Thursday, 20 May 2010

200 state funded primaries

The coalition government has just published its full agreement. Party hacks from both sides will be poring over the agreement spotting 'their' policies.

One item which stood out to me was this:

"We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up, in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last general election."

What does this mean?

In Totnes before the last election, the Conservatives chose their candidate, now MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston, using an open primary method. Every registered voter in the constituency was eligible to take part and about 24% of them did. Nothing like the turnout in the general election of course, but still a huge proportion of the electorate.

This was a massive change from the normal procedure of all parties. Previously, only party members had been able to vote (and supportive union members in Labour's case). By opening the procedure up to the public, the Tories managed to engage many thousands of people who wouldn't have previously been able to have a say. And with a turnout of around a quarter of the electorate, it is safe to say that no opposition party 'swamped' the ballot in order to pick the worst candidate. Sure, they lost a little bit of party control. But the people who made it onto the ballot paper were all approved candidates and all had been heavily vetted so, in effect, the party would be comfortable whoever won.

The big advantage of this method is that it engages the electorate. If voters have had a chance to select the candidate in a primary, they will be more likely to vote for that candidate (and party) at the general election. And, of course, it is a huge advantage for the party to be able to put out lots of bits of paper with the party names and policies all over them.

So now this process is going to be state funded in up to 200 constituencies at a cost of up to £40,000 each time (that was how much the Totnes experiment is said to have cost although the details of the state funded package may be different).

According to the coalition document, each of the parties represented in Parliament will get a number of primaries in proportion to their share of the vote. So UKIP, the BNP and Sinn Fein will not get any. The Lib Dems will get around 48, the Greens 2, Labour about 65, the Tories about 78 and so on. (I may work out the precise numbers in due course).

How to use them? Well the Totnes primary was used by the Tories to pick a candidate in a safe seat that they held where the outgoing MP was blighted by the expenses scandal. On the face of it, this sort of entrenchment tactic could be used for the state funded primaries. But the detailed rules might spell out that they can only be used in seats that are not already held.

The definition of 'seats that have not changed hands for many years' will also be key. I presume this will mean party control rather than an individual MP. But a party which has been steadily eroding the sitting MP's support for a couple of elections will surely use an open primary to give their campaign a shot in the arm.

Could there be a case where two parties pick the same seat to hold a primary in? Presumably so.

I am sure that the justification for this measure will be that it will help to end safe seats. If so, the aim is laudable. But there will be questions about the entrenchment of the sitting parties and about the cost to the tax-payer. And with the process limited to only around a third of seats, there will be many of us who will continue to miss out - including many who live in safe seats that are not picked by one of the parties.

At the end of the day, changing the voting system to STV would achieve the same end in every seat and so much more. Electors can choose between candidates as well as parties, they are more likely to have a representative of the party of their choosing and safe seats disappear.


Frugal Dougal said...

The thin is, the BNPs vote is slowly but steadily increasing - could there come a point at which they are eligible for state funding for primaries? And if they are excluded, who will make the decision to exclude them, and using what criteria?

Maximus Clark said...

Well as the BNP don't have seats, never mind any that havn't changed hands in many years; they wont get any money. All the money will go to the Cons, Labs, Libs or SNP.