“BRITISH politics changed last week -- utterly, permanently and benignly.” - the words of Daniel Hannon MEP writing in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend. In case your personal Richter scale sensor didn't register the political earthquake reported by Mr Hannan you need to know that the earth shook in Totnes, Devon, where the Conservative party held an open primary vote to select a candidate for next year's general election. The result was a win for Sarah Woolaston, a local doctor who has belonged to the Conservative party for about two years. A good turn-out of voters from all parties and none in the constituency enabled Mrs Wollaston to defeat her two opponents, both long-serving Conservative party members with creditable track records in local government.

I would not normally return to ten-day old news but the Totnes result has produced an extraordinary outpouring of favourable articles and speeches in support of Mr Hannon's judgement. Political journalists and long-serving politicians have portrayed it as nothing less than the death of politics as we have known it for the past century and the re-birth of British democracy in which, to quote the headline of Mr Hannan's article, “MPs will be answering to the people.”

When the result of the Totnes vote was announced I wrote a favourable Viewpoint in this paper about the experiment but asked a few questions on its wider applicability across all constituencies and parties in the run-up to a general election. The main claim for open primaries is that they remove the selection of parliamentary candidates from local party officials and long-serving members who place loyalty to the party above other qualities such as independence of mind and spirit. The present system, it is argued, results in MPs who are likely to serve their party first in the House of Commons rather than the people who elected them -- hence the power of whips to tell MPs how to vote even when it may be against their conscience or the interests of some of those who voted for them.

There is, of course, some truth in such thinking. But to suppose that open primaries of the kind held at Totnes will solve the problem is nonsense. The primary vote is a standard feature of American politics but those who advocate it for Britain overlook the difference between the two systems. In votes for members of Congress - the nearest US equivalent of the House of Commons - Americans are choosing representatives whose main role is to review and vote on legislation or other proposals sent to them by the President, whose party may or may not be in a majority in Congress. In Britain the presidential function is held by the prime minister who occupies his position only because his party has a majority in parliament. The difference is crucial. If the country has elected a party to govern then that party must have a sufficient majority in the Commons to carry out the programme on which it was elected. The prime minister of the day must know that he or she can count on the loyalty of the party's MPs to support his legislative programme - a prime minister would be powerless under Mr Hannon's belief that “MPs will be answering to the people” if that means that they will have to ask their constituents how they should vote on every important issue that comes before Parliament. The House of Commons is not just a talking shop in which MPs can air their interesting views regardless of how nearly they coincide with the policies of the party which provided the wherewithall for them to be elected. The Commons is a workshop where legislation proposed by the party and approved by the electorate is hammered out in legal detail and eventually brought into existence by parliamentary vote.

THE truth is that in a broad sense MPs already “answer to the people” through the existing party and electoral system in Britain. Those who care enough about politics participate in constituency activities and participate in policy formulation locally and at the annual party conferences. MPs who are not sufficiently responsive to their constituents will lose votes at the next election. The risk of widespread adoption of open primaries is that it will result in the choice and election of charismatic candidates whose commitment to their party's election manifesto is partial or lukewarm. This could in time lead to even greater disillusionment with politics as promises are made that simply cannot be kept.


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