With Totnes about to go through an all postal open primary, the only MP elected to the House of Commons that went through an Open Primary selection system, Rob Wilson MP, is in a good position to judge its merits.
The nature of our politics has never been more commented on. Politicians have been portrayed as mired in scandal. Some have been exposed. The public wants change. But whilst my profession has been drowning recently in negative publicity, the public is more interested and emotionally involved in politics now than at anytime in a generation. This presents us all with an opportunity to increase participation in politics – we should all grab this opportunity with both hands.
Although the public’s anger has centred on the expenses revelations, their anger goes much deeper and further than taxpayer funded moats and porn films. The public is angry at the political establishment for its closed shop mentality – a politicised elite that excludes the public because it says it “doesn’t understand”. Many people feel that they can’t hold us to account for the decisions that we make and believe that we often make decisions based on personal gain rather than civic duty. The words ‘gravy train’, ‘snouts in the trough’, ‘backhander’, crop up on far too many doorsteps.
However, there are a number of simple ways we can open up politics and give people a greater say in who their representatives are – one way is to establish open primaries as the preferred method for candidate selection. Currently, around 70% of constituencies in the UK are the domain of one political party. Consequently, the majority of the public are unable to vote in a truly competitive election – once a candidate is selected to stand for the dominant party in that particular constituency, the candidate is practically assured a ‘job for life’. It’s no surprise then, with Members safe in the knowledge that they can do whatever they like without facing electoral consequences that we face the situation we’re in. It also means that MPs can neglect their Parliamentary duties, without facing the wrath of their electors. This is only too evident when you look at the amount of time Labou’s ex Cabinet Ministers spend in the Commons. For example, from April 2008 -9, John Prescott and Ian McCartney voted less than half of the time, just beating David Blunkett on 50%. And Prescott, Alan Milburn and Byers (before April 2nd) failed to speak once in the House. It’s clear that Parliament is not performing as an institution to the standards expected by the public.
This would be different if candidates had to go through rigorous open primary selections, like in the US, combined with the additional power to recall Members of Parliament. A recall mechanism, which I proposed with 26 other Conservative MPs from the 2005 intake, in a letter written to the Daily Telegraph, should be implemented to enable constituents to vote on whether they remove their MP during the course of a Parliament. Clearly safeguards would need to be put in place – the mechanism should only be used in exceptional circumstances, for example, when an MP has been found to discredit politics by fraudulent practices. It should not and cannot be used simply to oust a MP because of their political views. But these mechanisms would ensure that candidates worked hard within their constituencies to build up a high profile and it would mean Members of Parliament being made accountable for the decisions they take. To enjoy a long career, MP’s would have to become servants of the people that put them into Parliament – and build a relationship formed on mutual trust.
Nonetheless, the biggest advantage of open primaries is that they give people a say on who their representative in Westminster is, even if the constituency they live in has been represented by the same Party since The War. Party political hacks can be put off by open primaries because they think they’re open to abuse. They fear candidates not aligned to core party principles, or weak candidates elected by a meeting that is packed out by an Opposition Party’s members, but the evidence from the few open primaries that have occurred in this country is the opposite.
Reading East Conservative Association was a trailblazer. It decided to use an open primary to select its candidate in 2003. It resulted in me being the first, and still only, MP to be elected after being selected at an open primary meeting. I found the experience challenged me and all my political skills of communication, and exhilarated me for that reason. This is why I believe that more open primaries can only be good for democratic accountability.
Open primaries haven’t only been a successful mechanism in Reading East. Since the 2005 General Election Conservative Candidates such as Sean Bailey in Hammersmith and Jane Ellison standing in Battersea prove that open primaries elect people with strongly held beliefs who have a sense of civic duty.
Totnes of course, takes the primary to a whole new level, with an all postal vote system for the entire constituency. This is political engagement in selection of a candidate unlike anything that has happened before anywhere in the UK. I’m not sure how many more can take place, as this is extremely expensive, but I think it will be extremely positive for the Party and ensure a great candidate and MP is elected as a result.
Open primaries and recall will not be the silver bullet that the political establishment is looking for, but they encourage greater participation and can enforce greater accountability on elected members. With a number of MPs deciding to retire, political parties and their local associations of all colours have an opportunity to open up their party to the constituents they serve. I believe it’s essential that they make the most of this once in a generation opportunity.