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.

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