We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up, in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last general election.
(Hat tip: Will Straw).
1. What will this cost?: I would estimate the cost of 200 primaries could be around £7.6 million, if each cost a similar amount to the £38,000 which the Conservative Party spent on an all-postal ballot of the Totnes electorate in the only all-postal ballot to date. (For context, the Ministry of Justice reports that the 2005 General Election cost around £80 million to run). The policy specifically excludes Sinn Fein, as well as those parties not in the Commons.
The Coalition has a rather contradictory approach to "cutting the cost of politics". It is going to reduce the number of MPs - making constituencies larger and MPs more remote - while increasing the number of Peers. David Cameron plans to increase the price of salads in the House of Commons to help close the deficit. Meanwhile, ConservativeHome says that the populist pledge to reduce the number of SPADs is one of the biggest teething problems for the government: "Reversing the SPADs promise should be Cameron’s first U-turn. Restricting the number doesn't save much money and, more importantly, they're vital to drive through policy".
Perhaps there is a "Nixon to China" principle that only the right-of-centre can successfully propose greater public funding of politics, without a right-wing backlash, where it believes this would assist democratic engagement.
2. Would parties get funding for primaries in seats they don't currently hold?
This is not immediately clear. It depends on what "targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years" means. The scale of the commitment suggests this 'safe seats' focus may be primarily rhetorical: 200 primaries could easily cover every case where a long-standing MP was standing down (in a safe or marginal seat) if the relevant party chose to do so in those cases.
The record number of retirements before 2010 amounted to 149 MPs standing down. With 227 new MPs in all in 2010, it is likely that the number of retirements during this Parliament will be lower than the average in recent Parliaments.
So there would still be not be anything close to 200 primaries unless parties could also hold them where challenging for a seat. (Of course, it would make no sense to do this in safe seats held by other parties, but rather in marginal target seats where the winner might become an MP).
3. Which parties would take part?
It would offend against freedom of association for the state to determine that each political party had to be structured or select its Parliamentary candidates in a particular way, as Stuart White has argued strongly.
The Coalition intends to give permission and encouragement (and quite a lot of public money) to those parties which want to use primaries.
The agreement implies that the Conservative share of the vote might give them public funding to hold more than 72 party primaries, with Labour being funded to hold at least 58 and the LibDems 46 or more. (This is a slight underestimate reflecting the three parties' share of the total General Election vote, including for parties not elected to the Commons: a further 24 primaries shared between major and minor parties, depending on how calculations were made for the parties specific to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein is explicitly excluded).
It is not clear that all parties would participate - this would depend on their own internal democratic debates - nor whether the number of primaries which any major party could hold would be affected (up or down) if only one or two parties did go ahead.
72 Conservative primaries would cost around £2.7 million, which is the largest new piece of public funding of a governing party we would have seen in recent British politics; for comparison, the party received £4.7 million of Short Money in opposition in 2009/10 while the LibDems received £1.75 million.
4. Will parties be allowed to use different models of primaries?
The Conservatives seem to favour, in principle, all-postal primaries of the entire electorate, though mostly held open caucus meetings because of the cost of primaries.
The Labour Party has had quite a lot of debate about primaries - you can find Next Left airing the debate extensively here. Progress have campaigned on the issue in the Labour Party, while Chuka Umunna says this is not a left v right issue in the party. Opinion is divided. The issue of cost has been one of the barriers; but the central focus has been about the nature of parties and what primaries mean for the role of members.
The Labour party model most likely to carry support would be a primary vote which was open to all of those willing to register as party supporters, rather than the entire electoral roll. (We need a much better name for these than "closed" primaries! Perhaps supporter primaries, or party primaries).
It is not clear whether the Coalition intends to mandate one specific Totness model as the only one which would be funded publicly, but that could well present a barrier to their use outside the Tory party. (All parties would probably maintain members' roles over the shortlisting of candidates: potentially, this could be developed into a pre-primary caucus model for members to shortlist candidates).
LibDems have mostly been sceptical about primaries. They have tended to see them as a distraction from proper electoral reform - ie, proportional representation. The Coalition Agreement attempts to neutralise the "safe seats" charge against the electoral system: why not give more people a greater stake in the choice of their Conservative or Labour MP, to mitigiate the impact of seats never changing party hands. (However, most of the Labour advocates of primaries back electoral reform too; that is also true of their most vocal Conservative champion, Douglas Carswell MP, though he has many more party allies on primaries than PR).
Does the Coalition commitment suggest a softening in the LibDem position, or was this a concession to the Conservatives to gain something elsewhere?
Another issue is how candidates can reach the general electorate. There are important concerns about excessive spending, yet the Totness limit of £200 meant there was effectively a vote with barely any opportunity to campaign at all). In any event, there would surely need to be thought given to how to regulate spending if these new contests were to become the norm.