Primaries aren’t about reducing safe seats: they’re about increasing credible candidates

A new form of candidate selection would help the UK to emulate the US's more representative system.

When Tammy Baldwin strode across the dais at Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center on 6 November 2012 to celebrate her Senate victory, she knew it was a historic night for many reasons. And each of those reasons was greeted with loud cheers. In her opening remarks she referenced the comfortable re-election of her party’s president and then delivered two short, simple sentences that spoke volumes. "I am well aware that I will have the honor to be Wisconsin’s first woman senator", followed by "and I am well aware that I will be the first openly-gay member of the United States Senate." The last three words were barely audible given the euphoria of Monona Terrace.

Baldwin’s speech acknowledged that, regardless of party affiliation, when it comes to a political system that is open to mirroring the demographics of its populace, the US is the "city upon a hill", especially when compared to the UK. A large part of this is due to the American system of primaries used to filter and elect candidates that allows a large pool of applicants to have a decent shot at public office. The US has a wealth of diversity in public office: an African-American re-elected president; a Roman Catholic vice-president; the largest number of female senators in history (20); and 193 Democrats in the House, of whom the majority are women. Conversely, fewer than 25 per cent of British MPs are female 

What is it that makes the US system so adept at mirroring demographic changes, as well as encouraging a political environment that nurtures the American? And why does the UK find it so difficult?

Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan wrote in the Daily Telegraph that primaries would alter British politicians’ mindsets and bring an end to safe seats. The Spectator’s Alex Massie challenged this premise: "Facilitating primary challenges to sitting MPs might make some members nervous and possibly imperil their careers; most of the time it would have little impact on the strength of party representation at Westminster. Kensington or South Shields will remain safe seats, no matter what mechanism is used to select candidates." Both arguments have their merits but both miss the point. Primaries should be introduced not because of their impact on safe seats but because they would make British politicians more relevant.

From the outset, the US electoral system is far more decentralised and allows local people far more access to the institutions that enable a rapid ascent through politics. Gary Gerstle, professor of American history at Vanderbilt University and currently a visiting scholar at Oxford University, argues that "the number of presidents who have come out from nowhere is unimaginable in Britain - Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Nixon and LBJ...that diversity of origins is remarkable and allows the idea that anybody can dream about becoming president to ring true." Gerstle continues, "America is a good at replenishing its elites from marginal groups; identifying talent and ambition and putting them on an escalator." Indeed, while Sarah Palin may be remembered for all the wrong reasons in US history, no one can doubt that in the UK, the idea of a "hockey mom" reaching such political heights is almost unfathomable. The argument against would be that such an individual is unqualified, yet Palin still represented a certain swath of the American populace: people felt far more connected to her than many Brits do to any of the party leaders and their cabals.

Gerry Stoker, professor of politics and governance at the University of Southampton, contends that there are much greater institutional barriers to entering politics in the UK. "It’s virtually impossible to win any significant political position without having the backing of a political party," he says, adding, "The party system is far more open in the USA than the UK. Here, you have to be a party member for a period of time, you might have to sit on various committee meetings, and you have to have regularly campaign for the party. Already that sets strong selection barriers for most people."

The US primary system allows for multiple voices to come forward as candidates and many Americans will vote when offered an interesting primary contest, like the 2008 Obama versus Clinton tussle. As Elaine C. Kamarck has highlighted, the modern system for nominating presidential candidates owes its current format to McGovern-Fraser Commission and the reforms it enacted to the Democratic nomination process from 1972 onwards and that affected the GOP’s way of nominating soon after. Kamarck argued that the reforms replaced the old format of elite persuasion deciding the presidential candidate with one of mass persuasion. Party caucuses went from being closed events to open ones and this resulted in a marked rise in voter turnout at primaries: it has increased by a factor of 11 for Democrats since 1972 and by a factor of six for the Republicans since 1976 (barring non-competitive years when incumbent presidents were gunning for reelection).

Indeed, three important factors make the US nominating system for elected office superior to that of the UK.

Firstly, an increased turnout can create a more excitable and involved electorate, something lacking in Britain. Look at the 2008 Democratic primaries: while the historian and political commentator Paul Street is cynical of the actual political ramifications of the Obama presidency, even he had to admit that his campaign "encouraged an extraordinary amount of new popular engagement in the political process, sparking millions of Americans to overcome their endemic disgust with politics and their sense of powerlessness within the US sociopolitical order." Maine’s governor in 1984, Joseph Brennan, knew Walter Mondale would have a tough ride in the state when he didn’t recognize anyone at the Portland caucuses: the people attending weren’t party regulars; they were your average Joe.

Secondly, taking Obama’s policies out of the equation, his ability to create a grassroots organization that stunned Hillary in 2008 and reelected him in 2012 allows for a long-lasting framework for a movement that can perhaps outlast the president and push for change. Indeed, more open primaries came about because of a movement - the anti-Vietnam war agitation. Commentators like Howard Zinn argued that in order to change the lives of the poorest Americans, you needed to spend energy on a movement that focused on educating, agitating and organizing fellow citizens. Grassroots campaigns like Obama’s, created partly because of the primary system, allow for an avenue for that to start: a long-lasting framework for more significant change.

Finally, a transparent primary system forces candidates to reflect the views of their base far more accurately. Research by Stephen Jessee into voter ideology and candidate positioning in the 2008 election showed that the competition in the party primaries made the candidates feel beholden to specific constituencies and forced them to move towards their party or primary medium. While many argue that in the US this pushed Mitt Romney far too much to the right during the primaries - and that cost him in the election - in the UK there are less political extremes in the country and primaries would make candidates more connected to the electorate, rather than pushing them to an extreme.

Some of these aspects of the US system have been understood by both major political parties. The Conservatives held a primary in Totnes in 2009 that saw the selection of Sarah Wollaston, a local GP, over that of two rivals with much more political history. Nick Bye, the man she beat, said her selection was a victory for a "different style of politics" where "voters clearly want their MPs to be much less partisan, much more open-minded and pragmatic in the way they deal with issues."

Labour understands there needs to be a "ground game" and more interaction with voters. Arnie Graf, a Chicago-based community organizer, was called on by Ed Miliband to shake up a party that has only 200,000 members in a country of 63 million. In a Guardian article on Labour and Graf, Rowenna Davis, explained how "constituency and branch party meetings have often become bureaucratic and closed off. They are dominated by older members with established power bases and minutes from the previous meetings. Newcomers can be greeted with suspicion."

It’s high time that primaries are – similarly – not greeted with suspicion, nor misunderstood by the likes of Massie, Carswell and Hannan, but openly embraced by a political system increasingly isolated from a multicultural electorate.

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who was elected in Totnes in 2010 after becoming the first parliamentary candidate to be selected through an open primary.

Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist at CNBC who has written for GQ, the Atlantic, PBS NewsHour and The Daily Beast.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.