Would primaries mean more women?

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.


Alex Macfie said...
11 Jul 2013, 14:18:00

The principle reason I don't like the idea of primaries is that it would dilute the party and force it to accept the will of people who do not necessarily support it. People who are antagonistic to the party could attempt to sabotage it by voting for the weakest or most embarrassing candidate in its primary. Ultimately this undermines the party's ability to exist as an autonomous organisation. To see why, consider an analogy. You are out of an evenign with a small group of friends. You all want a quite meal in a restaurant. Now suppose a much larger group of total strangers join your small group and declare that they want to go to a nightclub, and you (the original group) have to go along with them. In a normal social situation, you would tell the strangers where to go. This is similar to a local party political branch being able to decide for itself whom to select. The situation with primaries is that it can't just decide for itself, it has to do the equivalent of your group of friends allowing the bunch of strangers to tag along and overriding your choice for how to spend your evening out.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
11 Jul 2013, 14:29:00

Hi Alex,

But experience tells us that that just doesn't happen. It didn't happen in the Conservatives primaries that it ran before the last election and it doesn't happen in the US.

So, theoretically it may happen but the way that you set up the primaries and register voters means that it just doesn't.

Left Lib said...
11 Jul 2013, 20:16:00

You do not explain how primaries can benefit women.You do rightly point out that primaries are very expensive, maybe that will benefit men? Everyone got excited about primaries after Barack Obama was elected as the presidential candidate, but generally the standard of US politicians are low.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
12 Jul 2013, 14:04:00

Generally the standard of US politicians is low??? Compared to?

Why do I think it will help women? Because our process/culture hinders women who usually (although not always) have a large share of house and childcare that needs to be done before they can think of doing anything like political activism and so just can't make the time commitment that we ask of them just in getting selected, let alone elected.

I also think that the selectorate in primaries (ie the general public) are inherently less conservative with a small c than our activists when it comes to who they think will win and rather less impressed with time serving as a political activist (or leaflet delivery count etc, etc).

When I said more expensive, I meant more expensive for the political parties, not the individual candidates.

Alex Macfie said...
13 Jul 2013, 19:32:00

I suspect that if people who want to be selected as a party candidate have to run something like an election campaign just to get the party nomination, then that means that they have to work *harder* to get selected than they would in an ordinary candidate selection process. This would make it more difficult for people who have to juggle running for election with work and other commitments.
Making it more expensive for the political parties would put a lot of pressure on parties, especially smaller ones like the Lib Dems, and would perhaps make it impossible for them to operate. And if primaries bring in extra fundraising, would this be for the party as a whole or for specific candidates? there is a danger of it turning into the US situation where it is necessary for candidates in primaries to raise funds for their own campaigns, and even be themselves wealthy enough to be able to afford to put themselves forward. There is also the danger that the primary contest will be all about face/name recognition, and not who is the most suitable candidate.

The US system means that the two main parties are reduced to little more than vehicles for candidates to get onto the ballot paper. As organisations based on sets of principles, they have much less significance than the informal and often opaque organisations that build up around the candidates themselves. This is an inevitable result of people who are not necessarily supporters of the party being able to decide who stands under its label. However, the parties themselves have become effectively institutionalised within the US political system, freezing the two-party system into place.

The selection scenario you describe seems typical of a moribund party; if only some 30 activists are voting then there is something seriously wrong with the local party. Surely the solution is to encourage more people to join the party; this will make candidate selections more meaningful and less subject to the whim of a few long-time activists. However, if people want to influence in any party's candidate selection process, then the least they ought to do is take the elementary step of joining the party. It is not even that expensive! The decision of who should stand for election under the Liberal Democrat banner is one that should be made by Liberal Democrats. Ballot-stuffing may be easier in a primary than in an ordinary selection process, because supporters of a candidate can just gather the primary ballot papers of ordinary voters, rather than having to enrol lots of people into the party.

Finally I do wonder whether primaries would fit into the UK political culture, where party self-identification is much weaker than in the US (where it is very common for ordinary people to self-identify as Democrats or Republicans in a way that just does not happen here).

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