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?

Update: Open Up in the news

We are now two weeks into the campaign and media coverage is increasing nicely. The highlight of our week was appearing on Sky news last Thursday, with John Lloyd speaking about his involvement in the project, and underlining the need for political change. Our videos were also highlighted on the BBC’s Sunday Politics Show (you can watch it here).

In print, we hit the London Evening Standard, Times OnlinePortsmouth NewsLiverpool Daily Post and Wirral News. Author, former MP and political journalist Martin Bell showed his support for our campaign in an article in the Telegraph backing our pursuit of open primaries. On top of this, Sky news online posted up our duck films. The total number of viewings of the duck films has now reached a massive 33,000!

Twitter-wise, we have near-on 600 followers, with tweets about the campaign continuing to grow day by day.

Within the world of blogging, Open Up continues to be a subject of great debate, appearing on the Canvey Beat blog, as well as on openDemocracy’s network. From discussions by political commentator Iain Dale and Birkenhead MP Frank Field, it is clear to see our profile is rising and reaching the right ears and eyes. In fact, Frank Field has openly challenged the Open Up campaign to put their money where their mouth is and aid in the calling for an open primary in Birkenhead. Though we can’t fund a primary in Birkenhead, we have agreed to do all we can to help. We’re hoping this will lead to more and more constituencies announcing their desire to reselect MPs through open primaries.

Hitting such a diverse set of media only goes to demonstrate how relevant our campaign is for everybody. So if you haven’t already, please join the call for change.

Who is your MP working for? A simple way to find out… (and let us know!)

The idea behind giving MPs public money to keep two homes instead of one, is so that they can maintain a strong connection with their constituency while representing it in Westminster. So who decides when an MP shows up in Parliament and which way they should vote when they get there? Is it:

  1. The people who elected them and whom they represent?
  2. The MP makes up their own mind according to their personal opinions?
  3. They get sent a fax from their party HQ telling them when to be in Parliament, and once they are there they get told which way to vote by a senior member of the party?

If you guessed (3) you’d be right for most of the time. The system is known as “whipping“.

Each of the major parties employ certain MPs to act as “Whips”, a position which functions much as its name suggests – to enforce so-called “party discipline” and make MPs vote the way the leaders of their party want them to.

The Chief Whips send out weekly circulars to “their” MPs notifying them of parliamentary business. The circulars use a code involving underlining. If a vote is underlined once, the Whip considers it routine, and attendance is “optional”. Items underlined twice are more important: attendance is required, unless that MP can organise someone from the opposing party to be absent as well, (a bit more like musical chairs than democracy). Any vote underlined three times means that failure to attend, and vote with the party, will result in disciplinary action. What disciplinary action usually means is expulsion from the party, at least temporarily. Because parties, not constituents, choose who gets to stand in elections, this effectively puts that MP on notice that he or she may well lose their job at the next General Election.

So, how often are votes dictated by “three line whips”? We don’t know, because the Whips’ weekly circulars are not made available to the public.

That’s right. They’re a secret. Just chew on that for a second.

Newspapers occasionally report that votes have been declared “three-line whips” by particular parties. Here are just a few reported examples:

What has this got to do with Open Primaries? Well, right now party Whips can dominate MPs, because it is political parties who chose whether an MP gets selected or not. If voters got to choose who got selected, the Whips’ power would be substantially diminished.

So is your MP working for you, or for the Whip? It’s hard to tell categorically – and not just because the Whips’ weekly reports are kept secret. Even if we could see the Whips’ reports, there’s often no way to tell whether a particular MP would have voted the way they did even if the Whip hadn’t told them to – we can’t read MPs’ minds, after all.

Still, there is a very simple way to tell whether your MP is voting on particular issues in the way you would want them to, thanks to a very cool website put together by volunteers called Public Whip. If you’ve got five minutes, give this a try.

Go to Public Whip, find the box labelled “Find out how any MP or Lord votes” and enter your postcode in the space provided.

You’ll be sent to a new page (see image, below), where the name of your MP will appear. It’s worth checking at this point whether this was the person you voted for in the last election (their party name appears in the third column of the summary box near the top of the page). Obviously, if this MP is not the person you voted for, they’re less likely to share your political views. But if this is the MP you voted to get into power, then to see if they’re representing your views, read on…

 

Click on the tab marked “Policy comparisons” near the top of the page. Now you should be taken to a list of policies, including the Iraq invasion, abortion, the rights of homosexuals, fox-hunting, ID cards and laws to combat terrorism. Down the side of this list is a list of percentages. A low percentage means that your MP is generally voting against these policies. A high percentage means they are generally voting in favour of them.

Any surprises? If you’re shocked by what you see, leave a comment to this blog post. Do you share their opinions? Do you feel fairly represented? Let us know!

We must become Parliamentarians again

I have just finished reading a fascinating book about the collapse in September 2008 of Lehman Brothers. Well informed and informative, it describes in vivid and authentic detail how that banking house careered towards the biggest bankruptcy in history dragging much of the world’s financial system into chaos with it. The book is titled A Colossal Failure of Common Sense and is a study of the deadly interplay between personal and institutional greed for both money and power, the desire of those in power to maintain the status quo, the reluctance to recognise inconvenient facts and the willingness of those with “common sense” to become complicit and not ask the key “what if?” questions. It should be required reading for the leaders of our political parties.

It is our political parties that have become a necessity in, but also the kidnappers of, our representative democracy. And it is they that are leading us headlong towards the collapse of public confidence in our parliamentary system. They are doing this, as they have for some time, in three main ways.

They exercise substantial control of parliamentary candidacy by deciding at central or local level who is allowed to put themselves up for election as representatives of constituencies.

They are the self-appointed guardians of the rule that all holders of ministerial positions sit in one of the two houses of Parliament and are members of (or, in rare cases, supporters of) “the party”.

They make clear to “their” MPs (via the whipping system and other more subtle pressures) that the realisation of any ambition to have a political career including ministerial office is dependent on supporting “their” government and not “rocking the boat”.

By these means the political parties have captured our freedoms and largely destroyed the notions that Government should be subject to the control of Parliament and that Parliament should consist of the people’s representatives freely elected. We are, in effect, forced to vote for a party which will create the next government with our MPs reduced substantially to cannon fodder in relation to national matters and encouraged to focus on “constituency matters”. Test this by asking your MP two questions, one relating to a purely local matter and the other to a national matter. You will get a prompt response to the former but, very likely, will have to wait for a response to the latter until someone on the MP’s staff has checked with “central office” what the party line is.

No wonder that Parliament has become a rather self important cosy club in which intelligent people, forced to engage in a ritualistic death dance with its own arcane rules, are exposed to the temptation of taking concealed reward for accepting a largely frustrating and intellectually sterile role in life. Hardly the centre of a people’s democracy! This is not what those who have fought for our liberty over the centuries, and particularly in the 17th century (not so long ago!), intended.

There is a little known event which started us on the path to domination by political parties and the mess they have got us into.

The Act of Settlement of 1701, best known for securing the occupancy of our throne in protestant hands, was also intended to be the final nail hammered into the coffin of royal executive supremacy by the parliamentarians. Following on from the thinking underlying our Bill of Rights – the expression of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – the Act of Settlement laid down the principle that no person with an office under the Crown (i.e. no minister) could be capable of serving as a member of the House of Commons. Since the House of Commons already had secured control of “supply” (money needed by government to carry out its policies) this principle was designed to ensure that Government was not only separate from Parliament but also controlled by a Parliament with the means of quickly and directly imposing its will.

That provision of the Act of Settlement was to come into force on the (protestant) Hanoverian succession but long before that happened it was changed in 1705 into a provision that only the holders of offices created after that year could be barred from being MPs. Since all the great offices of state already existed, this change neutered what the parliamentarians wanted.

Had the provision in the Act of 1701 stood, no ministers would have been in and able to manipulate the House of Commons. There would have been no party whips controlled by ministers and no members on the payroll of ministers and “expected” to vote with government – the payroll vote. What would have been the consequence of this? One possibility is that we would have moved to the structure adopted by the rebelling American colonies later in the century with the head (Mr President) of an appointed executive (the ministers) elected separately from the legislature. A true and democratic separation of the powers!

Who pushed for the change of 1705? Surprise! Surprise! It was the emerging political class already organising themselves into the political parties which were to become the Tories (the King’s party) and the Whigs (the large landowners’ party). Those politicians, with deeply undemocratic instincts, saw and seized the opportunity to take the power which the parliamentarians had wrenched from the Crown. And by ensuring that sufficient of them were embedded in the House of Commons they could claim that they had democratic legitimacy (”we have been elected”) and ensure that those with political ambition were required to become first a member of a House of Commons which they substantially controlled.

This was the essence of what they (in horse racing parlance “the nobblers”) did and was precisely contrary to what parliamentarians had fought and died for. It was a dreadful defeat and ensured both that Parliament, representing the people, would have a very limited control of Government and that we would only ever have a pale shadow of a truly representative democracy. The situation was made worse by the cynical use the Tories (the King’s Party) made of the remaining royal prerogative to create peers (who could be ministers also) and obtain control of the “upper house”. This eventually caused a series of constitutional crises culminating in the curbing of the Peers’ powers nearly one hundred years ago and a “promise”, still not kept, by the political parties to reform the House of Lords.

The political parties have not served the cause of democracy and “we the people” well. They could have done much better – and would have done – had their leaders been less interested in the power that goes with governing us and more interested in helping us to govern ourselves. The right thing for them – the parties and their leaders – to do is to support the cause of popular reform and start by liberating our elected representatives. The primaries route for which Open Up is campaigning is a very attractive way of doing just that.

It is my hope that Open Up, and other reforming campaigns such as Power 2010 which have derived much energy from the hugely successful Convention on Modern Liberty, will succeed. A truly reforming House of Commons consisting of independently minded members should consider carefully why the creators of our Glorious Revolution wanted Government separate and excluded from our Parliament – a Parliament with the last word. I believe that those creators were right and that we should fight for what they wanted. Whether the politicians and their parties like it or not it is time for us, we the people, to become parliamentarians again. This time we must win and make our victory permanent.