Posts Tagged ‘Open Primaries’

Open Up, round II

Open Up has a new post:

The Chief Whips send out weekly circulars to “their” MPs notifying them of parliamentary business. The circulars use a code involving underlining. If a vote is underlined once, the Whip considers it routine, and attendance is “optional”. Items underlined twice are more important: attendance is required, unless that MP can organise someone from the opposing party to be absent as well, (a bit more like musical chairs than democracy). Any vote underlined three times means that failure to attend, and vote with the party, will result in disciplinary action. What disciplinary action usually means is expulsion from the party, at least temporarily.

…Open Up dearly need to speak to some MPs who have defied a three-line whip — such as, say, Tom Harris. To claim that the immediate response to a defiance of a three-line whip is temporary expulsion from the party is nonsense. It can happen, but it’s dependent on many other factors — only when party leaders are at the end of their tether, such as in John Major’s case over Maastricht, will they even want to consider it, as it could breed some pretty dangerous rebels.

Open Up go on to state:

Because parties, not constituents, choose who gets to stand in elections, this effectively puts that MP on notice that he or she may well lose their job at the next General Election.

…which leads on, as you might have guessed, to their favourite hobby horse, Open Primaries:

What has this got to do with Open Primaries? Well, right now party Whips can dominate MPs, because it is political parties who chose whether an MP gets selected or not. If voters got to choose who got selected, the Whips’ power would be substantially diminished.

…except, as you might have guessed, there is more to it than this. Parties generally tend to treat their MPs from marginal constituencies a little more better, as they’re aware of the damage that could potentially be caused to their standing in the constituency by a row between party leadership and their representative. Parties also tend to treat established names (a long-standing representative) better, so they in practice get away with more (I seriously doubt CCHQ thought of seriously disciplining Ken Clarke when he rebelled over their Lisbon policy prior to entering the Shadow Cabinet, because of his long-standing status within the party). So the problem is, in fact, mainly disparity between the way different MPs are treated as mcuh as it is anything to do with party selection.

Even if primaries were introduced, the chances are that it wouldn’t fix this. As an early episode of The West Wing showed, primaries mean that candidates are just as likely, if not more, to need publicity support in their campaigns from the leadership. Primaries also undeniably mean, for the United States, the campaigns have to be longer, more exensive and more time-consuming. This means that, actually, candidates are not actually less reliant upon campaign support, but more. The difference is merely that instead of being reliant upon the local party, they are reliant upon big funding, and have no way around that, even if the party might wish to sponser candidates unable to attract this sort of investment. I’ll leave you to decide which is the better scenario.

Open Up are quite right that party selection, and whipping, are a problem. But they’re a problem primarily because of the existence of many safe seats, and the difficulty of swings against an incumbent achieving meaningful status because of the risk of splitting the vote. If Open Up wish to achieve long-term improvement, they should target the existing inequities in the electoral system, not strive to add new ones.

My questions to and answers from Vernon Bogdanor on Primaries:

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).

I put three questions to him, and wasn’t disappointed to see that he only answered two (after all, there were quite a few contributions, and I was, thinking over it, quite lucky to get more than one answered). Here are the questions, with his answers:

Question: Won’t open primaries vastly lengthen and increase the expense of the electoral process, and make life more difficult for minority parties, independents and candidates from disadvantaged circumstances? Won’t they increase the problems surrounding campaign funding, many of which are evident from the US system?

Professor Bogdanor: To avoid this outcome, I think there should be a spending cap administered by the Electoral Commission.

Question: Could open primaries lead to a further entrenched two-party system, where the largest parties become the easiest option for those seeking to enter politics, to the detriment of pluralism and diversity; and the smaller parties find it impossible to compete, having insufficient candidates to make primaries feasible?

Professor Bogdanor: The truth is that nobody knows. The most likely outcome is that it will increase enthusiasm for democracy and so help all parties.

To be fair, I believe his response to the first question is quite reasonable. Though, as I blogged on The Daily Soapbox, a spending cap could well be utterly insufficient in terms of helping disadvantaged candidates and preventing primaries from shifting the burden further against them; it has to be recognised that this is to a large degree speculation (particularly as I am not aware of many comparisons other than the United States, which has lax campaign funding laws). A spending cap could certainly help avoid some of the more serious problems of campaign funding in Primaries, although in my personal opinion it would not go nearly further enough, and does not address the problem that those already at a disadvantage in the electoral system will be disproportionately effected by the simple cost of running a primary campaign, cap or no cap.

I regard the second answer as a dodge, unfortunately — it is possible that I worded the question badly (I am notoriously bad at concise summations, which explains the general length of my articles on here, facebook and The Daily Soapbox). Of course, the fact that no-one knows is an obvious truth (one could call it a ‘truism’), but the fact is that an increase in enthusiasm for parties obviously does not equate to something which “helps all parties” — indeed, a look at the US shows that in many ways, they are more interested in participation and democracy than we are, but despite this have a far more entrenched two-party system. Parties are things which arise out of democracy, but are entirely pragmatic arrangements, and beyond the existence of an opposition, bear little relation to the level of democracy.

The simple fact is that it is obvious that small parties would struggle to compete, because they face a choice of either holding primaries — and thus playing a larger role in the local democratic process — or fielding as many candidates as possible on the national level. This would effectively put them between a rock and a hard place, particularly if they were in the position of emerging between minority status, and mainstream status. It is easy to see how primaries could entrench the two-party system, therefore — at least under a single-member system.

The other point about Primaries making the two main parties the easiest route into politics is also unchallenged by Professor Bogdanor’s reply, and would go some way to explaining why in the US, despite the greater prevalence of democracy (which may or may not be a good thing), the two party system is more entrenched. When discussing third parties in American politics with my excellent A level teacher, one of his points concerning their lack of success was “what’s the point, when the two parties are broadchurch, and can just as easily accommodate people’s views?” Ultimately, it is this which exposes the false equation the Professor makes between pluralism and democracy; democracy is ultimately about participation, and if it is easier to participate in mainstream parties then the mainstream parties will disproportionally benefit.

So overall, fair first question response (though for obvious reasons, I disagree that it would be sufficient), slightly disappointed by the second response, which I feel would probably be ripped apart in a Oxford politics class, given that we were trained to deconstruct that in A level politics. But fair play to the Professor for taking the time to engage in the first place; he must have had a lot of questions to respond to!

EDIT: I have just noticed this question, later down on the page:

Question: What about smaller parties? Should they have open primaries too? Won’t their comparative lack of funding put them at a disadvantage?

Professor Bogdanor: Yes, smaller parties should have open primaries too. The question of whether they will be at a disadvantage raises the whole issue of whether there should be state funding of political parties, on which views legitimately differ.

(Not asked by myself)

I don’t wish to tackle his views on state funding of political parties here (or what I assume to be his views, because as he indicates, it would be the most obvious way of correcting this problem), merely the assumption that this is the only disadvantage to smaller parties. It patently is not — funding is certainly one problem, but simply numbers is another — a small party, however well funded, is still small, it still has to face a shortage of candidates, and putting itself at a disadvantage if it is to grant electors a choice of more than one candidate in a primary.

I’m also going to be slightly pedantic, and also address the final question and answer:

Question: Is there any evidence that open primaries will lead to better government?

Professor Bogdanor: “Better government” is in part a subjective matter. Open primaries will lead to more participation and therefore better democracy.

…pedantic, because I wish to question the equation of greater participation and better democracy, and undermine a previous argument I made slightly. Though democracy, as I said earlier, is ultimately about participation, it is also very much affected by the level of pluralism, and it does not follow that increased participation will necessarily strengthen democracy. I would like to reference the State of California (and the state of California) as an example here, where referendums and initiatives are relatively easy, and there have been widespread accusations of interest groups sabotaging the democratic wishes of communities at large. Also, unhelpful laws have been introduced which hinder representative democracy, namely a requirement for a 2/3 supermajority in order to ratify the State budget, which recently nearly made California the first State in US history to go bankrupt.