Open primaries: should the Lib Dems adopt the 'Totnes model'?

by Stephen Tall on August 4, 2009

The announcement today from Totnes of the winner of the Tories’ first ‘open primary’ – in which the party’s Parliamentary candidate has been chosen not by party members, but by over 16,000 voters in the constituency – will prompt all political parties to ask the simple question: is this the future?

The arguments in its favour are obvious, both in terms of ‘democratic renewal’ and canny campaigning:

  • it has provoked national interest;
  • the 25% turnout suggests an appetite among the electorate;
  • the winning candidate has a genuine mandate;
  • her name recognition will have been boosted;
  • there has been communication with the whole constituency.
  • On which basis, you’d conclude it’s a no-brainer: surely every constituency which can remotely afford to run an open primary should adopt the principle. Well, perhaps. But of course it’s not quite that simple. For a start, this contest’s very novelty will have piqued the public’s interest – what chance of a 25% turn-out the third, fourth, fifth time it’s done in Totnes by each of the main parties, let alone if it were rolled-out nationally?

    And almost as importantly, can it be afforded, even by the Tories? As Lib Dem blogger James Graham observed last week:

    It must be costing the Tories around a pound per constituent to hold this contest. Even if they had managed to bring it down to 50p, that is still about £35,000 to hold just this primary. For a national party that is chickenfeed, but to roll it out nationwide would cost at least £20 million. Even the well-funded Conservatives will struggle to raise that amount of money ON TOP OF the amount they need to raise for electioneering locally and nationally (not to mention the costs of each candidate in the primaries). … You certainly couldn’t fund every single party to run primaries in this way so what would your cut off point be, and how would you prevent it from entrenching the established parties at the expense of everyone else?

    But does this mean the Lib Dems should ignore the Tories’ Totnes experience, write it off as just another of those expensive gimmicks that’s all very well for party of Lord Ashcroft but completely impossible for the modest means of the Lib Dems? I don’t know, is the honest answer. We certainly couldn’t afford to run ‘open primaries’ in every constituency up and down the country simply because it’s a jolly good thing.

    But as Lib Dem blogger ‘Costigan Quist’ notes today, the Tories’ plan owed far less to ‘democratic renewal’ than it did to canny campaigning:

    Totnes is a marginal constituency where the Tories have just about managed to hold off the Lib Dem challenge in the last two general elections. The sitting Conservative MP, Anthony Steen, is standing down having been caught with his hand in the expenses till to the tune of nearly £90,000 of taxpayers’ money.

    That’s a major problem for the Tories. Totnes is the sort of seat they need to be holding if they’re to form a majority but the expenses scandal clearly gives the Lib Dems a nice juicy campaigning message. Something special is needed, and when money is no object, this may be it.

    It would of course be rash to reject the notion of ‘open primaries’ simply on the basis that we can’t afford them. What we instead have to do is weigh up their cost against other ways of spending the same money, and work out which we think will be of greatest campaigning benefit. If it’s true the Tories spent some £40,000 on this ‘open primary’, then we’re talking about the cost of two years’ wages of a full-time Lib Dem Organiser. If we could ask any of our Parliamentary candidates which of these two options they’d rather the party spent its money on, I can guess their answer.

    However, I wonder if there are some sets of circumstances in which organising an ‘open primary’ would be money well-spent: specifically I’m thinking of when the Lib Dems are defending the seat and the incumbent MP is retiring. We all know that many of our MPs build a considerable personal vote, and that it can be a struggle for the party to retain this (though recent experience, in Eastleigh, Richmond Park, Cheltenham – to name but three – has shown the party is less vulnerable to this effect now than it used to be). It strikes me that it is just these such occasions when ‘open primaries’ might be justified, as a means of raising the profile of the winner, increasing their chances of a successful defence of the seat.

    I’m aware that this post focuses on the canny campaigning nature of ‘open primaries’ rather than the high principle of ‘democractic renewal’. So, to correct my error, I’ll leave the last words to James Graham, who noted the very best, most cost-effective, way to bring in ‘open primaries’:

    What I can’t see, with the best will in the world, is how such a system [of ‘open primaries’] can improve on having single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. STV works by effectively combining a primary with an election – you don’t just get to choose between parties but between candidates within parties on the same ballot paper (of course this depends on the parties themselves playing ball and providing the electorate with a choice, but there is some evidence in Scotland which suggests that the parties which did field a broader range of candidates did better). You don’t end up with a group of candidates who all argue for the same thing because the system recognises that the electorate is not an amorphous whole but a group of individuals with a diverse range of opinions. Instead of all elections being won by the lowest-common-denominator, minority views are allowed representation as well. And the enormous cost is saved, to be spent on other things or even not raised in the first place.

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    Stephen, it is a system that I hope the Labour party adopts. In fact it is a political system I hope all three of the major parties adopt because it would be healthy for our democracy. Your point on cost is a valid one but I think we have to remember that this is the very first time this system has been used in Britain. The system will get better, more efficent and less expensive as time goes on.

    One key point I think you’ve missed is that this will get rid of the concept of the safe seat if all sitting MPs have to go through this process (as I hope they would). Getting rid of safe seat syndrome in this country is paramount to restoring trust in our system and I think this is one way in which we can do this.

    by OllyDeed on August 4, 2009 at 6:48 pm. Reply #

    See my blog comments on this here:

    by Adrian Sanders MP on August 4, 2009 at 6:49 pm. Reply #

    I have to say, no. Frank Field was also saying earlier that this was the way to get rid of the ‘safe seat’ syndrome, so that there was a genuine contest for every seat. My thoughts were precisely those of James Graham – that the way to remove the complacency of safe seats is STV? Cheaper, provides genuine competition and means that you get a more representative set of representatives, with women and ethnic minority candidates elected.

    by John Dixon on August 4, 2009 at 7:37 pm. Reply #

    “The system will get better, more efficent and less expensive as time goes on.”

    Surely the costs are mainly postage and printing. If anything, these will become more expensive as time goes on.

    by Paul Griffiths on August 4, 2009 at 7:41 pm. Reply #

    One way to make primaries easier to hold would be to link them in with other elections (though that would require fixed term parliaments to work effectively). For example, all the parties could hold their primaries on the same day as the last local elections before the next general election.

    I do like the idea of us using it in our held seats when an incumbent steps down, though it may cause some pressure for the outgoing MP to name who they’ll be voting/campaigning for in the primary.

    by Nick on August 4, 2009 at 7:45 pm. Reply #

    No, no and thrice no! We have enough trouble as it is with trying to inject some ideology into our candidates alongside their residents’ association-style parochiality.

    by Andy on August 4, 2009 at 7:50 pm. Reply #

    Another way of making primaries more affordable (for the parties) is to subsidise them. Direct taxpayer funding of political parties will always be prohibitively unpopular, but taxpayer contributions towards a more effective democratic process need not be. In the same vein, the current (uncontroversial?) subsidised delivery of general election communications could be extended to local elections.

    by Paul Griffiths on August 4, 2009 at 8:07 pm. Reply #

    Note they can also send target mail to the 25% of the electorate who have self-declared an interest in choosing the Conservative candidate, and are thus disproportionately likely to (a) vote and (b) be well-disposed to the Tory candidate in a General Election.

    by Richard Huzzey on August 4, 2009 at 8:43 pm. Reply #

    One of the problems I can see with an ‘open primary’ for selecting parliamentary candidates is that it runs the risk that opposition supporters will vote for what is deamed a weaker candidate so that from their perspective they have an easier chance of beating them come the General Election.

    A ‘closed primary’ for Liberal Democrat supporters only maybe worth a try because at least they would have an interest in selecting the best candidate to either retain or gain the seat in question. But this would mean both finding and registering our supporters, like in the United States, to allow them to vote in the primary. I don’t know how logistical this exercise would be nor whether there are legal issues with regards registering our voters as Liberal Democrat supporters.

    A good idea in principle though.

    by Richard Whelan on August 4, 2009 at 8:48 pm. Reply #

    This stunt cost £40K, thats £25Million for the whole country, for each of the 3 major parties plus more for the others. Lets call it a round £100Million. Anyone who thinks Totnes is the way to go ought to say where the money is going to come from.

    by plumbus on August 4, 2009 at 9:54 pm. Reply #

    I suppose the point is that those who voted will be disproportionately Tory voters and they will now have a stake in the process and be more motivated to vote, and maybe even to help.

    Steen got over 20,000 votes in the last election.

    (Open primaries were, of course, Daniel Hannan’s suggested method of reducing “safe seats” without needing to stoop to voting reform – but we shouldn’t let the Tories spin that lie, I want my choice of MPs, not my choice of Tory or Labour MPs!)

    by Grammar Police on August 4, 2009 at 10:17 pm. Reply #

    Find the money! – a primary system where voters have to choose a political party to select for – like in the US – would provide an incentive for parties and candidates to register voters, which in the short term would boost turnout and in the long term will boost political awareness generally. It’s also quite fun for political geeks like me!

    A tax payer funded ballot process would help with costs but any campaigning should be from candidate raised funds. Caucauses seem quite fun too maybe we could try those?

    Either way i don’t think money should be the issue – democracy is expensive and people should be willing to put their hand in their pockets.

    by Letterman on August 4, 2009 at 10:29 pm. Reply #

    So you get an opportunity to vote for one of three people selected by a party you are not going to support at a real election? All it does is shore up a rubbish political system with a bit more tokenism – which sadly seems to deceive people who equate democracy with putting a mark on a piece of paper on every conceivable occasion.

    by tony hill on August 5, 2009 at 8:57 am. Reply #

    And might explain partly why open primaries are a bad idea…

    by KL on August 5, 2009 at 9:17 am. Reply #

    Why is it so wrong for the selection of candidates to be a privilege reserved purely for those who have committed themselves to a party by joining? We have to remember that most people who vote in party selections are ordinary people who believe in what a party stands for, not the seasoned political hacks.

    I think we should look at ways of selecting candidates differently, to ensure the candidates we select are genuinely the best and not clouded by ‘favoured sons’ or personal prejudices. But there are other ways of doing this. One theme that seems to run through a lot of the research the party has done on both PPC and councillor selections is if people meet the candidates they are more open-minded about the type of person who is suitable. An open primary has that advantage too but with a bigger electorate, but I suspect when the media fuss dies down from this novelty it will end up just being the party hacks who vote for the candidates.

    Of course we could never do a selection at this expense, although the costs could come down. But for me that is a lesser issue. Of course PR in a multi-member constituency with either STV or an open list election would in effect roll primaries in to the main election, but that at least means that people are choosing to vote Lib Dem before selecting our candidate.

    by Anders on August 5, 2009 at 10:16 am. Reply #

    You have to wonder if 25% turnout would be sustainable in the long run. There was bound to be some extra interest as this was a first. In the US I hear 10% of the electorate in a primary is considered a very high turnout.

    by George Turner on August 5, 2009 at 10:22 am. Reply #

    There’s a way to avoid all that extra cost. I’m assuming this process would mostly happen only when a party was choosing a new PPC, so why not simply conduct the selection process as publicly as possible? Let everyone know who wants to be the prospective candidate, and let all contenders argue their case in the local media, as I’m sure they did for this primary. Letters pages, message boards, local TV (if such a thing exists anymore). Campaign stalls at village fetes, for Cliff’s sake. The party will then choose as it’s candidate the contender the public feels made the best fist of it, if they know what’s good for them.

    by Joe K on August 5, 2009 at 12:07 pm. Reply #

    The problem with “open” primaries is that they can easily be manipulated by political opponents (and, based on Adrian Sanders’ blog and the Herald article I posted above, we’ve openly admitted doing it.) We’d all vote for the candidate we thought was the worst; and the other parties would do the same.

    Parties need to select a candidate who they believe reflects the views of the party accurately, but they also need to select someone who people are going to vote for. It means that a good candidate for one part of the country might not be in another – Ming Campbell is a perfect fit for North East Fife, but I’m not sure how well he might have gone down in Sheffield Hallam, however.

    by KL on August 5, 2009 at 1:40 pm. Reply #

    I sympathise with Andy. There is also evidence that Richard Whelan’s suspicions should be treated seriously. Only half-jokingly, non-Tory activists in the west country were talking of voting for an unpopular candidate rather than the more attractive doctor who eventually triumphed.

    by Frank H Little on August 5, 2009 at 2:15 pm. Reply #

    If people want a say in who represents their favoured party in the next election, it’s usually fairly easy to sign up as a member.

    by Simon Jerram on August 5, 2009 at 3:30 pm. Reply #

    I suspect the Tories benefitted enormously by having 24% of the electorate participating in this. I am curious to know whether they have a “marked register” from which they can follow up on.
    I am not sure about the “weak candidate” scenario. The selection committee has a key role here. They should have a shortlist so that whoever is selected will be good enough to do the job.
    The idea of course come from the US. A system that produces Barack Obama looks very attractive. However it is also the case that the same system produced George W Bush. In addition, Barack Obama actually did better in the Caucuses and may have lost if the Democrats only had used primaries.
    The reasons for opposing this system includes the cost; only the Tories can afford to do this, we certainly cant. The campaigns also need to be well financed otherwise you get a list of anonymous names on the ballot paper. If all 3 parties are doing this then the novelty will wear off and turnout will go down.

    by Geoffrey Payne on August 6, 2009 at 8:31 am. Reply #

    Well, the Tories did at least whittle down their potential candidates to three, rather than use the US model in which anyone can stand but they have to put up their own money to campaign across the electorate so actually anyone can stand so long as they’re very rich or saying the sort of things which will encourage the very rich to pay for them. Primaries in the US seem to have closed down rather than opened up politics for the people – the political parties become just mechanisms in a system where the real political parties are the scratch organisations formed to fight primaries, which are by their nature undemocratic, personal tools of their leaders rather than mechanisms by which ordinary people can club together to compete against the power of wealth and celebrity.

    by Matthew Huntbach on August 6, 2009 at 9:29 am. Reply #

    It’s a healthy development. The Tories always do things very expensively. We’d at least hand deliver all the ballots so that would bring the cost down. However, even if we brought the cost down to £20,000 I wonder whether £20,000 worth of effective local campaigning leaflets would be a better way to spend our money. I agree that STV is the way to go and that would bring in more choice for the electorate on cadndiates, so negating the need for primaries in the first place – that’s the bottom line. I also think we need to remember that in the States people are registered against parties or as independents. I am not quite sure of the significance of that but I know that registration has a role in primaries, dependent on the state. Some primaries, I seem to remember, are closed to anyone not registered for that party – others are open to all.

    by Paul Walter on August 6, 2009 at 10:06 pm. Reply #

    Lets have a reality check. How would this work in a constituency where we have next to no members or organisation, and where someone has to be ‘directed’ to stand. And why should my say as a member be of no more importance than a so called supporter? We should be selling membership on the basis that it gives supporters the right to participate in elections for candidates, the leader, party president etc.

    by Kevin on August 7, 2009 at 8:59 am. Reply #

    Just a legal question.

    Does the law now allow parties access to the full electoral register for an “open selection”?

    by crewegwyn on August 7, 2009 at 1:00 pm. Reply #

    Can’t see a problem with that as political parties can use the full register for their political purposes – and selecting a candidate is one of those.

    by Hywel on August 7, 2009 at 2:29 pm. Reply #

    I am not persuaded by Stephen`s excellent piece that contains some democratic virtuous reasons for supporting the `Open Primaries’ as an improved model for choosing PPC`s from the electoral register, as opposed to Party Members .However,the drawbacks heavily out weigh the merits.

    1.The cost is prohibitive at £40K to each Constituency, unless there is new State Funding and even so,this would have a palpable taint of `Big Brother, if the State pays all or part cost of an `Open Primary’.

    2.Kevin makes a good point in that L/D Membership is vital to encourage local residents to join up and then take part in electing their candidate by dint of Membership.

    3.What incentive is there for local member recruitment/retention if every voter has the right to elect their candidate regardless of party affiliation?

    4. In the Totnes Model, the many opponents of the Tories, had the right to vote for the Tory Candidate they considered to be the worst one or best one to defeat at the polls.

    5.The whole democratic ethos would prosper if there were a way of making a better decision being possible by use of the electoral roll but I ask would the best be elected under this method, to represent local interests is the Constituency and if not the process is thereby undermined?.

    6.The simple answer is to elect a majority of L/D`s in the next General Election next time, as that gives the non partisan voter the best chance of being included and represented in local democracy.

    by Cllr Patrick Smith on August 7, 2009 at 3:27 pm. Reply #

    Why not go a step further, and have party policies as well as party candidates chosen by the whole electorate? If all parties did this, all parties would have the same policies and the same candidates, and a lot of unnecessary time and trouble could be saved.

    Mind you, I can foresee one fly in the ointment. If we did attain this idyllic state of affairs, no doubt some troublemakers would band together and try to influence the electorate’s choice one way or the other. And some other troublemakers would organise themselves to campaign for the opposite point of view. And in no time at all we’d be back to square one …

    by Herbert Brown on August 7, 2009 at 3:52 pm. Reply #

    Surely, as the Liberal ‘Democrats’, this shouldn’t be an issue of prudence; are you not ideologically commited to this?

    by Ben on August 10, 2009 at 6:40 pm. Reply #

    The winning Conservative candidate says she spent no money on the campaign and wasn’t very political.
    The limits on spending by candidates were very tight. This may be a good thing (no candidate can buy the primary) or a bad thing (the established candidate has a huge advantage and opponents are prevented form spending money to counter this) but it quite crucial to how the process opperates.

    It ought to be mentioned that this situation arose because of the expenses scandal and is in a seat the Conservatives can clearly expect to win. Had Sir Anthony been subject to the process 12 months ago, no doubt he would have won easily.

    I’d love to see the Conservatives spend £40,000 on an open primary is a seat where they polled less than 10% of the vote.

    It is really another way of avoiding electoral reform. As such it doesn’t really help politics. I’ve no interest in choosing the Conservative MP for any seat – I want an MP who is closer to my views.

    by Mouse on August 11, 2009 at 9:17 am. Reply #

    Should we be doubting the ‘quality’ of the candidates chosen? Are these the best candidates?
    We need a few mavericks who can ‘walk the walk’ and fight the tories!
    Otherwise the Libdem Party will never be in power…ever.

    by Libdem Guru on August 11, 2009 at 10:08 am. Reply #

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