Leading article: Open parliament to all comers

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The Independent Online

If the example of Totnes is anything to go by, a lack of public interest will not be a problem for "open primaries". This week, almost a quarter of the electorate in the Devon constituency took part in the selection process for the next Conservative candidate after being sent a ballot form by the Tory Party.

Not everyone, though, is convinced open primaries are a progressive step. Critics complain that they will accelerate the decline of the membership of political parties. What, they ask, is the point of joining a party if you have no privileged role in the selection of your local candidate?

Some point to the potential for activists from rival political parties to influence the result of such polls, possibly by drumming up support for weak candidates. Others wonder whether a contingent of MPs selected in open primaries would undermine party discipline. How attached would someone like the new Conservative candidate in Totnes, Dr Sarah Wollaston (who admits she has no real political experience), feel to the Conservative Party and its legislative programme?

Cost is another worry. Totnes has been an expensive experiment. The Conservative Party spent £38,000 sending ballots to all 69,000 registered voters in Totnes. Even if they were so minded, parties simply do not have the resources to do this in every constituency.

All of these objections are overstated. Open party primaries in the US have not suffered from manipulation by rival activists. And America has significantly higher levels of formal party allegiance than Britain. Greater independence of mind from MPs is something to be encouraged, not feared. And where resources do not allow a Totnes-style vote, selection meetings open to all would still be a significant improvement.

In the present climate of wide disaffection with politicians, any innovation that can generate public participation in politics is welcome. Ms Wollaston will go into the next general election having been selected by 7,914 of her fellow constituents, rather than a local party of 700 members. That can only be healthy for our democracy. Open primaries are not the only reform needed to reinvigorate our stagnant political culture. But they are an excellent start.

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