Will Primaries be how the big parties strike back?
In and amongst the big political stories of the week one potentially very significant event has received scant attention. This was the speech given by David Cameron at the Open University which set-out a series of ideas and policies that would bring about one of the biggest changes to political life this country has seen for decades.
The scope of the proposed changes is vast: they run across the whole gamut of the relationship between the individual and the state, from reform of parliament to an end to the use of local government as an agent of Whitehall, from reform of the â€˜human rightsâ€™ agenda to elected police chiefs, from consideration of fixed-term parliaments to public-initiated referenda.
However, one procedure which has already been trialled on a small number of occasions may be in for much greater use: open primaries in parliamentary. So far, these have been relatively small-scale events, essentially no more than the traditional party selection open to party members within the constituency, except that those who could attend wasnâ€™t restricted.
Thatâ€™s all well and good but if the fixed-term parliaments proposal is acted upon, that opens up the opportunity for more structured primaries, similar to those in the United States because with the (at least much greater) certainty of knowing when the election will be, thereâ€™s much less chance that a snap election will interfere with the process.
Parking that thought for a moment, letâ€™s return to a theme from last weekâ€™s article, and continuing through the polls this last week: the rise of minor parties. Despite Britainâ€™s First Part the Post electoral system being highly stacked against minor parties, even ones with a fair degree of regional focus, such as the SNP, theyâ€™ve continued to win larger and larger shares of the vote. Why has this happened? There are no doubt many contributory factors but to me three stand out: negative campaigning, increased centralised control within parties and an increase in the relative importance of individual issues against general â€˜movementsâ€™.
The Conservatives and Labour have spent decades arguing how rubbish each other was and is, sometimes to the exclusion of promoting themselves (see numerous ppbâ€™s for evidence). It would hardly be surprising if a proportion of the population agreed with both sides and didnâ€™t vote for either.
That negative campaigning, combined with an increased focus by the media on negative stories, has impelled parties to keep candidates and MPâ€™s on message, to avoid discussion and especially dissent, lest it be seen as â€˜splits within the partyâ€™ and to demand increased central control in order to achieve these ends. While thatâ€™s produced more professional outfits, itâ€™s also tended towards homogeneity, allowing fringe parties to fill in the gaps.
At the same time, the social and ideological bases of the parties has eroded. Todayâ€™s big political parties have far fewer members than they did fifty years ago. People are still willing to get involved in politics but not so much via the medium of mass-membership parties. Single-issue campaigns are on the other hand popular and perhaps off the back of that, single-issue parties have found greater support. At one time, itâ€™s quite probable that members of some of these parties would have joined the mainstream machines and carved their niche within them, but with the lack of tolerance for such niches both by the public and the parties, thatâ€™s less possible these days.
Where does this fit into proposals for primaries? In essence, they are incompatible with the trends to centralisation and likely to undermine some of the purpose of single-issue parties.
It seems impossible to have open competition between candidates for a partyâ€™s nomination without disagreement between them and will make the drawing up of binding manifestoes more difficult. Parties – already losing some of their ideological purpose – could tend even more towards machines to enable election, within which individuals with specific interests could again work. It gives them a better opportunity to get elected without the necessity to compromise unacceptably their integrity to centralised goals.
That is largely what the American parties have become but hereâ€™s a crucial point: the American parties have proved extremely resilient. While parties have come and gone in some countries with bewildering frequency – especially some which operate systems that donâ€™t particularly punish splits, such as PR or multiple-round voting, but even in some FPTP countries – the big parties in America, uniquely able to deliver results, have maintained their duopoly.
Could that be the route for the long-term survival of the big parties in Britain? For all the challengers they face, the Conservatives and Labour remain the only parties with the organisations to win general election victories. If open primaries were extended in their operation (and if one party went down that line, others would surely have to follow), might potential candidates who would currently be inclined to UKIP or the Greens try their luck with the Conservatives or Labour?
Although the reforms would strip the parties of even more ideological coherence by increasing the independence of members and the value of their local mandate, they could reinforce the partiesâ€™ place in the system. Could it be that one outcome of Cameronâ€™s proposals for reform is a guarantee for the long-term survival of Labour?