David Cameron’s Conservative Party last week made another break with tradition, holding an open primary — a postal ballot of all eligible voters — to select its candidate in the rural Devon seat of Totnes. The vote was won by Sarah Wollaston, a local doctor, who is expected to win the seat next year after the incumbent, Anthony Steen, fell victim to the MPs expense scandal.
It didn’t get much coverage here, but Christian Kerr, blogging in The Australian, praised the move and drew attention to the way similar reforms “are spreading through the different divisions” of the Australian Liberal Party.
The difference, of course, is that while the Tories are riding high, plebiscites in the Liberal Party are a tactic born of desperation. Although, as Kerr notes, they are popular with the rank and file, primaries are a long way from being accepted by the Australian political class.
The main reason, I think, is that our perceptions are shaped by American experience. Although the United States is the richest and most powerful country the world has ever seen, foreign observers shy away — with good cause — from its creaky, dysfunctional electoral process. Advocates of primaries in Australia are met with the response that we don’t want to “Amercanise” our system.
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But the British example serves to remind us that primaries are also well-known in Europe. Left-wing parties in particular typically select their leaders or candidates by a vote of party members; Segolene Royal, for example, was endorsed as the French Socialist Party’s candidate for the 2007 presidential election by 61% of the membership, despite her lack of support among much of the party’s hierarchy. In 2005, Italy’s centre-left coalition went even further, holding a ballot to endorse Romano Prodi as its prime ministerial candidate in which any Italian could vote upon declaring their support for the centre-left and paying one euro as a contribution to the cost of the poll.
There are good reasons to be wary of US-style primaries: because they are run by state and local authorities, not the parties themselves, they have helped institutionalise the two-party system, making it almost impossible for third parties and independents to be heard. That in turn has made parties amorphous, non-ideological and (ironically enough) non-participatory; party “membership” is a matter of ticking a box on your enrolment form, not turning up to branch meetings.
But primaries in Europe have not had the same effect, suggesting that America’s electoral problems may have deeper causes.
The same dynamic is at work here as in the debate over compulsory voting. Australians usually reject voluntary voting because of what they see as its deleterious consequences in the US: low turnout, problems of legitimacy, and excessive influence of extremists.
Most of the world, however — including almost all the developed, successful democracies of Europe — operates voluntary voting without encountering the same problems. Australia could benefit from paying more attention to the European experience if we want to keep our electoral system in good working order.