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Time to put UK primaries to bed

July 30th, 2016

Big Ben

Elitism has a rightful place in politics

A colleague told me this week that she felt let down that she couldn’t vote in the Conservative leadership contest. Never mind that her politics are somewhere between Jeremy Corbyn and Natalie Bennett, or that I – like the rest of the voluntary section of the Conservative Party – didn’t get a vote in the leadership contest, she’s of the opinion that everyone should be entitled to have a say in the internal democracy of political parties. She is of course wrong, though it’s interesting that the notion has built up that the right not only should exist but does do so.

Allowing anyone to participate in something which they’re likely to want to sabotage is obviously foolhardy and even Labour, in opening its leadership contest to self-defined ‘supporters’, does at least reserve the right to deny the vote to those it believes don’t support its objectives.

That’s not the only reason why it’s a mistake to spread the franchise too far though. Democracy can be a very imperfect system when the electorate is large but the voting pool is small – that is, when the turnout is very low. Jeremy Corbyn’s election and likely re-election is the clearest example of how a well-motivated minority can overwhelm an ambivalent majority but hardly the only one.

From the union leaders dancing to their left-wing executives’ tunes, to Trump winning his nomination despite – like Corbyn – very poor overall approval ratings, to Sanders running Hillary close, an excess of democracy has frequently undermined its own purpose.

Hardly surprising then that faced with the unknowns of a membership vote, the Conservative MPs managed to keep the process in-house for a second time in the last three leadership elections. We don’t know of course how much internal pressure, if any, was put on Leadsom to withdraw before she reached her decision to stand back but the simple fact that she did act in that way is telling.

What was also telling was the almost complete acceptance of that decision by the Conservative Party. Perhaps the lack of an embedded tradition of membership leadership votes helped there: it’s doubtful that the Labour membership of 2015, never mind that which they have now, would have been quite so sanguine about an outcome decided solely by MPs.

And yet the contrast is clear. The Conservatives replaced their leader with little fuss and selected an obviously capable individual to the role, while Labour is engaging in a contest where none of the most qualified candidates are even standing.

So, whither democracy? Should we just leave things to an elite? No. It’s not as simple as that either.

Firstly, that elite has to be a meritocracy. It may well be fine to leave things up to MPs providing that the MPs themselves are accountable, though this may be where things become difficult because if they’re too accountable to a party base which is unrepresentative of the party’s support then the system still breaks down – and given the lack of interest shown by the general public in joining political parties, their membership may always be unrepresentative of their voting base. On the other hand, without a meaningful system of entry to and removal from that elite, it ceases to operate in the wider interest. Ultimately, it’s a balance that can only hold with a sizable degree of self-restraint on both sides.

Also, that elite has to be representative: one problem with any party leaving matters to its MPs is that large parts of the country won’t be represented in the decision making process, and those will be parts which share social and/or geographic similarities.

Finally, but crucially, we should remember that the system does work if enough people become engaged. Vocal minorities can be rejected (or supported, as the case may be) by the majority when that majority’s mobilised – but that only happens when they see good reason to be involved.

Which brings us to primaries. Trump was elected through primaries and though he won more primary votes than any previous Republican, he’ll need more than four times as many in November. Likewise, Corbyn may well win 300,000 votes in the leadership contest but that’s still less than one in thirty of what Labour will need come the general election. The views of the other 29 are just as important.

The Conservatives also trialled primaries in several constituency selections prior to the 2015 election, as well as on a few earlier occasions. I suspect we might hear little more of the idea. Apart from being expensive and of unproven utility for the local campaign, they come with the quite real risk of the poll being subverted by those who wish the party selecting ill.

The public are happy to engage at general and local elections and, within reason, at referendums. But where the whole electorate cannot be engaged then decisions are best left to a small elite who are best placed to decide. The experiment of wider internal democracy has been tried and has failed. For the good of all involved, it would be best to let it quietly expire.

David Herdson