Open Primaries: could this work for local government?

Yesterday saw the selection of Dr Sarah Wollaston as the Conservative candidate for Totnes through an all-postal open primary. Instead of the local Conservative party members in Totnes selecting their candidate, all registered voters in the constituency were invited to take part in the postal vote and have their say on who they wanted as their Conservative candidate for the next election.

With a 24.6% turnout, the Conservatives are hailing this as a great success; and perhaps quite rightly. In the wake of the expenses scandal, people wanted to have their say over who would be selected – and they have had it.

The cynics among us may disagree; the local party put together the shortlist, so voters were only selecting from pre-approved set of candidates which they had no control over. But what is really interesting is their choice of candidate; someone with apparently little political experience, but instead, with a strong background as a local community activist.

This got me thinking about whether an open primary process could work for the selection of councillors. This is not the first time that this idea has been put forward. In June this year Liverpool Democracy Commission recommended that political parties in Liverpool should think about developing ‘innovative ways of widening the process of selecting candidates, such as open primaries’. This, they argue, could represent a means of improving democracy and participation in local authority decision making. I think they may have a point.

There are a number of arguments that support the introduction of open primaries to the selection of candidates for council elections. By opening the process up to public vote, it gives a level of transparency about the selection and could see a more diverse set of candidates being selected. Giving local people the choice over the short listing of candidates could also represent an added level of empowerment at local level, and could encourage more people to turn out and vote.

However, there are also counter arguments. As shown in Totnes, this was a costly process and with finances as they are, who could foot the bill? Also, rather than encourage people to vote, would this actually add another level of bureaucracy that would turn citizens off?

Perhaps the most compelling argument however, is how much choice over candidates would parties really give local people? If the parties prepare the shortlist, arguably, this would give local people little say and may not actually open the list to a more diverse range of people. Maybe then, what really needs to happen is a fully open and transparent process where even the shortlists are open for citizens to get involved in – both to stand as a prospective candidate and to be involved in the selection? What do you think about this? Leave a comment below.

    1. Great article! I think they’re a good idea for MP’s, less convinced for local councillors.

    2. Laura Wilkes says:

      Tom, I think you are right – good independent candidates do have a good chance of winning, but I wonder how many people would actually get to the point of standing in a local election without a party behind them?

      Regarding whether primaries are needed, I guess what I was really wondering is whether the selection of candidates for local elections by parties is transparent and actually delivers a variety of candidates that reflect the local area? At the moment short lists are chosen by party activists, as is the selection for seats; this is not transparent to the public and figures show us that this is not representative of the population (look at the National Census of Local Authority Councillors 2008 for figures).

      I am not convinced that this gives real choice to local people over who their councillors are; more choice could be given by having open primaries. This would allow citizens to have a say over who is on their voting papers on election day. But, as I said, real choice would mean local people getting to select shortlists too – although this is unlikely to be a possibility.

    3. Tom Calver says:

      The question is whether primaries are as needed at local level. In local elections good independent candidates have a good chance of winning, whereas in parliamentary elections you have to have a party (and in many constituencies that’s one particular party) machine behind you.

      If a local activist can succeed outside the party system it’s probably healthier that they do that than force themselves to fit into a party mould.

      The danger for local councils if parliamentary primaries favour local activists is the prospect of more MPs who spend more time getting involved in local decision making rather than national, disenfranchising councillors even more and driving local election turnouts even lower.

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