Thursday, 11 July 2013

Why Open Primaries Are A Dumb Idea

An undeniable attribute of the modern Conservative Party is that it has a large number of radical thinkers amongst it's number, mainly sitting on the backbenchers of the House of Commons: Steve Baker, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Andrew Tyrie to name but a few. It's great crime is that it largely ignores them. Instead, it's leaders are cynical, visionless blue-bloods who regard government as little more than reactive management of change in the sorry Tory tradition. One of the huge benefits of the rise of UKIP will be the emancipation of such original thinkers from the dead hand of Toryism in future.

Two of the Conservative Party's greatest thinkers are Douglas Carswell and Dan Hannan, co-authors of The Plan and in Carswell's case, The End Of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy. Many and perhaps most 'Kippers will be familiar with these books and the ideas they contain but, if you are not, there is much to recommend them and much that the average UKIP activist would probably agree with.

After the recent furore over candidate selection and the activities of UNITE in the Falkirk constituency, both Carswell and Hannan have once again been touting their idea of Open Primaries for candidate selection, the central idea being that the candidate for a given party should be selected by the electorate of that constituency rather than just the party concerned.

However, open primaries are not one of their better ideas.

The main weakness of open primaries is that it seems to suggest that the only point of a political party is to win elections in the short term. In fact, like any institution, a primary responsibility is to be the custodian of the beliefs and ideals that formed it, even if these are currently deeply unpopular. Of course, over time the party would naturally wish to convince the electorate that it's beliefs are right, but it is not technically necessary for it to actually win a constituency in order to do so. For instance the Greens, and latterly UKIP, enormously changed the terms of the political debate prior to having any parliamentary representation.

The great risk of open primaries is that it would render the cultural memory and capital of a party redundant. Imagine, for example, the case of a strongly libertarian party within a deeply socialist constituency. Your ideas are currently profoundly unpopular with the electorate but you hope with hard work, debate  and tenacity that with time you will start to convince them otherwise. However, your parliamentary candidate is selected by an open primary. Naturally, the candidate from your party who would be most likely to win would the one who was the least in tune with your party's ideas but most in tune with the current thinking of the electorate. Thus your candidate is highly likely to be a bland centrist rather than a fire-breathing radical. The former stands a much better chance of being elected, but the latter has a much better chance of igniting and shifting the terms of debate. Furthermore, parties would be prey, even more so than they are today, to falling victim to careerist shysters who would use a party machine solely for the purpose of their own ambitions. There is also the further issue of the expense involved, which may favour wealthy candidates over poorer ones.

This, from afar, seems exactly what happens in the United States of America, where open primaries are commonplace. Politicians are mostly exceedingly rich people, seem virtually interchangeable between Republican and Democrat, and seem to practise "exquisite followship": every issue is polled to death before the candidate will make up their mind.

Many would say that is precisely the issue we have now in the UK, and they would be right, but that is because of the ruthless centralised control modern party hierarchies exercise over local constituencies. A much more ideal situation than open primaries is to leave a local party in power of candidate selection, with the central party authority only stepping in and overruling selection in extreme circumstances.

That said, Douglas Carswell still has some interesting ideas on party organisation that UKIP should look at stealing, before his own dozy party finally wakes up (and they will have to sooner or later, given how membership is in free fall). His central idea is to spotify party membership, where individuals sign up to all sorts of membership packages based on the policy portfolios they support. Here, he really is onto something - sooner or later parties will have to adapt to the internet age and social media and the concept of the diffuse network. Like all political parties, UKIP are currently wedded to the old model, something we should look at changing as a matter of urgency.