REPUBLICAN PARTY WEEKLY NEWSLETTER
For a Civic and Constitutional Republic
Issue No 47 Friday 14. August 2009
Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.
The election of Dr Sarah Wollaston as the official Conservative parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Totnes in a rare British primary election has been hailed by many as a triumph for democracy and a pointer towards the future.
In a primary election the electorate vote, not for who will go to parliament, but rather for who should be a particular party’s candidate. Thus the idea of a primary election is that you vote for who you would like to have the opportunity to vote for prior to actually voting. The principal is no doubt simple in principal but however you explain it, it sounds like a lot of voting. If every major party contesting a parliamentary seat did it, the electorate would have votes two to four times before the most important vote actually took place. The possibility of voter fatigue is surely there.
Primary Elections in USA
Before considering the general merits and demerits of primaries let’s consider the particulars of this case in Totnes. Quite a few commentators have congratulated the voters’ for choosing someone outside of politics, many no doubt spurred on by the current general disgust with politicians. The other two candidates were directly involved in local politics and so deemed bad choices.
Because of this involvement these two have been accused of using local politics as a stepping stone to Westminster and so their local commitment and their sincerity have been called into question. This is odd, for the route from local politics to national is one that has been often trod and is surely entirely respectable, even praiseworthy. (Ask one Barack Obama.) To establish a local political base before seeking to represent the constituency in the national parliament seems to many a beneficial aspect of the political life. But no one has sought to defend it in this case. The political outsider must be best.
No one has accused Dr Wollaston as using her doctor’s practice as a “stepping stone” to Westminster although this in undoubtedly what she has done.
It has also not been acknowledged that Dr Wollaston as well as being a political outsider is also a local outsider. She is a GP in rural Chagford outside the constituency and some 28 miles from Totnes. She lives in the idyllic village Lustleigh tucked away in a narrow valley into the foothills of Dartmoor again outside the Totnes constituency and some 20 miles away from Totnes. She has two children who attend school in Torbay also outside Totnes constituency. She says "I have very little political experience but am involved with my local constituency". But her local constituency is not the constituency she wishes to represent. Also if elected (as she will be) the people of Chagford will lose a long-serving GP.
But with the general environment of politician bashing at the moment all these factors, which would normally work against her adoption, have been set aside. The effect on the local party workers who presumably did not know this woman prior to the primary election process must be undermining to say the least. She lives and works outside the constituency and has never contributed anything to the Totnes Conservative Party. She did hardly any campaigning for the candidature. She just tossed her name into the hat. But to repeat, this has been hailed as the future of British politics.
Whatever the merits or demerits of primary elections for MPs there is little doubt why the Conservatives have chosen to showcase their new found interest in them at the present time. The MPs expenses scandal resulted in a lot of people seeking a remedy in constitutional and electoral system changes, invariably with the claim that their proposals would deliver “more democracy”. We referred to these proposals in REPUBLICAN PARTY NEWSLETTER No 33. The idea of primary elections is just one of these myriad ideas floating around. It goes without saying that the really important reform of having the executive elected separately from parliament is not generally considered. (The comments by Michael Portillo and David Starkey are a honourable exception.)
So what is wrong with primary elections, if anything?
There is a great deal wrong with them. In simplistic fashion they mean more voting by the electorate and so it is argued they must mean more democracy. But rather than argue about whether they are more democratic or not (and it is not clear cut either way) we should ask whether they produce the right kind of democracy.
In the first place we should not forget that no political party holds primary elections in order to create more democracy. They hold them to maximize the chances of their candidate – not the same thing. The party seeks to choose the most electable candidate in advance of the election proper, and there can be no doubt that that was the intention of the Conservative in Totnes.
In this sense the primary election is like an opinion poll or even a giant focus group. So what we are seeing here is a reaffirmation of the general drift towards deciding politics on the basis of what it is thought the voters would prefer rather than on the basis of political conviction. The very word “conviction” is often referred to as being suspect. Indeed, if you had mentioned primaries a few years ago in the Kingdom, you would have been greeted with cries of “trivializing” and “Americanizing” politics.
Leaving this aspect of primaries apart, let us just consider for a moment how the mechanism of primaries would play out in practice. For these reflections we need to consider “open” and “closed” primaries separately for they operate quite differently from each other.
Losing Candidates too political
In an open primary (as the Conservative one in Totnes) the whole electorate can vote in them. Imagine I am a Labour supporter in a seat where Labour has a reasonable majority (but not a safe seat) and the Conservatives hold and open primary to select their candidate. Will I vote for the one I like best? Well, no. I would vote for the one that I thought would have the least appeal. I would vote for the worst candidate for candidature. As there would be far more normally Labour voters than Conservative, the worst candidate might very well win the candidature – hardly the purpose of the primary, but good for Labour.
The Conservative are obviously aware of this problem with primaries and so they were careful to hold the primary in a safe conservative seat. One of the primary candidates said in Totnes they would vote for “balloon as long it was blue”. It would be surprising if they held a primary in a seat where they were in a more precarious position.
This difficulty is, of course, why the Americans use closed primary elections. In order to vote in, say, a Republican primary you have to been a registered Republican Party supporter. If this system were to be adopted in Britain it is highly likely that there would be a furor. The secrecy of voting intentions is something the British rightly jealously guard. So it seems that in the British context we are really only talking about open primaries.
The other problem with primaries that we see clearly in the United States is that they tend to favour well-known or even celebrity candidates. This can in turn mean that well-financed people are more likely to find their way into elected office
This point is related directly to the fact that primary elections tend to direct control to the national party organisation rather than the local. This was clearly exemplified in the Totnes primary where all the candidates had to be vetted by Tory Head Office and by David Cameron. The result was a short list of just three who could all be relied upon to be fully “on-message.
Without a primary, it is the local party that plays the greater part in the selection. Head Office may still have to sanction the candidate but the original selection will usually come from the local party. This a feature of the current system that does not appeal to the Conservative Party leadership for they seek to have greater control. The detachment of the selection process from the local party and the trivialisation of politics go hand in hand together
Once elected as an MP the person who came through a primary election process will owe a greater allegiance to the central party and so power will be further concentrated in Westminster. The comment that primaries are automatically more “democratic” can be seen as very doubtful.
Ultimately the idea of primaries as a means of improving the political life of the country is flawed. The Totnes primary was a gimmick to attract attention to a party without any ideas of substance.
We desperately need electoral reform. But primaries have nothing to offer. We should mistrust the motives of those who promote them.
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