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.