Alex Massie

Primaries Are Not the Answer

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James makes a droll case for Labour holding an open, national, primary to select the party's next leader. As I say, it's an entertaining notion, though it's not clear that Tory or Lib Dem voters have any real right to choose Gordon Brown's successor.

Still, the idea of primaries seems to be on everyone's mind lately. All in the name of "reconnecting" politicians and voters. But the argument for primaries basically comes down to one thing: that's how they do it in the United States. Since much of the British political and media class finds American presidential elections much more exciting and interesting than anything that happens on our own wee island, it's hardly surprising that there should be such enthusiasm for any idea that would Americanise our politics.

But this is a fantasy. Life is not like the West Wing. Entranced by the glamour and intensity of Presidential primary contests, pundits and politicians forget that such contests are exceptional, not typical. In the first place, they're contested by politicians who possess at least some measure of national recognition and subjected to pretty intense media scrutiny. It is hard to imagine a primary contest in Aberdeen South or Epping Forest attracting quite the same attention.

In other words, constituency primaries in Britain are much more likely to be akin to Congressional and gubernatorial primaries than presidential ones. Turnout in the recent Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia, for instance, was just over 6% of those voters eligible to vote. And that was despite the presence in the race of a well-kent face in Terry MacAuliffe. And that was quite a high turnout! In 2006 Jim Webb won the Democratic Senate primary on a turnout of just more than 3%. And that was a rare, contested primary too...

Nor are these unusual figures; it's pretty rare for primaries  - whether closed, open or semi-open - to attract much more than 10% turnout. If replicated in Britain, that would suggest that no more than 7,000 people would vote in the average constituency primary. And often, of course, many fewer than that.

Since these voters, almost be definition, would be the most politically active it's also not obvious that a primary system would do much to "reconnect" the average voter to politics. (And should voters even be expected to be so connected? Perhaps the problem is that there's too much politics, not too little.)

Nor do systems guarantee better outcomes or even make them more probable. Few people familiar with the US House of Representatives would suggest that it's a chamber worth emulating. On the contrary, it frequently seems to be a parliament of horrors. Indeed, the mania for importing American political systems seems curious when one considers that many, perhaps most, Americans think their own politics is "broken". Congress's approval rating is often stuck below 30%. That may reflect a certain admirable scepticism, but it's also a reminder that every candidate for national office runs on a platform of "healing" America's grievously-wounded political system. 

Nor does the availability of primaries - open or not - or town hall caucus-like meetings do much to improve the calibre of candidate. In one sense, for sure, it open up the selection process, but there's ample evidence supporting the view that it actually empowers the extremes on both right and left, ensuring that Congress is less, not more, reflective of the actual electorate at large than it might be if other systems were used. In other words, it grants more, not less, power the the most passionately engaged who also, it stands to reason, tend to hold more extreme views than the average voter.

Perhaps this wouldn't happen in Britain, but there seems more reason to suppose it would than to think that adopting a primary system would be some kind of magical cure-all for the malaise afflicting Westminster politics.

The Foreign Secretary says he's an enthusiast for a national database (another one!) holding the records of registered Conservatives and Labour supporters. Well, one can see why politicians would like this: they'd be able to target voters even more effectively and, of course, raise more money more easily. In other words, we'd all be more frequently pestered by politicians.

This doesn't mean that there wouldn't be some advantages to a primary system - more races for the press to cover! More fun! - but just because it's glitzy and trendy and American doesn't mean such a system would do much to improve the calibre or honesty of British politics, far less generate much more enthusiasm for politics from an electorate that, quite reasonably, doesn't want to be more engaged than it has to be.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticswestminster