Second preference – Primary colours

Amongst and alongside the hundreds of council elections in England, and devolved assembly elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there is an additional ballot paper fought and argued over. It is, of course, the AV referendum poll, asking the population to become interested in voting reform and constitutional renewal in a way never done before, and especially unthinkable under a Conservative-led government, but these are the days in which we find ourselves.

(And today, for me, is looking like another very beautiful summer’s day, so if the sun doesn’t sign on the righteous then at least one hopes it will on pro-AV campaigners).

The level of debate on both sides has been somewhat…tetchy. It’s been awkward, unsettling, somewhat irritating. I can’t help shake off the feeling that the anti-AV lot are more concerned by their own short-term electoral future, which explains their partisan arguments and insults. At least the pro-lobby have tried to fashion a more rounded, deeper argument, not that it has been faultless on this side either.

It could well be a fatal blow for constitutional reform where AF defeated. My head and heart are saying different things (yes, I really do consider the finer points of voting reform in my quiet moments). There is a hunger for change in the country, one which simmers still after the expenses scandal and all which spewed out thereafter like so much Donner meat on a Sunday morning. Electors have their muscles flexed still, more cynical than ever and less likely to choose any of the main three parties as first ports of call. The age of the protest vote (and, as we’ve witnessed, the age of the protest) has not been this strong in decades.

What other options exist if the AV vote is lost? Would the door slam on any future political reform, so much ideas and ideals turned to dust?

I am throwing onto the table of ideas (it’s a nice table, lots of room for wine and nibbles), the concept of American-style Primaries for almost all candidates for all Westminster constituencies.

Primaries have been tried in the UK in before, with the run up the last general election seeing the Conservatives trying them in some constituencies tainted the most by expenses sleaze. The idea, based largely on the US system of Primaries and caucuses and pulling names out of hats or whatever they do over there, sees residents register in advance their intention to take part in a public meeting at which candidates persuade the assembled bods who should be the candidate at the forthcoming election for a particular party. Crucially, the audience cannot be entirely taken from party members and supporters, it has to be a crowd made from all party supporters and none. “Oh but that could mean Labour supporters voting for the Tory candidate”, comes the cry. So? Under our tired voting system so many such choices are made in the selection of an MP, or is context important all of a sudden?

The Labour left are fond of Primaries too. Leader Ed Miliband is one of a number of left figures who has signalled support in the very recent past. In 2009, Will Straw told CommentIsFree that Primaries could work for a Labour party battered and unsettled by a drop in support. It remains true today that candidate selections are often dictated by the HQs, central office and gentleman’s agreements. Despite storming to victory at this year’s Barnsley byelection, Labour Party members on a number of their websites did cyber-sigh about the alleged imposition of a candidate above local members.

Primaries would hack away some of the grip from ‘on high’. Conservative high-ups are not entirely pleased that one of their winners from the process, Dr Sarah Wollaston, is a vocal opponent to NHS reforms, but we need more people like her, and the doors would open wider with Primaries introduced. We all know how candidates would react with non-party members asking questions unbound by convention, mini-Question Times breaking out across the country with the aim of selecting parliamentary candidates in the name of ‘attracting ordinary voters’.

Bring Primaries (candidates chosen by the people) with AV (an empowering voting system), and you drag the UK into somewhere beyond the 19th Century. Greater chance of BME candidates, younger participants, greater debate in the lead up to polling day with more coverage of each party and their policies. It is not a panacea, there are lots more to do, though they would shine much needed light into the dark of PPC selections.

I would open up Primaries to as many parties as possible. Each constituency must be opened up to allowing parties and the public to scrutinise the choices put to them, the policies promised and the personalities introduced. Yes, the US examples we see over here are filtered to amplify the ‘noise’. Our system is not presidential, our Primaries would not be such big-money freak shows.

If AV falls – and I hope it doesn’t – there has to be a flame of reform kept alive. If the Coalition wants to take a lead from its own past, Primaries would be the best thing to happen for the sake of democracy.

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