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.

Photo: Getty
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Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
 
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.