The beginning of open primaries?

The Conservatives' decision to launch an open primary in Totnes raises the possibility of Britain following in the footsteps of America when it comes to selecting candidates.

By Samantha Cullen

It may not have the glamour of Obama versus Clinton in the US presidential race but the UK has now had a taste of American style politics. The Devon town of Totnes has played host to the first open primary elections in the UK. Voters were given the opportunity to have their say on who should represent the Conservative party at the next general election.

The vote was triggered after Anthony Steen, the current MP for the town, was embroiled in the expenses scandal for claiming £87,000 on his home. Mr Steen's resignation sparked the first ever open primary to be held in a UK constituency. Every voter in Totnes was given the chance to select the Tory candidate for the area through a postal ballot. Local GP Dr Sarah Wollaston won the right to represent the seat after 23.9 per cent of the electorate took part. The Conservative party chairman Eric Pickles Eric said the election had been "a great success for democracy", and proved that "if you trust the people they embrace democracy". So could it work across the country?

With voter turnout at an all time low (only 61 per cent of the electorate voted in 2005) and the expenses scandal turning many off parliamentary politics altogether. some feel that having American style primaries could reinvigorate the UK political system.

The United States' progressive movement of the early 20th Century demanded that the country hold primaries so that ordinary people could have more of a say in who represented them. Now primaries and caucuses are an established part of the electoral calendar and are even funded by the state. While the US model does have its flaws, most notably the criticism that whoever has the largest budget has the best chance of winning, there are many commentators who argue that it is fairer then the current system we have here in the UK.

The three main political parties in Britain all have different systems for choosing who represents them at an election but they have one thing in common; it is the party faithful who choose the candidate, not the general public. With the majority of seats deemed safe, it means UK MPs are selected by at most a few hundred local activists. Holding primaries can help spark political debate in safe seats and give the electorate far more say on who represents them

Now the foreign security, David Milliband, has joined the debate. Writing in the left-wing magazine the Tribune he praised the US and Greek system of primary elections. He favours US-style primaries, where party voters and not just members choose who is selected. He claims that "we need to expand our reach by building social alliances and increasing opportunity for engagement and interaction with our party." He added that: "We say we want to listen to our voters, why not a system of registered voters as in the US to create the basis for primaries?"

For some commentators the primaries will not be the panacea that people expect it to be. Professor John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde agrees that primaries will broaden the range of people who select candidates. He urges caution, however, over the idea they can "transform British politics so that the majority of the British public are intimately and energetically engaged in politics", because only the interested minority are likely to participate.

Many others believe that primaries distract from the more pressing need to transform the first-past-the-post system. Matthew Oliver, project officer on the purity of elections from Unlock Democracy, believes that while primaries are a welcome first step on their own they "don't revitalise politics, they revitalise parties." Under this reading, Totnes can be seen as a good branding exercise for the Conservative party, which has managed to turn Anthony Steen's expense scandal into something more positive. Oliver, who is also a Conservative activist and former election agent, believes the only way to revitalise UK politics would be to scrap the current first-past-the-post system and replace it with some kind of proportional representation structure. He wants to the Labour party to carry out its 1997 election pledge and hold a referendum on PR at the next general election.

There is also the problem of funding the elections. Currently in the US primaries are funded by the state, which absorbs the cost of sending out ballot papers and running the elections. Here, state-funded primaries are unlikely to win the backing of the parties. Oliver instead believes that the Totnes primary, which cost the Tory's £40,000, shows that if we could the cost down "to a more realistic level" then it could be a useful initiative for parties to carry out and finance themselves.

What the success of the Totnes primary does show is that people are not necessarily apathetic about politics and will vote when they think their voice will be heard. With political parties trying to re-engage voters after the expenses scandal, we could do worse than considering rolling out open primaries. After all it worked for a certain Mr Obama.


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