The Coalition Agreement included the following undertaking:
“We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up, in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last general election.”
It has not been carried out and I’m pleased it hasn’t. The taxpayer should not be funding political parties (even more than is already the case.) Spalshing out money on such a project during an era of austerity woould have been especially shocking. So it was right for it to have been discreetly shelved.
However I favour the Conservatives holding open primaries at their own expense. Generally the process would produce better candidates – for town halls and the European Parliament as well as for the House of Commons. They would make it more likely for the Conservatives to win elections. They would provide a route for more people to become Conservative Party members and campaigners. What the Lib Dems, or Labour or UKIP do is up to them. The state should keep out of it. In a free society political parties should make their own arrangements independently.
Before the last election in Totnes an open primary held by the Conservatives cost £40,000. This will have put some constituency associations off the idea. The choice of candidate – Dr Sarah Wollaston – may have put some in the Party heirarchy off the idea given her rebellious voting pattern after she was elected to Parliament.
So it seemed to have fizzled out. However over the weekend a Telegraph blog post appeared by Dan Hannan suggesting they were on the way back:
Quietly, unfussily, local Conservatives are turning to open primaries. Speaking at events in two adjacent constituencies in my region – Tonbridge & Malling in Kent, and Wealden in East Sussex – I found that both Associations had decided to involve all local residents in the selection of their next candidate.
The decline in Party membership strengthens the case for this alternative approach. Mr Hannan adds:
If properly handled, the primary will give the eventual candidate an unbeatable head-start. Local newspapers generally love races of this kind (a wise local party will invite prominent locals, including editors, to get involved in chairing various rounds of the process). Residents feel ownership over the candidates. The eventual winner is seen as a community champion, not as someone foisted on the constituency by a selection panel.
This is a change that will come from the bottom up. Local parties will choose to adopt it rather than oblged to by some CCHQ directive. Certainly the cost will be a concern. Perhaps a welathy donor would like to offer funds to constituency associations – on the condition they hold such events? In any case the £40,000 figure is probably not as scary as it sounds. For a start was it gross or net? How many donations and new membership subs did not the Totnes Conservatives gain as a result of their open primary? That does not appear to have been taken into the equation.
Secondly it would be possible to hold an Open Primary on the cheap. An all singing, all dancing open primary with a series of hustings across the constituency would be ideal. But a more frugal alternative would be hold a single meeting in a large venue and allow any elector to register to attend and then turn up with some form of ID.
Constituency associations should embrace this approach if they want their politics to be enmeshed with their community – rather than a remote process conducted as some strange private ritual.