Why open primaries?

They just don’t get it.

As MPs continue to duck (quack!) the public’s wrath over expenses, that’s the mantra we keep hearing. The belief that all that’s wrong with our political system is the people who’ve ended up at the top of it is a seductive one. But the real effect of the public scandal has been to cast light on a problem that has been languishing in the dark corners of our political consciousness for some time: the problem of representation itself.

That’s why today, the Open Up campaign is asking UK citizens to petition party leaders to hold Open Primaries in every constituency in the country, ahead of the next general election. You can sign the petition here. Here’s why you should.

When they get there, we expect the men and women we send to the House of Commons each election to represent us: our views, our problems, our challenges, our hopes. But the simplicity of this system – the authenticity of the relationship between representative and represented – has been under pressure from wider social and political change for decades. In particular, the decline in the relevance that party politics has in ordinary people’s lives has not been mirrored by a decline in power those same parties have over the electoral process:

“The current way of doing politics is killing politics. An electoral and party system which is responsive to the changing values and demands of today’s population should be created. This will allow the development of new political alliances and value systems which will both regenerate existing parties and also stimulate the creation of others.”

Power to the People: The report of POWER, an independent inquiry into Britain’s democracy

If you’re reading this as a UK citizen, then it’s more likely than not that the results of voting in your area in the next General election have already been chosen for you. The vast majority of constituencies in the UK are safe seats. That means that, if you’re an aspiring MP, right now it’s much better to get in with a particular political party (and get selected), than to get in with the electorate (because if you’re in a safe seat, you’ll get voted for anyway). It follows that, once said aspiring MP has got elected, he is more incentivised to stay loyal to his party than to stay loyal to his voters.

This situation breaks representative democracy. In this situation, it’s easy to see how constituents might become a problem to manage, rather than a set of diverse voices to amplify. Witness to this are the solutions proposed by Parliament and Government to “fix” the expenses crisis so far: we’ve had an inquiry or two (funded by the taxpayer) and an independent authority has been proposed (funded by the taxpayer). These are solutions which “manage expectations”. They don’t promote any real change at all.

That’s where Open Up comes in. If enough people join the call for Open Primaries, party leaders will have to listen, and the UK’s voters will see real change as soon as before the next election. They’ll be given a real choice in who represents them, regardless of where they live. And by making that choice, they’ll be helping to mend representative democracy.

For the uninitiated – as I was, when I began to work around Westminster as a grassroots consumer and civil rights campaigner in 2007 – the layer of party politics which sits on top of everyday legislative activity feels deeply alien. What with party whips influencing votes, and party loyalties skewing campaigns for positive change that seemed, to me and my supporters, deeply straightforward, the general impression is of talented, resourceful people who have inexplicably chosen to govern the country through the medium of some kind of game. And not just any game, but a game not unlike that other British export, cricket: the rules are complex, and the logic is hidden.

Our society is facing huge challenges. There’s the economic crisis. Linked to that is a shifting geo-political situation; war, the fear of more war. Then there are all the new technologies we rely on our legislators to nurture and regulate for the good of society – information technology, genetic technologies, nanotechnology. And beyond that, the urgent need, when it comes to keeping our climate human-habitable for our children and grandchildren, for good investment at home and effective cooperation abroad.

To examine these challenges and decide on the most productive way to face them, we need the best deliberative tools possible.  That’s why it’s urgent that we fix Parliament now. Open primaries are not the only way to do this, but they’re a good start – they don’t require legislative intervention, and they will deliver a positive impact to voters across the whole of the UK.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be here tracking the development of the Open Up campaign around the web, and fielding questions, comments and suggestions from petition signers (and potential petition signers!) about how we can take this forward.  From time to time, I’ll be joined by guest bloggers – from constitutional experts to seasoned campaigners – to talk about what Open Up means to them and to lend Open Up their expertise.

One of the reasons I got involved in this campaign was to try and make it as inclusive and creative as possible, and for that I need your help. If you’ve signed the petition, and you’d like to tell the world your reasons why, then do leave a message in the comments to this post. If you have a question about how open primaries might work, or about anything else to do with the campaign, then feel free to voice it here. And if you like what’s being done here, please tell your friends, and help spread the word about Open Up across the country, so we can all have a chance at real change before the next election.

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