Why the right veered towards Primaries as the left veered towards PR, when the sunlight briefly shone out on our Politicians.

The scramble towards constitutional reform when the sunlight, grandly taken advantage of by the Daily Telegraph, shone through a haze of mist on MPs expenses; was amusing from the perspective of a student of politics, even more so a thoroughly amateur one. For many reasons, quite a few obvious ones that do not need going into (such as the only tangential connection to the actual scandal itself), but one of the less remarked upon ones being the way in which each party”s line of direction so aptly reflected its historical ideologies.

One of the things which fascinated me the most was the way David Cameron played his hand. Ever on the nervous look out as the result of the more extravagant expense claims, perhaps not surprisingly, being disproportionately amongst his own party; he had to be careful to ensure that the field of debate was not captured by the left, or the government, both of whom have felt more comfortable in the field of Constitutional reform than the Conservatives in recent years (though admittedly, the Conservatives’ hiatus from government possibly had something to do with it). This is mostly due to the Conservatives’ historical attachment to traditional institutions and practices, and their recent savage opposition to any form of electoral reform (to the extent of applying arguments against PR to thoroughly non-PR alternative voting systems, as Cameron did in a recent Prime Minister’s Questions).

Shrewdly understanding that he could not compromise on this important — and recent — support of historic tradition in the Conservative party, coupled with his evident need to make a contribution to the debate, Cameron obviously spent a little time researching other forms of Constitutional reform that lie outside the field of alternative voting systems, enough so to have at least a better grasp of them, though the extent is debatable. When he made his move, therefore, he was able to talk with apparent ease about such diverse ideas as fixed-term parliaments, recall elections, and Primaries; as if they had been key to the conservative tradition all along.

Except to an extent, this wasn’t just clever manoeuvring, for though the latter isn’t demonstrably connectible to conservative thinking in recent years, it is far more palatable an idea to the right than it is left, and in a savage world where a possibility exists that one must choose between being reformers or being left out in the cold, it is not surprising that the right latch on to it with such fervour. Because introducing open primaries throws the political equivalent of a massive spanner in the works of the left’s agonisingly slow progress towards promoting reform of the voting system.

I was struck by Vernon Bogdanor’s contribution to the Indie’s ‘panel of experts’ analysing the expenses scandal back in May, that I only dug up today. In it, he says:

Primary elections would ensure that MPs were chosen by a wider group than the small unrepresentative cliques who often now act as an electoral college. In the long run, the single transferable vote method of PR would give every elector the chance to combine a vote in a general election with a vote in a primary election.

In it, Mr. Bogdanor seems to believe that a change to open primaries could be part of a gradual transition towards imposing the Single Transferable Vote. But I feel that this is a grave mistake to make.

Primaries are not perhaps quite as individualist as caucuses, but they are the closest democratic thing, and as such they would make the perfect reform for the right to make to stave off reform of the voting system for decades. For whilst STV is intended as a compromise between a desire for broad proportionality, and retaining the individual basis of elections; open primaries are an active attack on the role of parties in the political system, designed to weaken them permanently. Hence from a politically individualist — and broadly right-wing point of view — open primaries are the perfect weapon against reforming the voting system. “Why”, the question would run, “is reform of the final election process needed, when we have opened up participation in the build-up by so much?”

But if this explains why the Right is broadly far happier with the idea of open primaries, and why it caters to their sensibilities, it doesn’t cover the left’s preference for reform of the voting system, and why it should be hostile to primaries or not.

And when I come to think about it, it actually surprised me how much reason the left has to be hostile to primaries.

It has to do with more than just ideology, or semantic disputes about exactly what role parties should serve in the electoral process (I saw a debate which I felt fell into that trap, concentrated in a small-scale dispute over the nature of consensus politics versus democratic choice). It has to do with real-life evidence, and the far greater importance, to the left, of equality, freedom from economic circumstances, and demographic representation.

Proportional representation systems, and moderate representation systems such as STV are equipped with the tools to represent broad ranges of opinion in a community. In the former grouping it is through the power of the parties, who can institute selection procedures such shortlists designed to favour demographic equality if they so wish. In the latter it is through the system itself, which is designed to deliver a minimum of wasted votes and ensure as many votes as possible are used in allocation of each seat.

For this reason, persons at a disadvantage when it comes to standing for election (those with limited financial resources, business-unfriendly, union-unfriendly, independents, etc..) tend to do better with non-primary systems, and better still with STV (so long as they build up a profile with the people that matter, the local voters; at least in theory that’s how it works). Primaries disproportionately punish all these people, because they make campaigns by necessity far longer, and thus far more expensive, and you can probably see where this is going — they vastly increase the political power of money.

For this reason the left should be very, very cautious about primaries. For campaigns which involve a lot of money vastly increase the hold of businesses over politicians, and could potentially introduce a number of problems with the process of government similar to those seen in America. And if the left supports primaries on the false assumption that doing so will improve social democracy, it is badly mistaken, and could breed a generation of future struggle for itself, needlessly. It should be aware, and beware, of any reform that places more influence into the hands of lobbyists.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] My questions to and answers from Vernon Bogdanor on Primaries: Posted on October 28, 2009 by David About a week ago, I participated in a “question and answer” submission set up by “Open Up”, to professor Vernon Bogdanor (professor of government at Oxford University, and one-time Tutor to David Cameron). Having been impressed by Bogdanor’s argument before, I was intrigued to see him as a strong supporter of Open Primaries, particularly given his support for introducing Single Transferable Vote, and believe that Primaries would be a step in this direction (rather than away, which is my view, as I have blogged about on here before). […]

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