The Liberal Democrats are likely to make proportional representation for local government elections a red line in 2015 coalition negotiations. Needless to say, for any liberal this is a thoroughly good and idea that will transform local government. Given neither party is likely to budge on national PR, it is a good way to implement radical reforms which might actually be accepted by either of the other main parties.
But we’ve missed a trick. We have failed to capitalise on the increasing desire for open primaries amongst the other political parties. This is another radical reform which the other main parties would actually accept- indeed, welcome. The Conservatives, for example, are testing selecting more candidates through open primaries, including their candidate in the Clacton by-election. Open primaries are the future, and as a constitutional reform the other parties might very well accept they should form a major part of any coalition negotiations we participate in next year.
Open primaries are elections in which any voter can choose the candidate of a political party for public office. This candidate then goes on to stand for that party in the actual election which decides who takes office as the public official.
Changing to this method for every Parliamentary seat would be an extremely radical move. Most parliamentary seats in the current system are cast-iron safe for Labour or the Conservative parties. There’s hardly any chance at all they will change hands. But parties holding such seats almost always choose their candidates by a vote of their membership. Given party memberships, which are in long-term decline, rarely amount to more than a few hundred people per seat, such elections mean the majority of MPs quite simply do not face competitive elections amongst the general public. Ordinary voters are effectively disenfranchised and must join a party and vote in selection contests to have any meaningful say in who becomes their MP. This complete travesty of democracy has gone almost totally ignored by the general public, though it is the bread and butter of political professionals.
There are also numerous reasons to think open primaries will make better MPs. Open primaries will make a professional political career more difficult by forcing candidates to have more experience doing things voters actually approve of. We could expect to see more local activists, professionals, businesspeople, and simply those who may not fit in well with their party leadership but who appeal to its electoral base. In other words our MPs would be more representative, more rounded and less docile to their party machines.
To my knowledge, the Liberal Democrats do not have a policy on open primaries. This would add to the problem of the need for a careful consideration of the form it would actually take if we were to suggest it in coalition negotiations. We would need to work out when we wanted open primaries to be held, how they would be funded and what the rules for campaigning would be. Nevertheless, this apparently minor change has a wide measure of cross-party support, and it would result in considerable changes to our political system as part of a general transition towards a genuinely democratic politics.
Photo by Matthew Bradley
* Robin McGhee is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Kensington.