Open primaries: Let’s have them
across the board in 2020

When the Conservative Party decided to select their candidate for the Clacton by-election through an open primary it was not because it was the right thing to do in order to make selection procedures more democratic.

It was an attempt to put Douglas Carswell in a difficult position because he had been an advocate of open primaries, yet his defection led to the Ukip candidate Roger Lord being unceremoniously deselected.

They made their point, though it also acted as a reminder of the Conservative’s Party patchy commitment to a policy they seemed set to embrace before 2010. The reasons why open primaries are troublesome and worrying for the central office of a political party are obvious, but adopting them would be principled and advantageous.

By the time one enters the ballot box to vote for one’s Member of Parliament, an important choice in the process has already been taken. The candidates have been pre-selected by the parties, a process in which outsiders have no say, with even the local associations sometimes dictated to from the centre.

In safe seats, a candidate with no connection to the local area is often parachuted in on the orders of the executive and becomes irremovable. So, in a rather diluted form of democracy, the electorate is simply confirming the choice already made for them by the party machine which ruthlessly filters out independent-minded candidates in favour of ‘toadies.’

The majority of constituencies in the UK, approximately 70 per cent, are totally dominated by a single party. In safe seats that are very unlikely to change hands, MPs feel secure enough to know that there is little risk in putting party loyalty before country, conscience, and the will of the people.

With such a level of security, they can afford to ignore the wishes of their constituents and vote against their interests because they are protected from any meaningful consequence. An ambitious MP in a safe seat can afford to ignore and defy the people he is supposed to represent, but he cannot afford to deft the whips and the Executive.

The British political system has therefore become closed to outsiders and dominated by careerists and placemen. The electorate feels on the outside of an impenetrable bubble and this had created a deep sense of apathy and cynicism that has led to disengagement and huge reductions in political party membership.

Too many MPs have become representatives of their party; instead of being local community leaders and celebrated champions, they are seen as emissaries of a distant ruling class set apart from the public.

What better solution is there than to introduce open primaries and give local people a real part in picking their candidates? As democratic reform goes, this borders on the revolutionary if it were to be rolled out nationally as party policy. When the voter has been given the opportunity to choose a candidate, they have a stake in that choice, they have invested in a candidate and have an ongoing interest in their success or failure.

Open primaries as a political reform are designed to transfer power from the state to the people and should be embraced wholeheartedly by conservatives as a point of principle. They encourage local political engagement, as successive high turnouts in open primary elections have shown. They will make safe seats less secure and loosen the Executive’s control over the MP.

The whips will be weakened and the constituents empowered. I would also contend that open primaries offer a better path towards a more representative and diverse House of Commons than a policy of anti-meritocratic, positive discrimination tokenism. Most importantly of all, the Commons will fill with many more independently minded MPs guided by the will of their constituents and their own principles and consciences.

Why would adopting open primaries as the selection process of choice across all constituencies be in the interests of the Conservative Party? They are increasingly nervous about them, as evidenced by the sporadic implementation of them in selecting candidates.

I can understand the concerns of the instinctively controlling party machine because the MPs selected in open primaries are far more difficult to control and often, like Sarah Wollaston, strong-willed and independently minded. Still, despite such concerns there are reasons of self-interest as well as principle for opening up the political process in this way.

Holding open primaries will entice the electorate into engaging and, when they do, the individual they select will be their candidate. They will be more likely to vote for them (and the party) and tell others to vote for them, more likely to campaign for them and more likely to consider further commitment such as party membership.

It has been consistently shown that open primaries garner media attention, thus the selected candidate already has a profile with both the constituents and the media. This would lead to publicity on a local and national level and influence the voter when they step into the ballot box. 

Open primaries also favour candidates with strong local connections and successful candidates selected in primaries already have a significant portion of constituents who think highly of them and have invested in them. What better way to make a political party suddenly feel less distant, less elitist and more in tune with the people?

The Tories have barely a foothold in many constituencies across the nation. They are dead in Scotland, absent in large areas of northern England and weak in Wales. They have not won an election in 23 years and struggle to open a gap in the polls. The British people are feeling highly cynical about politics and politicians and the Conservative Party are perceived as the party of the rich, the very epitome of the elitist, out of touch establishment.

Frankly, without a reformation and revival they risk terminal decline, decay and collapse. As a way of improving their reputation, open primaries are more principled and worthy than hugs with hoodies, image management and the PR of spin doctors. The Conservatives need to be the party that opens up politics and devolves power to the people – open primaries are the way to do it.