polling for our 'Facing Out' pamphlet suggests there is a group of at least 2.5 million Labour identifiers, active in political engagement outside parties, and interested in participation in Labour activity without becoming members. (This was a fairly restrictive definition of politically active too). The polling is reported under item 9 of this memo to an NEC submission in 2007.

I am a (moderate) supporter of opening up selections - though I don't think this is necessarily any sort of magic bullet in changing the culture of the party. A lot of different detailed methods probably have different pros or cons.

For example, I think Stuart's criticism is a more valid one of a system where the party has to hold a primary ballot, and where anybody at all can put in as a candidate, and anybody can choose to vote in it. That could be said to dissolve the party as a candidate selection mechanism.

But there are various hybrid methods too: for example, there could still be rules about who can stand (eg being a party member for a year or whatever); there could be a nomination process within party structures; and then a vote open to either the general public or to anybody nominating themselves as a supporter

I am not sure - in practice - whether there is much difference between an 'anybody can come along' and 'you have to say "I'm Labour".

There has also probably to date not been an enormous difference between Tory association meetings of members and Tory open primaries, except that the party does get to engage and involve supportive non-members. Party members do retain a good deal of influence and voice.

I think Don's worries about possible capture could be a genuine problem in some cases if it is opened up without a step change in participation.

And the change could be a useful practical and symbolic way to get parties and party members to face out and connect more people connected with party politics. (Local parties should not simply be forums for candidate selection. I understand the concern that there are very few tangible routes of influence, and this could dilute one of them, but this probably points to a broader uncertainty about what parties and party members are for).

donpaskini said...

Hi Anthony,

Not clear what you mean by 'registered supporters' for Labour selections? Is this the Labour Supporters Network?

I wouldn't support using that to determine eligibility to be involved in a selection (or, at least, people on the supporters' network should have to at least make some kind of financial contribution if they want to take part). Otherwise there is pretty much no point at all being a member of the Labour Party.

As for spending limits, when are you going to apply them from? If you start them from when the selection is announced, then it gives a massive advantage to insiders (who will have been able to use the previous months or even years before the selection is announced to sign people up, campaign with unlimited resources etc.)

As for the current system - you don't need 50 votes to bag a safe seat. In most cases you need the support of the Regional Office and the backing of the retiring MP or a senior minister. I agree that this is not a very good process.

Anthony Painter said...

Don, just to answer your points.

Supporters- they will be people on Labour Supporters Networks- but these are gathered in a variety of ways including on the doorstep. They would just have to sign a declaration that they were a Labour supporter say a week in advance of the selection (but I wouldn't be overly concerned if it was on the day either.) At that point, they would be asked for a donation but this would be voluntary. The last thing you want to do is pull down party walls only to re-erect them in other ways so I don't favour the 'fee' idea.

Party members are not instrumental in my experience. They are not members because of what they get. They are party members as an expression of personal commitment. I would be amazed if a well run local party engaging with its declared supporters in a variety of ways including in selections didn't increase its membership. Absolutely amazed. In a constituency in the West Midlands, we have been trying to engage supporters in party activities with some startling results. More soon....

On cash limits. You are right that insiders have an advantage. But that is not an argument against primaries- the current system has the same defect and worse. The difference is that in the current system if, as an outsider, you face a block of 30-40 people in favour of an insider candidate it is almost impossible to get over that. In a selectorate of 1000+ it would be much easier to get over that.