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 a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage