Yesterday, Frank Field MP answered the Open Up call for open primaries. Mr Field says that as a sitting MP who’s been shaken by the expenses scandal, he would welcome the opportunity to go back to put his case to his voters. He writes:
“[Sir Thomas Legg’s] letter bangs around in my head incessantly. This is the basis of my renewed interest in an open primary. Such a move would allow my constituents to pass a specific judgement on the question of my expenses, but also my record as their MP. They would have a choice between me and other candidates wishing to stand in a safe seat. This is not a choice that my constituents get in a general election. Whenever that occurs they also have to consider how their vote will affect the formation of a government and who will be Prime Minister.”
We’re delighted that a high-profile figure like Mr Field has become the first MP to rise to the Open Up challenge. He has also issued a challenge of his own:
“The Totnes open primary cost £40k. Does your campaigning extend to raising the money to put your idea into practice?”
So who should pay for open primaries? It’s a question that has come up rather a lot since we launched the campaign. We’re not going to duck it. But we also can’t foot the bill ourselves, and nor do we think we should (even if we had the money to run one open primary, if we say yes to this one, we’d have to say yes to all of them). So what are the options?
There look to be two choices when it comes to who funds open primaries: the political parties, as the Conservatives did in Totnes; or the taxpayer, who funds the running of the ballot in a general election. Some have already pointed out that, even conservative estimates based on the cost of Totnes put the total bill for holding open primaries in every constituency at around £20million. And there’s also the question of whether any extra money raised by political parties to run open primaries would count as campaign spending, which is capped by the Electoral Commission during a general election. We’re consulting with the Electoral Commission right now to understand what the issues might be here, and will keep the blog updated on what we find out.
£20million is a big number, but it’s not stratospheric. Let’s remember that large amounts of public money, as well as party funds, go into general elections at the moment. In 2005, more than £71million of public funds was spent on administering the general election. On top of that, the three major political parties spent in excess of £40million on campaigning.
Given that we’re already able to predict the outcome of the general election in 2010, it’s fair to ask whether this money could be made to go further, and give voters a real choice. There’s already so much cross-party endorsement for primaries, as well as emerging popular support for the Open Up campaign for open primaries, that the cost of running them simply can’t be used by opponents to change as a quick way to dismiss the issue.
And if public funds were used to cover some, or all, of the estimated £20million cost of open primaries, would that be a bad thing? Our democracy is worth investing in. We’re already spending millions on elections. Open Primaries will result in a better democracy, that could well reduce government spending in the long run, and save us all money.
And let’s put £20million into context. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the so-called “arm’s length” body set up just before the end of the last Parliamentary session to regulate MPs’ expenses claims in response to the expenses scandal, is estimated to cost the taxpayer £1.1million in set up costs alone. Across 2007-2008, MPs claimed over £11million in second homes allowances. And the Olympic velodrome, which was slated to cost £20million in 2005, is now more likely to cost £105million.
Finally, if Douglas Carswell MP gets his way, it’s likely that funding open primaries before this general election would be a one-off cost. Legislation he proposed at the beginning of this month carries a provision for Returning Officers to include ballot papers for open primaries when constituents vote in local or European elections, letting primaries “piggy-back” on the costs of running these polls. This could reduce costs dramatically in the long-term.
Here at Open Up, we don’t want to duck (quack!) the costs issue. But we also know it’s not one we can solve on our own. Here’s what we can contribute. As voters, we can make it clear to political parties that we would respond positively to investment they make in democratising their candidate selection process. As taxpayers, we can ask the state to look again at how they are spending our money on elections, and see if there are ways to spend it that would improve representation and help permit open primaries to happen. And as campaigners, we can continue to provide a platform for promoting change, a platform that opens up the difficult challenges to debate, and helps spot the opportunities to overcome them.