Open primaries would break open the closed shop of cynical politics

Rick Muir

ED MILIBAND yesterday made the defining speech of his leadership. He promised to end automatic affiliation of union members to Labour (unless they “opt-in”), and said the party will use primaries to select its candidate for the London mayoralty and for some parliamentary selections.

These are big steps in the right direction. Much of the public is disillusioned with the political system, which they see as remote and unrepresentative. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 Democracy Index found that the participation rate in UK politics was lower than in Lebanon, Iraq or Tunisia. And according to a June poll by Ipsos Mori, just 8 per cent think MPs put the interests of their constituents first, with 72 per cent saying they don’t trust politicians at all. This is an attitude many hold towards the entire political elite, irrespective of party.

But parties retain structures that made sense in the 1950s and the era of mass party politics. In 1951, 97 per cent voted Tory or Labour, and both parties could count on the support of millions of members. Today, they struggle to secure two thirds of the vote between them and have as few as 200,000 members each. Less than 1 per cent of the population is a party member, but 99 per cent of seats are held by political parties. Something isn’t working.

One consequence is the sort of shenanigans that have allegedly taken place in some MP selections. When just a handful of members can swing a decision, there is too often a tendency to engage in “machine politics” (packing meetings, signing members up without their knowledge, dubious use of postal ballots). But the solution is not to abandon party politics: if MPs were not grouped into parties, it would be hard for voters to hold them to account, and it would be impossible to provide stable government.

The solution is to open up the closed party machines. For Labour, providing a stronger link to individual trade union members via an “opt in” to affiliate membership is one way of doing it. Another solution, backed by Miliband, is the use of primaries to choose candidates. This means that any member of the public can register as a party supporter and vote in that party’s selections. The involvement of thousands of supporters in choosing candidates makes insider politics harder to sustain and would likely encourage a wider range of people to come forward for selection. This has worked elsewhere: recently 4,500 people took part in the Australian Labor Party’s primary for the mayor of Sydney (ten times the number of usual participants) and over 5m took part in the French Socialist Party’s primary for the last presidential election.

The only real objection to primaries is cost: we don’t want a situation where candidates need a lot of money to participate. Absent a wave of small donations from engaged members of the public, there are two solutions: one is to put a strict cap on campaign expenditure; the other is to provide public funding to open up party selections. The latter is, of course, controversial, but more participatory politics does not come cheap. The price of failing to act could be to allow our democracy to wither on the vine.

Rick Muir is associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research.