The idea of involving more people in our democracy is always a laudable one. Increasing turnout, encouraging a wider spread of candidates and thus voter choice, making people feel better connected to those who purport to represent them, all of these are concepts which I whole-heartedly support. As a member of the Council and Management Board of 'Unlock Democracy', I don't just think about it, I play a small role in helping to campaign for real change.
And yet I look upon 'Open Up' with a degree of horror. The idea that all applicants should go through an open primary system to pick the candidates of each and every Party should really be seen for what it is - a nonsense. If a political party, open to all, wishes to decide how it should decide upon a candidate, then it should have the right to do so as it chooses, not through an expensive process which, may I remind the backers of Open Up, has to be paid for.
It's all very well for them to suggest that there is plenty of money available, as they do in their Q & A:
Of course, it will cost money to hold Open Primaries. But what price better government? From the financial crisis to the expenses scandal, it's obvious that our system must improve. As taxpayers we pay a lot now, and we're going to pay more. We need the best people to be the stewards for our money and our future. Against this background the extra cost of Open Primaries seems very small. On top of this consider the costs of a General Election…where we don’t have a choice in our candidates:
- The Department for Constitutional Affairs estimated the cost of administering the 2005 general election in England and Wales was approximately £71 million in public funds. (House of Commons Written Answers for 25 May 2005)
- Spending for the three main parties in 2005 was more than £40 million. (Electoral Commission, "Election 2005: Campaign Spending"). This is in addition to the £71 cited above.Conservative Party £17,852,245Labour Party £17,939,618Liberal Democrats £4,324,574
What an astonishingly dense point to make. The first element is spent regardless, and pays for returning officers, the staff who man polling stations, counting agents, printing of ballot papers, the list goes on. The second element is raised by the political parties from their supporters. I can't speak for the two 'ugly sisters' but our Cinderella raises most of its money from our members and the money is spent on a small but precious staff, leaflets, posters and the tools used to communicate our messages to voters.
There is no suggestion as to how much open primaries will cost, nor what they hope to achieve apart from a nebulous concept that they will give voters more choice. Really? How does that work? In an open primary, is the whole electorate equipped to decide who is the best Liberal Democrat, or best Green or, heaven forbid, BNP candidate for its constituency? And if the political party spends all of its income on selecting a candidate, how does it then tell anyone what that candidate is campaigning about, or for, or against? Perhaps Alan Parker and his friends are planning to have a whipround?
Indeed, if they want the open process they claim to seek, are they going to prevent political parties from vetting candidates? At which point, how do you ensure that the Liberal Democrat candidate is actually a Liberal Democrat? And you know, I want to be confident that he or she is.
I'm afraid that this looks like a plot to remove smaller political parties, neuter the Liberal Democrats, and return British politics to the two-party red/blue politics of the 1950's. No, if they are serious about opening up the political process, why not campaign for multi-member open list constituencies elected using STV? That way, anyone can run, political parties are forced to offer up a range of candidates in order to appeal to a diverse community, and you abolish the safe seat.
Instead, this is not so much a missed opportunity as an attempt to hitch a ride on the bandwagon of public revulsion at politics, politicians and all of their works.