John Strafford has held office at virtually every level in the voluntary part of the Conservative Party, including nine years on the former National Union Executive Committee. In his newly-published book, Our Fight for Democracy – A History of Democracy in the United Kingdom, he analyses the weaknesses of British democracy today and suggests how it could be improved.
In July 2009, as the open primary in Totnes was taking place, the Board of the Conservative Party was meeting to determine the rules for the future selection of parliamentary candidates. It was a stormy meeting – the last stand in the battle to defend the rights of ordinary Party members – a battle that was lost. The decisions taken will affect democracy in the United Kingdom for a generation. So what happened?
Under the new rules the Party Chairman will decide whether a local Association should select its candidate by a Special General Meeting or by an Open Primary.
For each constituency a sifting meeting will be held at a place designated by the Party Chairman at which the Approved List of candidates will be reduced to six names, 50% of whom will be women. At this meeting there will be six representatives of the local Association including its Chairman and two Deputy Chairmen. The Party Chairman will have a veto on the six names to go forward to the next stage of Open Primary or Special General Meeting.
As from the 1st January 2010 the Party Chairman will give an Association the names of three parliamentary candidates from which to choose their candidate.
The real impact of this is that the Party Chairman will determine Conservative candidates and consequently the Conservative Party composition in the House of Commons. The Labour Party looks as though it is going down a similar route. Many of the current members of the Cabinet were parachuted into their seats by the Labour Party hierarchy. Peerage promises are seductive. So a tiny number of people from our two main parties will determine who sits in the House of Commons and effectively form the government of this country. Is this the way dictatorships are created without the need for bloody revolution?
So how are Open Primaries affected by these changes? The model for Open Primaries is normally the United States. How do Conservative Open Primaries compare?
In the United States anyone can stand. As we have seen above, under the Conservatives, the Party Chairman decides who the candidates will be. You can virtually guarantee that the only candidates allowed to stand are safe Conservatives. After all they have to fight a General Election on the Conservative Party manifesto, which they have to sign up to, even though they will have no say in its composition.
In many States electors have to register support for a Party in order to vote. With the Conservatives anyone on the Electoral Roll can vote in an Open Postal Primary or an Open Meeting Primary, even if they are members of another Party.
The candidates in the United States raise their own funds for campaigning in the primary. The Conservative Party pays for a postal primary. The costs in Totnes amounted to £38,000. There are only half a dozen constituencies in the country that could afford this, so unless the Party at National level funds a postal primary it will not happen.
Campaigns in the United States are usually prolonged, giving everyone plenty of time to investigate the candidates. The campaigns run by the Conservatives are strictly limited in time
Caucus meetings of registered voters are held in the United States at which the merits of the different candidates are debated and then voted upon. These are banned by the Conservative Party.
A distinction should be drawn between Open Primaries where there is a postal ballot as in Totnes and Open Meeting Primaries, which are often lumped together and called Open Primaries.
The most common, because of costs, are the Open Meeting Primaries. The Conservative Party imposes a number of restrictions on Open Meeting Primaries:
The meetings are advertised in the local paper so there is no guarantee that every elector is aware that the selection is taking place.
At the meeting no debate is allowed between the candidates – they are not even allowed to be on the platform together.
CVs of the candidates are only made available at the start of the meeting.
The elector must be present for the entire meeting and cannot leave for any reason. Contrast this with a postal primary where the elector doesn’t have to hear any candidate before voting.
Limits are imposed by Central Office on the number of money candidates can spend on their campaigns.
The vote on the final adoption of the selected candidate by Conservative Party members is done by a show of hands, rather than by a secret ballot, which can be intimidating, and which the Conservative government made illegal in the Trade Unions in the 1980s.
It can be seen from the above that there are major differences between what the Conservatives call Open Primaries and what in practice most people understand as Open Primaries. The Conservative Open Primaries are a gimmick. The media and the people have been hoodwinked by the Conservatives into believing that the process is totally open. It is not. The process is controlled in detail by the Party hierarchy. There is also the danger that the selection can be manipulated by the members of other parties, who can vote for the weakest candidate. The Conservative Party does not care because it has vetted all the candidates.
There is much talk about electoral reform but when will the people “wake up and smell the coffee?” Whatever the system of election, be it First Past The Post or Proportional Representation it becomes meaningless if the candidates are chosen by a few individuals. Our two main political parties are wholly undemocratic organizations controlled by small oligarchies. In a democracy, it is essential that the political parties are themselves democratic. It is in a dictatorship that candidates are imposed. “Once we had rotten boroughs, now we have a rotten parliament”. Democracy R.I.P.