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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *