The case for US-style primaries in the UK
Last night, Labour MPs voted to effectively sack their leader. Yet they could end up as the ones getting the boot. Should Jeremy Corbyn claim victory in the forthcoming Labour leadership election, he is likely to introduce a mandatory re-selection of all Labour MPs, so that party members in each constituency get to choose a new party candidate. Those of you who follow my blog know that I am having doubts about Corbyn despite rejoining the Labour Party to vote for him. Yet his plan is a good one and should not be seen as a mere attempt to punish wayward MPs. Competitive re-selection of all representatives, and not just Labour ones, should happen before all elections, be they local, regional or national. Indeed, there is now a strong case for introducing US-style primaries in the UK. Our persistence with an unfair electoral system ought to demand it.
According to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), almost 26 million people live in “safe seats” in the UK. Some 368 seats in the 2015 General Election - 57% of the total - were declared uncompetitive before a single vote had even been cast. According to the ERS, “Hundreds of seats haven’t changed hands in decades. The average seat hasn’t switched party since the 1960s (and some haven’t changed since the reign of Queen Victoria). Parliament is stuffed full of rotten borough MPs.
The First Past the Post system ingrains the status quo, stymies multi-party politics and ensures that literally millions of people live in constituencies where their vote simply doesn’t matter. Take Streatham, where I live. Labour has won handedly since 1992, when it won the seat from the Tories. As a result, people here are faced with marking an X next to a candidate who has no chance of winning, such as the Lib Dem or Tory candidate, or holding their nose and opting for Chukka Umunna, merely out of loyalty to the Labour Party rather than any warm feelings towards him, a darling of New Labour. Many people in Streatham, an inner-London area that has pockets of serious social deprivation, are likely to be to the left of their MP, as shown by a healthy showing for the Green Party in 2015.
It is therefore hardly a surprise that turnout in safe constituencies such as this one is far lower than in marginal-seat areas. In 2015, 37% of eligible voters in Streatham couldn’t see that their vote mattered enough to go to the polling station.
Ideally, the best option would be to change the electoral system to proportional representation. If the Single Transferable Vote was adopted, for example, then areas such as South West London would have more than one MP. If you voted Tory, you could ask your Conservative MP to help you. If you thought your Green MP was incompetent, you could seek help from another representative. However, and this pains me to write this, First Past the Post in General Elections is going nowhere, since the beneficiaries control the keys to political reform. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. What’s more, the 2011 referendum on electoral reform set back changes to the electoral system for a generation.
So, in the absence of meaningful change to the big elephant in the room - that of the electoral system - we have to explore different paths to make votes matter. In the US, the answer to an archaic electoral system has been to introduce primaries, so that candidates representing the political parties at general elections are chosen either by party affiliates through closed primaries or by giving all constituents a chance to decide via an open primary. If either a closed or open primary was available to constituents in Streatham, I sense that the good people there might not opt for an Umunna to represent Labour in a General Election and opt for a Corbyn-friendly alternative. I can almost hear the Blairites calling foul and accusing the hard left of a power grab. Yet the point here is that a primary would give constituents of all stripes a say at who their candidate would be, whereas the current arrangements shut people out.
There are of course real problems with the use of primaries in the US. The open primary, whereby all constituencies get to vote on the party candidate, means that political parties lose complete control of candidate selection and the ideological unity of the political party is thus compromised. The role of money is a massive problem as competing candidates look to increase their marketing and seek backing from rich donors to do so. Moreover, personality rather than policy becomes the driving force in how voters decide. Closed primaries, meanwhile, have allowed ideologues to have too much power and have forced the political parties away from the centre ground. Either method increases the prospects for Trump types.
Nevertheless, primaries have ensured that the local party candidates outline what they will do for their area, and have ended the practice whereby establishment favourites are parachuted in from party HQ. They have mitigated some of the worst effects of the winner takes all system, by demanding that safe seats are at least held by candidates who must still look out for local interests and be chosen by more than a narrow party clique.
If the EU referendum taught us anything, it is that the establishment must be held accountable. Having independently-minded MPs who owe their candidacy to their constituents first and their party second is a way of checking the power of the ruling class.