On primaries

All the talk about changing British politics recently has got me thinking about primary elections, especially as they’ve been mentioned by many people as a way to open up the political process. Of course, as a supporter of the Single Transferable Vote, I’m not necessarily convinced they are the best way, but I have seen the primary process in action during my time in the US and that’s prompted a few thoughts about the ways in which they could be used in the UK.

The first thought that springs to mind is that primaries would fit in very well with fixed-term Parliaments. If we know the date of the next General Election well in advance, it’s easy to fix the dates of primaries to link with that (perhaps around six months previously, as is common in the US system). It’d also make it possible to put in new rules on spending limits when there’s a longer and more clearly defined period between being chosen as a party’s candidate and the primary.

Secondly, primaries – at least, ones using the US model – make the somewhat more fraud-proof systems of individual voter registration more appealing. If we’re looking at a system where we’re targeting party identification rather than party membership, that’s the sort of thing that people can choose to include when they register to vote, should they so wish.

There would still be a role for party membership in this model, though – someone has to do the organising! While anyone who identified as a party supporter would be able to vote in its primaries, those who were members would be the ones who set the rules for their party with regard to how you qualified to be a candidate in that primary, how the party’s funds are spent in campaigns as well as selecting more local candidates (at least initially, I’m not sure that primaries for local Council candidates would be worthwhile – in terms of cost/benefit, rather than principle, at least).

What the local party memberships could also decide would be who was allowed to take part in their primaries – would it be just identified party supporters, or would they also allow those who were registered as supporting no party to join in? As can be seen from the American system, there are pros and cons to both sides – you can widen your appeal by allowing everyone in, but then you have to accept who they choose as your candidate.

I’m not completely convinced primaries are what Britain needs, but they’re an interesting idea to consider. The biggest potential drawback I can see is that parties won’t want to give up their power over the selection process and would allow only a small number of candidates to even compete in a primary. Then, rather than having a genuine choice between different types of candidates representing different strands of opinion within their party, you just end up with voters being faced with the choice between Generic Party Candidate A and Generic Party Candidate B.

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