Are primaries the way to renew our democracy?

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on July 8, 2009
Posted Under: Elections

votingWhen Americans went to the polls last year it was not only the success of Obama that gave us a jolt. Popular perceptions of the States – long saturated with George Bush, the stolen election and frequently traded statistics about how many Americans own passports – were confronted with a different vision of American politics. As McCain and Obama battled  for their respective nominations before finally facing off, we witnessed a level of mass participation that left us inspired, and perhaps even a little envious.

Against this background, and with our longstanding sense of political malaise now revved up a notch, the idea of bringing primaries to the UK  is gaining something of a toehold. In late May the Olympics minister Tessa Jowell called for Labour to introduce primary elections open to non-members. More recently, Will Straw, writing in the Guardian, advocated making primaries part of the whole procedure of British elections. “Though many constituency Labour parties remain vibrant and representative of the local community”, he argued, “do we really think that a CLP [Constituency Labour Party] with 200 members can make a democratic choice?”

Certainly the idea of primaries does seem to address the situation we have before us. I don’t need to reel off the depressing statistics from recent elections to convince you that vast swathes of people feel currently feel unrepresented by the major parties. Nonetheless I sympathise with the unease expressed by grassroots Labour supporters over the idea. Taking away the power of CLP’s to select candidates would, as Alex Hilton puts it, ‘finally turn Labour membership into nothing more than a supporters club.’

The question is whether we want political parties which are simply ‘representative of the community’, to quote Straw’s piece.  Political associations are crucial to a democracy because, in theory at least, they enable citizens to engage in collective action and thus to shape politics far more profoundly than they can as individual electors. Ideally, political parties should be a means by which people with a common sense of purpose pool their energies, develop programmes and policies, and win support for their collective ideas.  Their role should not simply be to reflect the political landscape but also to make it. As such they must be able to come to important decisions – which surely include their choice of candidates – internally.

“Yes”, I hear you retort, “but for all your guff about political  associations,  the British party system today is  lightyears away from the world of Jacobin clubs and sans-coulettes”. And you would be right.  As things stand, Britain is dominated by two major parties in which just a tiny  fraction of our nation choose to  enjoy any formal influence, and in which an even smaller minority exercise any real influence. Primaries would enable a broader constituency to exercise power over these all-powerful organisations, but merely as voters, not as partners or as activists.

There is, however, an alternative to simply pushing our major parties to bring society in from the cold. It almost goes without saying that the current electoral system maintains our current  duopoly so powerfully and so artificially that it is barely susceptible to shifts in public opinion. With this in mind, it might just be that the reason millions of people say that nobody represents them is not that those people are stupid, depoliticised or cynical, but because where major parties do not appeal, newer parties are effectively barred from filling the void. If some form of PR were brought in, the rise of small,  or ‘marginal’, political parties would not be the unfortunate side-effect of a fairer electoral system. Rather, it would represent a step forward,  in enabling  our diverse and well educated society to play a genuinely creative role in politics – and to do so in far greater numbers.

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Reader Comments


Spot on, in my opinion. Lots of people talk about one of the advantages of a first past the post system being guaranteed stability, but in this country stability has led to stagnation. Whilst the political fragmentation involved in PR could throw up some pretty distasteful results, such as BNP representation, the chance to actually vote for a party that expresses your views might help to re-engage a lot of people with politics

Written By Mike on July 9th, 2009 @ 10:34 am

I agree Mike. The way to tackle the BNP is not by restraining democracy, which is what ‘stability’ amounts to. We need to tackle their ideas and offer alternatives to them which people can believe in. I agree that a change in the electoral system is a potential way to make that happen.

Written By Salman Shaheen on July 9th, 2009 @ 11:15 am

Electoral turnout in the last US election is estimated at about 61.6% Last British election turnout was 61.36%. Over the past 40 years, despite having primaries, the turnout in American elections has been consistently lower than the United Kingdom by about 15-20%. So it would seem any envy we felt about the American political system may be more to do with the quality of the winner rather than their primary system. Arguably the States is the country where the candidates from the two major political parties end up being the most similar on the issues and the least diverse on a left/right political spectrum leaving many voters unrepresented.

I agree with you on PR to an extent although actually the electoral system chosen for European elections (and aspects of the London, Scottish and Welsh elections) actually provides a lot of power to the political parties. By forcing people to vote for a party and creating a list, rather than voting for individuals, voters have little say over who gets elected. Parties could then continue to choose candidates that reflect the status quo and lead to even more of the stagnation that Mike mentioned. For instance in last Welsh assembly elections a number of candidates overwhelmingly rejected by voters in constituency counts were still elected to represent the area on the ‘top up’ list.

Any electoral system therefore has to ensure that voters continue to vote for candidates. The best system is STV in multimember constituencies. In this scenario voters have a huge amount of influence. For instance a eurosceptic tory could give his higher preference votes to tories with their views and punish committed pro-European tories by giving higher preference votes to UKIP. Socialists could punish New Labour candidates by placing them lower than Greens and LibDems. STV also makes many more seats in the electoral system marginal. If you have constituencies with 3-5 seats who wins the final seat is almost always going to be competitive. This would force parties to engage with all voters rather than the few percent whose potential vote has a disproportionate influence in the relatively small number of marginal constituencies.

This strikes me as far more effective than running primaries as there would be a huge number of potential problems of setting up primaries that would be widespread. I won’t bother listing them as for the most part they are dependent partly on how they are run – open or closed primaries for instance.

Written By Greg on July 10th, 2009 @ 11:50 am

Greg, the point about the similarity of candiates in the states is significant. The potential for primaries to add further force to the ‘race to the centre’ is one of the reasons that I fear them, and that some in the new labour establishment like them. Indeed in putting the case for primaries Tessa Jowell quoted Ben Brandzel in arguing “”Mass movements open to anyone … will always be pulled towards the commonsense centre…[that's] why the London citizens’ agenda called for things like ensuring the Olympic Village creates public housing – not erecting statues to Che.”

I broadly agree with what you say in STV. One thing I would say, is that regarding the balance of power between voters and parties, I don’t believe democrats have an a priori duty to push the former at the expense of the latter. As I say in my original post political associations are as crucial democracy as individual electors. The problem is that right now they are not the vehicle for pluralistic popular power that they should be – but alot could be sorted out by getting the fuck rid of FPTP.

Written By Reuben on July 10th, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

BTW when i referred to mass participation I wasn’t just talking about the voting figures. I was also talking abou these people:

Written By Reuben on July 10th, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

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