Caucus envy

So, then, Rick Perry? Excited, aren’t we? He only beat God’s Representative On Earth by the narrowest of margins! And so, the Republican Party begin their long, ultimately fruitless search for a nominee to take on Obama, spending the GDP of a developing nation in their criss-crossing, attack ad developing, podium thumping electioneering jamboree.

(If you’re Rick Santorum, “podium” is “pulpit”, and if you saw his speech earlier this morning, you’d be forgiven for thinking CSPAN stood for “Christians Stand Preaching, Americans Nauseous”)

The primary and caucus period in the US is unlike any other election format enjoyed elsewhere on Earth; it is truly unique. Nothing is more bizarre, out dated, over the top or free from policy details and I’ve followed local administration elections in Britain for years. Listen to Michelle Bachmann for perhaps the most outrageous delusion this side of British National Party candidates claiming they will win seats at the next election. “There maybe a different Michelle in the White House next year!” she told supporters today. Maybe there will, Michelle, I understand they are always looking for interns.

David Cameron was instrumental in bringing primary-ish elections to the UK in the run up to the 2010 general election. In two constituencies now held by the Tories – Totnes, and Gosport – anyone who lived in the constituency could vote in a ballot to choose the Tory candidate. Turnout was piddling and strains between the local associations and Tory HQ stretched to breaking point. The primaries did poke the local party members into action, however, and opened the door to the possibility of the UK welcoming them in full in time. Indeed there was talk during the election period of legislation being introduced to allow “Open Primaries” in marginal constituencies across the land.  LibDems in Glasgow, Labour members in Cambridgeshire, Tories in Liverpool – imagine  the fun and games to be had there…

One argument speaks highly of Primaries. The Conservatives struggle to fight Westminster elections in, say, Manchester or Birmingham, so why not open up selection of candidates in the first place to get names and faces out there, and then run with the built-up momentum for the next X months or years (ideally) to reap long-term rewards?

The downside arguments write their criticism in neon lights. Atop them all is the cost: millions across the country compared to barely a thousand per constituency if done the traditional way. And for the avoidance of doubt, the “traditional way” can often be the rubber stamping of a single candidate by a dozen members of a constituency party on a rainy Tuesday night. Britain does not have the same federal administration as the United States or even France where the Socialist Party undertook its own Primary system last year. The consequence of this would be a lack of reporting and explanation, potential alienation between neighbouring regions as one party pours in money at the expense of another.

Political parties are dying in some parts of the UK, which means anything goes in the ideas machine for building up membership and activism. For parties with “black holes” in the national map, Primaries could be ideal. They might not exactly bring back the Hustings of centuries past, though conversations on- and off-line would be at their most political for years. It would remind “those in the know” that ordinary people happen to care about their political representation, they’re just sick of being taken for granted (in safe seats) or swamped for a month every five years (in marginals). Primaries would engage political parties like never before – forced into a contest out of their control beyond traditional election time, some parties might struggle to adapt to candidates they don’t necessarily know.

The “curiosity” factor of the US election process blanks out the rest of the world at this time of the Presidential cycle. We shouldn’t absorb so much from the US, but we do – Blair was much more of the Congressman than he ever was an MP. Primaries are an awkward fit for the UK system, just as The Leaders Debates caused the machinery of British elections to stop/start, reset, wobble at the edges like a cartoon. We were not prepared for the long-term consequences of the Leaders Debates…would we be happy with spending months in the audience of 6 wannabe Labour candidates in Sussex or a handful of LibDems in Dagenham in the form of an Apprentice/Question Time hybrid in the cross-fingered hope of political renewal?

Early last year, I wrote a blog post suggesting that my second preference behind choosing AV was introducing Primary elections. If I was convinced then I am undecided now. There is much wrong with the British electoral system – which is why we needed AV to succeed and why STV is needed for local elections pretty damn quick. Primary elections could be “fun” but not necessarily    useful. Walker’s Crisps ran a competition some years ago which allowed consumers to vote on a new flavour of crisp; thousands of people voted, resulting in Builders Breakfast filling the shelves the next week. Sales were awful and the product was swiftly withdrawn before the month was out. Proof that things like Facebook Elections and Leaders Debates create fire…..they do not necessarily create light.

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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.