Lots of discussion on the TV last night and the radio this morning about Ed Milliband's suggestion of primaries for Labour Westminster constituency selections.
I'm all for primary selections and I don't much understand why anybody would be against them; after all, it is the whole constituency that you are going to be representing not just the 30 or so activist that can be bothered to vote.
But I think there are so many more benefits to politics that the obvious democratic one above. For a start I think, despite being a vastly larger selectorate, I think it will make the whole process of selection less onerous for a candidate which can only be a good thing. As someone who has spent actual years of her life attempting (and failing) to get selected in her home seat, I found as time went on the only way to do it was to woo each member individually and this sometimes took half an afternoon spent in their front room discussing all sorts of things, many of which frankly have no bearing on either what sort of candidate you'd make, how you'd run the campaign and even what sort of MP you'd make. Just the whim of an indulged activist, one of 120 that need wooing in that selectorate (for some reason the region had decided that all 3 constituencies forming the local party, would vote in the selection).
I would say, that last time that I attempted selection that this tactic worked to the point that it got me equal votes in the selection with the eventual (and incumbent candidate), it didn't help much when they tossed the coin to see which of us would win! Indeed, although a failing candidate I had a troup of people come and ask for my best practice on how to run a selection campaign in the months after.
If you're selectorate is larger then you have no hope of winning by picking people off one by one in such an intense fashion, so you don't do it. In fact the campaign you would have to run to win a primary is far more akin to the kind of campaign you would have to run to win the seat in an election and therefore actually worthwhile doing even if you don't win the selection. One of the most frustrating things about my experience of selection (apart from not winning of course) was the amount of time and effort it took just to fail and that type of activity was not transferable but only relevant to dealing with internal party politics and power struggles.
So, I decided after the same thing happened in a by-election for a council seat (where I also lived) I decided that I wasn't going to waste my time any more, and as I'm in demand and have choices I went off and did something more meritorious instead. Part of that as a masters at Law, hence my blogosphere silence for the last three years. But it's not just my personal feeling about how I spent my time but the waste of effort on behalf of the most active of activists - I could have been out doing things that were going to wins real votes instead!
I also think there'd be less potential for squishing.
I've worked in big, national brand corporations for much of my working life and boy they are competitive places. It's easy to see people squishing and being squished as a particularly ambitious individual makes their way up the organisation. But, unlike in political parties, you don't tend get groups of people going around squishing people on behalf of the rising stars in the organisation. This level of backstabbing, political shenanigans, perpertrated by those not even sacrificing anything in their life but viewing it all more as entertainment really puts people off. It sure as hell puts me off. I do still wonder how many hours I spent in front rooms being quizzed on the most fringeworthy of topics just to keep me wasting my time for longer. And I've just giving you one of the nicer examples of how people behave - there are far worse!
You can say that it's all good practice for the realities of Westminster life but this is a circular argument. Because we make it a condition of entry then we fill the place with people who think this is the best way to succeed and to legislate and eventually to govern. We miss out on many, many people because we insist on parliament being like this.
I have no intention of standing for parliament again; even though when I did in 2005 I really enjoyed it and even though I think I 'd make a great candidate and an even better MP. I'm not standing again because I don't have the stomach for the selection, because I did quite a few of them over a four year period and put my all into it, did everything that was asked of me and did it well and still failed. So, twice that failure was down to pulling the wrong name out of a hat (can you believe it?) and maybe the next time it would have worked. But I think the whole way that we as activists treat those who want to be candidates, our expectations of them and our preference for white middle class men means that I'm not going to take part until the process changes and somehow the culture of candidate selection changes.
I think primaries would be a smashing idea, I think it would produce more women, more people who have been doing demanding jobs other than politics and so haven't had the time to cultivate the local cliques in political parties. I think it would produce a wider of variety of races take part, sexualities and (dis)abilities who, I think rightly, have more faith in the general public than the prejudices of a small group about what makes the best MP. I think it would be a fantastic practice for an actual election and therefore have its own value, even failure would not be a waste of time. Good candidates pursuing selection within the whole constituency would start to bring in votes even before they've been elected.
It's draw back is that it is expensive but really it has to be looked at as the start of the election campaign and is therefore not wasted money. We should use it in our safest, most important seats so putting on a primary would actually bring a local party extra campaign funding and be a sign of status.
Our lack of diversity is shameful and the only thing that has ever created even 30% of women in a national parliament is quotas. Only quotas work, there is no special Liberal Democrat alternative route to diversity, there is just this one way. However, although quotas can be easily implemented across gender but it is not as easy across other under-represented groups but primaries would help increase every sort of diversity and we like the Tories and Labour should really consider bringing them in.