Open Primaries and Democracy

Since my own favoured candidate dropped out of the race and was replaced by a candidate who I had doubts about (and who has also now fallen by the wayside) I have lost interest in the London Mayoral election.

However there is a post on the Our Kingdom site which I found interesting, not because of its implications for London, but because of a move by the Conservative Party that might have implications on a wider scale.

OK asked supporters of four of the candidates to present a “democratic” case for their mayoral candidate. Amongst the claims made by the Tory's supporter was this claim:

Boris was selected to be the Conservative candidate by open primary. This means that every Londoner was able to help decide that he should be the Conservative candidate - and shows that Boris is more than merely the candidate for one party, but for all Londoners. The current U.S. presidential election campaign has demonstrated how open primaries can transform the democratic process. We believe that all those standing for public office should be selected in this way .

I understand that Glyn Davies was selected as the PPC for Montgomeryshire in a similar fashion.

This trend worries me. The number of people voting in British elections has declined as the influence of US election practices has increased on these shores. One of the worst examples has been for parties to decide policy based on the views of focus groups rather than on the views of party activists. This has resulted in the main parties having almost indistinguishable manifestos because all their policies are based on the views of focus groups constituted by the same social profiles. It has also devalued the roll of the party activist. If the activist no longer has a voice in party policy, s/he is no longer enthused to do the donkey work needed to get the paarty candidate elected – canvassing, leafleting, licking envelopes, postering, knocking up etc.

If party activists can't even select their own candidates, if candidates are selected by open to all meetings then there will be even less difference between candidates than there is now and even less reason for people to get involved in party politics, or even to vote in elections.

If I can vote in an open primary I'm going to vote for a conservative Welsh nationalist to stand for Plaid, Labour, Conservative, Green and even UKIP in this constituency! But if six political clones stand in a general election, is there any reason to go out and vote?

If focus groups and primaries decide who stands for my party, your party, his and her party - why on earth should we waste money on party membership, never mind waste time on party work?


  1. I agree with your point about focus groups and all parties having the same policies, but one thing you need to understand about the primaries in America is that you only get to vote in one. In America, I am registered Democrat, which means that I get to vote in the Democratic primary, but not the Republican. There is no situation where it would be possible for you to vote in primaries for PC, Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dem candidates -- you can only vote in one.

  2. you raise an interesting point, but for every Glyn Davies you get though this type of process you also get a Boris Johnson, i suspect that when it comes to the crunch the Conservatives, like all parties, will find a way of getting their preferred candidates on the ballot paper.

  3. Welsh Lobbyist - I'm not sure the Conservatives would have wanted Boris. Linton Crosby has had his work cut out keeping Boris under control, and David Cameron has had to assure people that he will have lots of advisers round to keep him on track.

    I think Boris won because he was on the telly. Look out for the winner of Big Brother standing in a constituency near you :(

    Like trick or treat, we copy America, but not very well. As Jessica says, you should be a registered supporter of that party.

    I remember in the 1983 Labour leadership elections, a lot of trade unionists balloted their members as to how they should cast their vote. I remember a lot of Tory trade unionists bragging how they had voted for the Heffer - Meacher nightmare ticket. So I'm off to vote for the swivel eyed nutter in any Conservative primary in my area. Trouble is, they will probably get elected.

  4. leftfield, I was praising Glyn Davies not Boris Johnson, you seem to misunderstand my comments.

  5. I was indeed selected to contest Montgomeryshire by open primary - two advertised public meetings held at Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain and Carno. The only condition was that people registered before the meeting. I know that there were supporters of other parties present - but they did not come for any negative reason. The same process was used to select Jonathon Evans in Cardiff North - which incidentally gave a great platform to the runner-up, Kay Swinbourne, who has since become top of our Euro-list. Open primaries are a very good system for choosing candidates, but it does depend on opposition activists not setting out to undermine our efforts to promote democracy and interest in politics in this way. And I do want to add that I think Boris Johnson will prove to be an excellent Mayor of London.