When 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.