Conservative discontent over ‘unintended consequences’ of open primaries

An article in the Times this week highlighted the ongoing debate over Tory ‘open’ primaries noting the dismay of some Tory MP’s at the ‘unintended consequences’ of the selection method. The discontent stems from Congleton where last weekend Fiona Bruce, head of a community law firm in Warrington, triumphed over Mathew Hancock, Mr Osborne’s chief of staff.

As most herald the success of all-postal ballots the loosening of control over candidate choice has predictably ruffled some feathers. The argument though largely dismissed in the case of Congleton is that open primaries are vulnerable to particular interest groups an accusation not supported by research or the Open Up campaign!

In Congleton out of 220 participants, 35 members of Fiona Bruce’s local church took part in the primary leading to one Shadow Minister’s fear of religious groups mobilising support:

“We do not want the Tory Party to become like the Republican Party in this respect”.

“Once we had rotten boroughs, now we have a rotten Parliament”

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.

“Open primaries, and in particular all-postal ones, are working”

This was the surprising endorsement from the Guardian’s Julian Glover on the Conservatives all-postal primaries. On Friday, over 12, 500 voters in Gosport picked Caroline Dinenage through an ‘Open Postal Primary’ to replace the infamous Sir Peter Viggars. Glover’s article highlights that Dinenage:

“is the 14th person to be picked to fill one of the safe seats that have just come vacant (with eight more currently to go)”.

As noted by Glover, 38%  of these new candidates are women, three are doctors (one chosen just ahead of a teacher) and the final two run businesses. Only one of the new influx of Tory candidates went to Eton. Has the stereotypical upper-class, very wealthy, aloof Tory been replaced by:

“ local, middle income, probably state educated and quite possibly employed in the public sector, with a record of voluntary work and a deep-seated distrust of the central state and the European Union”?

As the Conservatives seek to win a solid majority in the General Election, open primaries are proving to provide a breath of fresh air, not only to the Conservative party, but also to the state of British politics

Glover endorses the Conservative policy of directing candidate selection as being responsible for the “change” of future MPs.

Postal Open Primary – Gosport

The second ever “postal primary” was held in Gosport today, giving everyone in the constituency the chance to have a say in who should be the town’s Conservative Candidate.  The winner was Ms Dinenage, who will fight Tory Sir Peter Viggers’ seat, the MP who claimed for the infamous £1,645 duck house. According to the BBC news-site:

“The 38-year-old mother-of-two secured 4,892 votes, or 38.6%. James Bethell, a venture capitalist based in London, came second with 2,965 votes. Sam Gyimah, an entrepreneur, came third with 2,867 votes, and Julia Manning, an eye specialist in the NHS, came fourth, polling 1,935.“

The selection process was first used in Totnes, in July earlier on this year where local GP, Dr Sarah Wollaston replaced expenses row MP, Anthony Steen.

‘Open’ Primary held in Esher and Walton

An ‘open’ primary was held in Esher and Walton, a Tory safe seat, last week. Dominic Raab, a lawyer who currently serves as Chief of Staff to Dominic Grieve, won on the second ballot after fellow candidate, Jo-Anne Nadler, was knocked out in the first round.

The event was attended by over 700 members of the public, making it the most successful open primary to have been held in the UK. However, according to reports Conservative HQ again chose the final six conservative candidates from over 600 applications therefore ensuring central office control.

Dominic Raab, has yet to move to the area, but will now take the place of Ian Taylor, the current Conservative MP, who is to stand down as a result of the expenses scandal. According to, Mr Raab “one of the real advantages of this open primary has been the opportunity to get down here – talking to residents, talking to businesses, talking to councillors”. Local constituents must be delighted that this ‘open’ primary has ensured Mr Raab the opportunity to ‘get down here’ to the area he will now live in and represent.

It must be noted that constituents’ questions had to be submitted before the event, and spontaneous questions after each speech were not permitted. There is no doubt that the Conservatives have led the way on the ‘open primary’ discussion but it would seem there are still immediate changes needed before these can justifiably be labelled truly ’open’.

Local candidates missing in Beckenham

Questions are being raised about how ‘open’ Beckenham’s primary for Conservative candidate will transpire to be. According to ConservativeHome local discontent is brewing following the Executive request of ‘someone who would be a first rate constituency MP and that the preference was for a local candidate’.

Yet out of the six representatives that made the shortlist, none of them are from the area. This is despite the fact that two locals did apply: MEP Syed Kamall and GLA Member for the constituency James Cleverly. Cllr Nicholas Bennet, former MP and until the most recent AGM Beckenham constituency Chairman and Cllr Steve Carr are also rumoured to have ‘thrown their hats in the ring’.

According to ConservativeHome, CCHQ are ‘actively discriminating against local candidates because they know the open primary process involving a public hustings… favours them’. Open Up calls on CCHQ to ensure their positive step of embracing primaries are safeguarded by ensuring local people can both stand and vote and that choice will reside with constituents and not HQ.

Add your name to the petition and help change Britain into a more honest, effective and modern democracy.

Nick Milton: Who’d be a Politician?

Sworn at. Verbally abused in the high street. Treated with contempt on the door step.

In the current climate who’d be a politician? And before you accuse me of exaggeration I’ve experienced all this and more in the last few months. And I have never been elected. Or received a penny in expenses.

Meeting the public and knocking on doors gives you a good idea of the raw anger that has been unleashed by the expenses scandal. The tiny minority who claimed that all politicians are in it for themselves are now a vocal majority. All politicians are tarred with the same brush. Politics is on the back foot. Some claim it is broken beyond repair.

Sadly there is no silver bullet when it comes to repairing the damage caused by the duck houses, dog food and phantom mortgages. But I believe if there is one measure which can help to heal this open wound it is open primaries.

Politicians are very good at talking about electoral reform but far less good at implementing it. There is no bill in the Queens speech to introduce reform of the voting system. Sir Christopher Kelly’s proposals will inevitably be watered down. The Speakers conference on parliamentary representation will be too little too late.

We need reform now which can help to rebuild the public’s trust in its elected representatives before it is too late. That means before the next election. That is why I think every politician who chooses to or is forced to stand down as a result of the expenses scandal should be replaced not by their constituency party or from a list but by an open primary.

The only really radical measure which has been adopted in recent years to change the face of the Commons is women only shortlists. And while this has resulted in a welcome increase in the number of women in Parliament it has not changed the type of politician who enters Parliament. Too many honourable members whether men or women are still career politicians or the usual suspects from the usual backgrounds.

If the Parliamentary authorities adopted open primaries we could see many more people from different backgrounds being elected to the green benches. More nurses, teachers, small business entrepreneurs, charity workers, environmental activists or soldiers. This would be good for democracy and good for our politics.

Being selected by an open primary would give a candidate a legitimacy that elected politicians now badly lack. As an environmental activist and former Greenpeace campaigner I would welcome standing in an open primary in the future. Why? Because I believe the public are far more likely to favour someone who has spent their life fighting against climate change than someone who has spend their life fighting in council meetings .

There are already encouraging signs that this may happen. In August the Tories announced the winner of the first ever open postal vote of an entire constituency in Totnes. The result was not a career politician or one of the usual suspects but a doctor, Sarah Wollaston. And if the Open Up campaign is successful others will follow.

Many big hitters in the Labour party have recently shown their support for open primaries. They include Ken Livingstone, who has backed them to elect the next mayor of London and the Tottenham MP David Lammy, who has called for them in every London borough. The foreign secretary, David Miliband and his brother Ed have also backed the cause, arguing the case in cabinet as part of the answer to the cynicism surrounding politics and falling party membership.

For open primaries to really engage with the electorate, political parties cannot just use them as convenient way of deflecting public anger, to be quietly dropped when the heat dies down. Primaries need to be built into our political system as one the surest ways of reconnecting the public with politicians. But they come at a cost. The open primary in Totnes cost the Tories about £40,000 to organise, good reason some critics claim why we can’t afford them.

But in the greater scheme of things this seems a small price to pay to regain the public’s trust and participation in politics. Building the cost of open primaries into future discussions about the state funding of political parties and election campaigns is the way forward in the longer term. In the shorter term why not fund them out of the expenditure saved from changes to the expenses system and from the money given back from those discredited by the scandal?

Think of the difference it could make.

Listened to. Actively engaged in the high street. Treated with respect on the doorstep.

www.kenilworthlabour.org

Oona King endorses the Open Up Campaign on Diversity

Writing in Sunday’s Observer, Oona King has highlighted the lack of diversity that still exists in British Politics. Returning to Downing Street, as a lobbyist rather than an MP, King remarks that:

‘even though the PM and his advisers are extremely helpful and progressive, I can’t help noticing they’re all men.’

With so much written about change, Open Up is calling for action. Open primaries will break the party hold on politics which has failed the diversity of this country so greatly. That people do not care about politics in Britain is not true. People have always cared about politics, and our system must represent all and not just some.

According to Oona: ‘one answer for the political sphere comes from openupnow.org and its campaign for open primaries so that political candidates are selected by a wider range of people’ .

Totnes has provided a benchmark, where a female local GP who truely represents the constituency was voted in with a record turnout- this must happen throughout Britian.

Its time for politics to Open Up and recognise the diversity of Britian. MPs chosen by the people for the people.

Helena Kennedy discusses Open Primaries

Baroness Helena Kennedy is a barrister, broadcaster, Chair of Power2010 and Labour member of the House of Lords.

“The only way to download power is by rebalancing the system towards the people. This is the agenda. Now we need the political will.”

I read back these words I wrote three years ago with mixed feelings. Back then, the idea that our greatest democratic institution, the Houses of Parliament, could be so publicly disgraced by something so base as the expenses scandal, could not have been further from my thoughts. And yet even now, after we have seen the dirty laundry bills of our supposed representatives so thoroughly aired in public, I sense there is still no political will for reform within Westminster. Sir Christopher Kelly’s report, published last week, only goes to show how far real change is from most of our elected representatives’ agendas. Hunker down, they mutter, take the flak, and it will be business as usual soon. I hope – and believe – they are wrong.

I wrote those words as a Foreword to the Power Inquiry into Britain’s democracy. As chair of the inquiry, I was privileged to travel the length and breadth of the country, listening to the views of ordinary people disengaged and distant from our democratic institutions. That inquiry exploded the myth of voter apathy. Britain’s citizens – who volunteer in their communities, who run marathons for charity, who regularly donate their savings to the world’s destitute, who take part in Red Nose days and Children in Need with ingenuity and aplomb – stay away from the ballot box not because they can’t be bothered to vote, but because they don’t see the point. Despite living in an era when choice is the dominant political mantra, when it comes to election day, most British people are offered no real choice at all.

True to form, the party leaders made a big show of welcoming the Inquiry’s recommendations to redistribute power before booting them into the long grass when they thought they could get away with it. Several years on, with our democracy in an even more perilous state, it is clear that we must look to the people, and not politicians, for the change that’s needed.

It’s with this in mind that we set up Power-2010, a campaign to take forward the spirit of the Power Inquiry and change the next Parliament using the strength of concerted public action. What is different about Power2010 is that there is no agenda. We’re not asking the public to back our goals. We’re asking the public to create them. Over the months before the general election we are going to build this public agenda for changing politics and stage a mass popular “vote” for the five reforms people most want to see the next Parliament carry through. This is the Power2010 Pledge; a public commitment that every candidate standing at the next election will be asked to make.

When we published the results of the Inquiry in 2006, we did not back open primaries. I still have concerns about them – that they may be hijacked by big media or big money if proper safeguards were not in place. But these are not insurmountable concerns, and over the past few months, I have come to believe that for the next general election, open primaries would serve an important cleansing purpose.

Open primaries would allow those MPs who feel they have been swept up unfairly into a scandal in which they played no role to obtain a refreshed and solid mandate from those whom they seek to represent. And open primaries would also allow constituents represented by those MPs who do have a case to answer to seek for themselves new voices to represent them.

The present crisis in our democracy has provoked a number of popular initiatives for reform and this is to be welcomed. From experience we know that politicians and party leaders can be counted upon to mount a furious resistance to anything which threatens their power and privileges.  This can be overcome. But only if all those who want a new politics work together for change.

If you back the Open Up campaign and think open primaries are the key to political renewal then you can submit them as your idea at Power2010 and then vote for them for the pledge. If there’s another reform you’d like to see happen you can suggest that too – it’s up to you.

Our society has changed dramatically since the two parties that continue to dominate British politics were originally conceived. Their policies – inasmuch as they can be distinguished from one another – no longer reflect the concerns of ordinary British people. What’s needed is space for new political alliances, new value systems to emerge.  But this won’t happen until the incumbent party managers loosen their grip on the British people. They will only do so if pushed by a movement of demanding citizens.

Politics’ Drift Beyond Satire

Legendary comedy producer and Open Up’s very own man behind the Tales From The Duck House films, John Lloyd, had an eloquent post published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog this weekend.

Politics’ Drift Beyond Satire begins with the following astute observation:

“The idea that politicians are not honest comes as a shock. It’s so surprising, in fact, that it’s not even funny: satire works because it plays on people’s preconceptions. “

Continuing in that vein, John carefully sets up and lays out the case for open primaries.

It’s generated a lot of debate so far, why not head over and join in?