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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.