What is an Open Primary?

An Open Primary is an election held before a General Election, during which the public selects their preferred candidate of a political party. In an Open Primary, anyone can vote—including members of opposition parties.

Why should we hold a primary?

Today, we don’t get to select our candidates for the General Election. Today, open primaries are not held across the UK before General Elections. Instead, select groups within political parties select the General Election candidates, often from secretive lists.

MPs don’t have to earn our vote. Today, current MPs don’t have to stand for selection unless they choose to or their party forces them to — meaning that in some “safe seats” politicians have jobs for life.

We’re restricted in who we vote for. Today, voters who want to vote for a particular party can only vote for the candidate that particular party has selected for them. Open primaries would change this.

Anyone who wants to stand in a General Election as an independent can already do so…this should also be possible in a primary!

What’s the advantage of an Open Primary?

Open Up isn’t anti-politician. There are some great people in office today, who’ve played by the rules and put their constituents first. But — as we have seen — the current system limits voters’ voice and fosters a culture of patronage, secrecy and promoting from within. Open Up wants to strengthen our democracy by making it possible for voters to have a louder say in who represents us.

Open primaries encourage more people to run, and more voter participation.

They give everyone the chance to participate in the nominating process — meaning that everyone is invested in the outcome!

Are there any British laws or policies that make holding a primary illegal?


So, how would it work?

Political parties can decide to hold open primaries, and that is what Open Up’s petition demands they do. Arrangements for the primaries would be in the hands of the Electoral Commission (EC).

The Electoral Commission would have the authority to decide issues including:

  • Who is eligible to stand (for example, whether individuals with criminal records are eligible).
  • How much money candidates can spend, and how this money may be raised (for example, they could cap spending).
  • What people will need to do to become candidates (For example, they might choose to have individuals obtain signatures of support and/or put down a deposit in order to declare their candidacy).
  • Protections to assure equal media coverage and other issues to ensure fairness.

Won’t it be confusing to voters to select from so many candidates?

Voters will have the opportunity to learn about every candidate during the primary campaign. We trust that voters will consider the options, and cast their vote for the candidate that best reflects their values and aspirations.

Won’t parties “throw” the outcome of the General Election by encouraging their members to vote for candidates from other parties who will be easy to defeat?

In any election, there is the possibility of abuse and fraud. We feel that the vast majority of Britons will cast their primary vote for the candidate they feel will do the best job.

But wait, I thought some parties do hold open primaries.

A number of people have promoted the idea of primaries. The Conservative Party has experimented with primaries, for example, in London’s last mayoral election and more recently in Totnes. And members of the Labour government, including Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband and former Culture Secretary James Purnell, are on-the-record supporting the idea. This is a good start, but it’s just not enough. In the aftermath of the expenses scandal, there must be Open Primaries in every constituency, and every MP must stand for selection again, in order to restore our trust in government.

Won’t it be too expensive to hold Open Primaries across the country?

Of course, it will cost money to hold Open Primaries. But what price better government? From the financial crisis to the expenses scandal, it’s obvious that our system must improve. As taxpayers we pay a lot now, and we’re going to pay more. We need the best people to be the stewards for our money and our future. Against this background the extra cost of Open Primaries seems very small.
On top of this consider the costs of a General Election…where we don’t have a choice in our candidates:

    • The Department for Constitutional Affairs estimated the cost of administering the 2005 general election in England and Wales was approximately £71 million in public funds. (House of Commons Written Answers for 25 May 2005)
    • Spending for the three main parties in 2005 was more than £40 million. (Electoral Commission, “Election 2005: Campaign Spending”). This is in addition to the £71 cited above.
          • Conservative Party £17,852,245
          • Labour Party £17,939,618
          • Liberal Democrats £4,324,574

And some other costs to chew on:

“£11,510,792 – total cost of second homes allowance claimed by MPs in 2007-08. Would pay for 38 Ridgeback armoured vehicles, costing £300,000 each.” (“MPs’ expenses claims and what military equipment they could have bought,” Telegraph, 25 September 2009)

“MPs who step down at the next election will still receive a £64,000 ‘resettlement grant’ when they leave. Last month Eric Pickles, the Conservative Party’s chairman, said that he expected 30 Tory MPs to stand down.” (“Nine out of 10 MPs face questions about their expenses from Sir Thomas Legg investigation”, Telegraph, 5 Sep 2009)

“More than 120 Labour MPs—a third of the parliamentary party—are preparing to quit Westminster at the next general election in the biggest clear-out of the parliamentary “old guard” for generations, according to senior party figures.” (“120 Labour MPs plan to stand down at next general election,” Guardian, 9 August 2009)

“Between April and July 2009, 264 Members have repaid a total of £642,728.75 in expenses. The average refund was £2,434 per Member.” (House of Commons Written Answers, 2 July 2009)

Our current system has produced some of the world’s most esteemed leaders—people like Winston Churchill. Why change it?

An Open Primary will encourage the very best and brightest to run for office, not just party loyalists. It will lead to a wider diversity of viewpoints being represented by candidates. It will give voters more choice. We’re sure that Britain will continue to produce some of the world’s finest leaders as a result.

What if a bunch of, er, quacks run for office?

Voters will have the opportunity to learn about every candidate during the primary campaign. We trust the British people to make wise choices.

As we have seen from the expenses scandal, the current system doesn’t ensure anything about the candidates. It does ensure limited choice, limited transparency, and an outdated party system.

Won’t Open Primaries favour candidates who can afford to throw a lot of money into their campaign?

The Electoral Commission would have the authority to set fundraising and spending parameters to ensure fairness in how money is raised and spent. Open Up definitely doesn’t want an American-style system, where candidates can spend millions to try and win a single primary.

What if political parties refuse to hold Open Primaries?

Any party that supports an open, democratic system will want to give voters the most say possible in who represents them in the next General Election. Why wouldn’t they encourage better engagement with us, the voters?

However, in the event that parties refuse, the Government can require parties to hold Open Primaries through legislation.

Won’t an open primary lead to a fixed-term Parliament?

Under this proposal, primaries would simply need to be held in advance of any General Election that is called, regardless of when or how often a General Election is called. A fixed-term Parliament is a separate debate in the reform agenda.

What are you going to do with the petition?

Once we’ve gathered signatures, Open Up will send the petition to Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg and leaders from other political parties to ensure they understand what the electorate is asking for.

Is holding an Open Primary in every constituency feasible, from a practical point of view?

We are very good at holding elections in this country–we can run a national election in a matter of weeks, and we have a world-class Electoral Commission. In 2005 the General Election was called on April 5…and the election was held just one month later on May 5. Right now, conventional wisdom says that there are months before the next General Election. Open Up is confident that any political party that supports a democratic process will provide those responsible with administering Open Primaries with the resources they need to accomplish that.