Open Primaries in The Westminster System

In 2008, British Conservative MP Douglas Carswell and British Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan co-authored a veritable manifesto for direct democracy and wholescale renewal of the Conservative Party, called The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain.  They represent what I would call a neo-Whiggish constituency within the British Conservative Party that since 2005 or so has advocated strongly in favour of localism and for significant parliamentary and political reforms that would secure their agenda. The Localist Papers (an apt allusion to the Federalist Papers) lay out a radical program of reform in order to strengthen parliament vis-a-vis the political executive (and civil service) by ensuring that parliamentarians answer first to their constituents and by formally abolishing Crown prerogative. I find the latter suggestion entirely too radical and ill-conceived because the abolition of Crown prerogative altogether would constitute the most significant constitutional overhaul – not merely reform – since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and destroy the essence of the Crown-in-Parliament. I agree with some of the other reforms, however.

One of those reforms called for the adoption of “open primaries,” based on the American system, which would allow all registered electors in a given constituency to vote in the selection of each party’s candidate. The candidates standing in each party’s primary would need to be a member of their respective parties, however. The Plan describes neither the political process nor potential constitutional implications in any detail, but promotes open primaries as electoral dynamism, preventing stagnation and eliminating the safe seats, which they claim describe 70% of the seats in parliament today. Carswell introduced a Private Members’ Bill on 13 October 2009, the Parliamentary Elections (Recall and Primaries) Bill. As he explained to the House: “At 4 of the last 5 general elections, less than 1 in 10 parliamentary constituencies changed hands. The 5th was of course the Labour landslide of 1997, but even there, more than 70% of seats were held by the parties that already controlled them. In other words, most of us represent pocket boroughs. We have tenure. Our incentives are thus twisted: instead of answering outwards to the voters, MPs and safe seats are encouraged by the system to answer upwards to their whips.” Carswell’s bill did not reach Second Reading, so the website does not include the text of the bill itself.

An open primary has already occurred in the United Kingdom. Carswell mentioned that the Conservative Party held an open primary already in the constituency of Totnes in August 2009; his bill would have provided a framework for these primaries. The Independent described the primary: “After local Tories drew up a short-list of three potential candidates, ballot papers were sent to all 69,000 registered electors in Totnes. The Conservatives spent £38,000 on the primary – equivalent to £2.30 for every vote cast – but declared that the experiment in democracy had been a success in engaging the constituency’s electors.” Carswell added that 26% of registered electors of all parties participated in this primary, or 16,000 people.

I support open primaries in principle for the reasons that Carswell and Hannan enumerated: open primaries give all voters a choice, particularly in safe seats where currently the ruling party’s riding nomination effectively determines the next Member of Parliament, and they remind parliamentarians that they serve their constituents first. I had significant reservations with respect to the implications for responsible government until Douglas Carswell was kind enough to reply to my question via Twitter and direct me to his proposed legislation, which I had not examined until today.

The Parliamentary Elections Bill would have provided a framework for open primaries that parties could follow, based on the Conservative Party’s experiment in Totnes in August 2009, but it would not have forced primaries upon all parties and constituencies. Carswell  said: “Under my Bill, local people—supported by one or more parties—could petition their returning officer to organise a primary contest at the same time as a pre-existing local or European ballot. The primary election would be piggy-backed on to an election already due to take place. The returning officer would have to include an extra ballot paper with the names of those on the shortlist. Each party that chose to take part would have to pay the marginal additional cost for having its ballot paper included, but it would be a cost of hundreds not thousands of pounds.” This principle would be more difficult to apply in Canada, being a federation of 10 provinces, all of which could also apply open primaries to their provincial legislative assemblies!)

Carswell understands that open primaries in a Westminster system would necessarily differ from open primaries in the United States because of responsible government, particularly in the context of minority parliaments. Primaries would thus not become automatic, but instead would require support of the electors in a given constituency for a particular election. Based on his speech at First Reading, I can only conclude that the early dissolution of a minority parliament would effectively prevent the holding of open primaries. However, the Parliamentary Elections Bill would probably have encouraged the organic development of a new system whereby one party’s adoption of open primaries would persuade the other parties to follow suit. In turn, voters in any constituency could precipitate the holding of a primary. If the system were beneficial and functioned as planned, it would quickly catch on with voters. If not, it would remain a Conservative experiment in Totnes. So what does the UK have to lose?

This system would surely constitute a radical shift in Canada, where candidates are currently elected in “riding nominations”, which correspond loosely to the “closed primaries” in the United States, where only party members vote on the candidates. In an open primary, however, all registered voters could cast ballots for the candidate of one party, even if they have no intention of voting for that party in the general elections. The prospect of opening up the process to all electors surely seems frightening to many partisans, and critics would argue that this system, rife for abuse, could see rigged voting. These are valid concerns. Thought Undermined (an excellent blog on parliamentary issues) addressed these concerns well: essentially, in a safe riding where only party can win, an open primary would allow all voters to participate and ensure that their votes aren’t simply wasted in the general election on a candidate who has no chance of winning. And in a competitive swing riding (or “marginal constituency”, as our British friends would say) where two parties compete fiercely and either could reasonably win the general election, open primaries would help attract better candidates. Above all, electors seek a good MP, so if the other party that they don’t support could win in the general election, they wouldn’t rig the vote by selecting the weakest candidate from that other party; they would instead pick the stronger candidate precisely because he or she could win in the general election, and they wouldn’t want to saddle themselves with the burden of bad representation in Parliament. Given that a small and decreasing percentage of the Canadian population holds membership in political parties, the adoption of this system would re-enfranchise swaths of voters into a crucial part of the political process.

Where primaries in the United States function under the guarantee of biennial or quadrennial periodicity, if a parliament is dissolved early because the government losses the confidence of the House and no alternative government can be formed, then the parties probably wouldn’t be able to organize open primaries in time before the general election. We could of course proceed with the understanding that open primaries in our Westminster system cannot necessarily be held biennially or quadrennially like in the United States because of our system of responsible government, but parties could still organize open primaries before most elections. If the Parliament of the United Kingdom can accommodate such a system, then so too can all the other Westminster parliaments scattered across the earth. I hope that some Canadian political parties implement the idea as well, and thus eliminate this horrid practice of “parachuting” “star candidates” into safe seats simply so that they can take a seat in the House of Commons.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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6 Responses to Open Primaries in The Westminster System

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  5. Thanks for the mention. I’ve been promoting your blog on other sites (such as LiveJournal), and also included it in today’s “Interesting Links” post.

    Unrelated to this post, so feel free to delete/edit this part out, regarding your question about why Canadian MPs can’t use the 2nd person, when UK and Australian MPs do often. First of all, MPs in the UK and Australia shouldn’t use the 2nd person. If they do and get away with it, it’s more a failing of the Chair to call them to order for so doing. In my experience, I have to say that I rarely, if ever, hear UK MPs use the 2nd person. The reason why the 2nd person is not to be used is because all remarks are to be addressed to the Chair, not directly to another MP. The only person an MP is to refer to as “you” is the Chair, as in “Mr Speaker, you ruled yesterday that…” All remarks, questions, comments, etc. directed at another MP are to be made through the Chair, and thus in the 3rd person. MPs are to direct remarks to the Chair because this helps to ensure that the proceedings are conducted in a civil manner since Members are less likely to engage in heated exchanges and personal attacks if their comments are directed to the Speaker rather than directly to another Member.

    In the Ontario legislature, for example, during Oral Questions, one opposition party in particular tends to ignore this rule on a regular basis, and the Speaker almost never calls them to order (nor does anyone raise the matter on a point of order). The Government often will reply in kind, but on the whole, they’re pretty good. The other opposition party never seems to violate this rule. I’ll let you guess which party does what…


    • Thanks.

      I found the clips of the Australian House of Representatives during Paul Keating’s premiership where he and the Liberal Opposition Leader would often spar off in the second person, but since they started in the third person and lapsed into the second person in the heat of debate. The Speaker of the day resigned himself to these methods.


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