Why I’ve changed my mind on Primaries

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The ALP in Victoria recently held its first ever US primary-style preselection of a candidate for the Victorian election.

Primaries are a great way for Labor to build its grassroots campaign infrastructure.

Party organiser Dean Rizzetti and Secretary Nick Reece wrote about the experience in the paper back in May:

While it may have looked like any other election, they were taking part in political history as participants in the first open primary in Australia. The results are good news for grassroots democracy and may contain important lessons for the future of political parties in this country.

Most parties in Australia pre-select their candidates through a ballot of local party members, together with a vote of a central committee of senior party members. By contrast, a US-style primary pre-selection process opens this vote up to the public. In the case of this primary, people who live in the state seat of Kilsyth and were prepared to register as ALP supporters were able to vote.

More than 300 people registered and 170 people took time out of their Sunday or Monday evening to vote for their preferred candidate, in an electorate in which Labor previously had fewer than 50 members – and which the Liberals hold by fewer than 200 votes.

As part of the process, there was an open and well-attended “meet the candidates” session, which gave people a chance to sit in small informal groups and ask questions.

The questions were heartening for those who care about politics. People were thoughtful, honest and at times unrelenting in their questioning. But they relished the chance to be taken seriously and have their voice heard in a more conversational and intimate setting.

They argue that primary-style preselection of political candidates can help reverse the steep decline in participation of organisations such as political parties, churches, unions, or other community groups. Primaries lower the barriers of participation and allow people who may support Labor to help select the local candidate without having to go all the way and actually join the Party.

I have heard a number of criticisms of primaries being introduced to the Party. They boil down to:

  • It decreases the value of membership: With membership of political parties generally declining, having primaries is just one more privilege of membership given up. Why join a party where you don’t even need to be a member to help select the local candidate?
  • It decreases party solidarity: MPs selected through a primary system owe less loyalty to the party and its policies than to the people who participate in the primary. While this sounds good in theory (i.e. an MP should represent the local constituents rather than a party machine), in reality it can be dangerous (see next point). Additionally, Labor in Parliament is founded on the idea of solidarity and democratic centralism – that robust debate happens internally but externally the Party presents a united front. Primaries can serve to undermine this principle.
  • It opens the process to third party manipulation: Allowing anyone to vote in a voluntary ballot allows third parties to try to intervene – either by getting their own members to vote, or by endorsing or supporting the candidate of their choice. Organisations that may intervene in this way include unions, religious groups or other interest groups (development, environment, etc). This could mean that the person selected in a primary may actually owe their primary allegance to that external group rather than to the Party and its members.
  • Big money can influence the outcome: Linked to the previous two points, cashed-up candidates in a primary system are more likely to win. They can afford more promotional material to encourage people to vote, and could hire organisers on their behalf. It also opens up the question of donations by external groups which may not be open to the transparency requirements of elections. Again, candidates could be held captive by major donors, posing conflict of interest challenges.

The US primary system is most often cited in support and against introducing primaries in Australia. Primaries involve and engage hundreds, if not thousands of people – especially the presidential primaries – in the political process. These primaries are exciting, innovative affairs and can see popular candidates rocket past “establishment” candidates. The recent success of Tea Party candidates in Republican primaries is an example, as is Obama’s victory over Clinton in 2008.

However, US primaries are also typically won by the candidate with the most money, the biggest donor list, and the largest media-buy. Politics in the US is characterised by extreme corporate and special interest lobbying, where candidates are “bought and owned” by those special interests – the Israel Lobby, Big Pharma, Oil and Mining and so on.

Despite the obvious challenges faced by introducing primaries to Australia, I have changed my position and now think we should have primaries across the board. (This also dovetails with my views on electing the Parliamentary Party leadership – more here.)

There are two main reasons I think we shouldhold primaries:

1. In marginal seats, it builds campaign infrastructure

In marginal seats, building campaigning capacity is the chief hurdle for a new candidate. Finding campaign staff and volunteers is time consuming. Often, depending on the time table, it could be left until only a few weeks before the election is called. While the Party membership provides a base, in areas where there are few Labor members the task is very difficult.

A primary preselection system creates that infrastructure before the election campaign-proper. Primary candidates need to reach out, not just to Party members, but to the general public. In theory, this means that not only will candidates get essential campaign practice, but they will also identify and engage a whole new group of potential activists, supporters and volunteers for the real election campaign.

If the primary is a genuine contest, the primary candidates will do the door knocking, street stalls and community engagement, build their email and donor list, and find scores of people who aren’t party members to help on election day. Even the supporters of unsucessful primary candidates can contribute to this – as Clinton’s campaign rolled over support to Obama.

Primaries therefore would strengthen Labor’s campaigns in the areas it needs to be strongest, and let’s the local campaign organisation do a “dress rehearsal” before the main election.

2. Gives safe seats and impossible seat supporters an avenue of engagement

An issue I hear raised in safe seats (both Labor and Liberal) is that the campaign just isn’t the same. It’s hard to get excited about campaigning for a candidate where the margin is 15% – either definite win or definite loss.

In safe held seats, primaries can re-energise atrophied local party branches, while also prompting the candidate/sitting MP to get out there and actually campaign. This would help keep safe-seat MPs/candidates “honest” – and remove the criticism that MPs/candidates in safe seats take their electorate for granted. Noone in a safe seat would be able to take their seat for granted – and they would be able to use the primary to build their campaign infrastructure just like in a marginal seat.

In safe non-held seats, primaries would give disheartened supporters a way to participate and show their support for Labor outside of an environment of “certain defeat”. Over time, these supporters and volunteers could be turned into a formiddable campaign operation that hopefully would turn safe Liberal seats into marginal ones. One of the reasons that the Democrat’s losses were so big in the mid-term elections is that so many Democrats won in 2008 in traditionally “safe” Republican territory – because the primary system had engaged and enthused Democrats and independents to come out to vote. While the analogy doesn’t directly translate to Australia (because of our compulsory voting) the main element that can transfer is the building of campaign infrastructure in areas of traditional weakness.

These two points are the main reasons that I’ve changed my view on primaries. As Rizzetti and Reece write:

Lifting participation in the political process is overwhelmingly a good thing. The experience in Kilsyth is that if you engage people in the right way, then there is enormous potential to bring many more people into the political process.

I agree – more participation in the political process is a positive outcome – and even more positive is engaging those new people in helping Labor win elections.


There’s an interesting article over on Progress UK (a Labour aligned website) about primaries in the UK. Apparently during the UK Labour leadership ballot, some MPs conducted “primaries” (really, plebiscites) on who they should vote for.

But the decision by John Mann to conduct a primary in his Bassetlaw constituency to determine how he should cast his vote in the Labour leadership election has shown that primaries can be organised for a little over £2,000. Instead of posting the ballot papers to residents, the main distribution was through hand- delivery by Labour volunteers as 15,000 local Labour voters received voting forms. The main cost came from the freepost service for the completed ballot papers but this was covered by an advert on the ballot paper and sponsorship from a trade union. The result, incidentally, was an overwhelming victory for David Miliband.

In Dudley North, the local Labour party is adopting the same approach but hopes to go one step further by including 30,000 local Labour supporters in its primary. MP Ian Austin nominated Ed Balls but writing for the Labour Uncut website said, ‘I’ve promised to cast the vote I’m given as a Labour MP for the candidate local people choose. It’s all part of our attempt to open up politics and maintain a constant conversation with the public.’

Also inspired by the Bassetlaw process, Edinburgh East’s new MP, Sheila Gilmore, decided to conduct a primary of her own. Gilmore had nominated Diane Abbott but only to ensure that the election had a wide field of candidates. Her agent, Kez Dugdale told me, ‘The Labour leader needs to command the support not just of Labour members, but of Labour-minded people in order to take on the Con-Dem government.’

Dugdale and her team hand-delivered 1,000 paper ballots to a cross-section of strong Labour voters that they had identified during the general election. But the process was also opened up online to any local residents on the electoral register who identified themselves as Labour supporters. ‘During the election we increased our contact rate from four per cent in the past to 34 per cent,’ says Dugdale. ‘We developed a culture of engaging with voters all the time and this primary was just an extension of that.’ A point proved recently when Gilmore was approached in a gay bar in Edinburgh where she was holding a surgery and asked, ‘Aren’t you the MP who’s doing the primary?’

The entire article is worth reading, but the paragraphs I’ve quoted show that primaries can be useful to activate members, re-engage with supporters, and get a bit of media. The fact that Edinburgh East’s MP Sheila Gilmore increased her campaign’s contact rate from 4% to 34% is worth seriously considering the value of primaries as a pre-election campaign tool.

Perhaps its also worth considering using plebiscites (and more open leadership elections) in future as well.

4 responses to “Why I’ve changed my mind on Primaries”

  1. Josh Cusack Avatar
    Josh Cusack

    Alex, you make some good poitns about the power of the primaries system, but you haven't really addressed the very problemes that you raised at the start. I think those issues, like cashed up candidates always winning, and MPs being behoven to 'special interests' (as they say in the US all the time) is a terrible outcome. Primaries make candidates either completely behoven to the internal party machine (establishment cnadidates) the clear instrument of 3rd parties or AT BEST very narrowly focussed on the needs of the 1000 people who will vote in their primary. At the very least it would tend to elect extremists who appeal to the nuances of a particular electorate.

    Now, even in my negative view you can smell an upside – electability. Having candidates with strong money, a pre-cuilt machine and a bit of local support is powerful. Especially if they are a good match for the electorate. It may be argued that this electoral advantage is worth the trade off. Maybe, I don't think so, but it's arguable. However this adantage only exists when you are the only team doing it. Eventually (be it one election cycle or four) the tories will catch up on us. Then we will have none of the benefits and all of the drawbacks. Or rather, we will still have the benefits outlined, but so will the enemy – stalemate.

    An interesting issue to raise and I'm glad to read something that actually makes some real suggestions to arrest the decline in party participation – even if I remain unconvinced.

    1. Alexander White Avatar

      Hi Josh,

      I agree – the problems are largely still there. However, preselection in modern political parties is already very narrow, without any of the benefits of primaries.

      In fact, I can see an immediate benefit for Labor – that unpopular, unelectable candidates get parachuted into safe seats. A primary system would actually reinvigourate the local party system as well as get non-party members engaged. It would be more likely to give us candidates who could campaign, rather than celebrities or factional "mates".

      As for the other issues of being "behoven" to outside interests. Labor would still need its system of democratic centralism and binding caucus to operate effectively in Parliament. I don't advocate a change to this system – in fact it would be more important under a primary system. Arguably, modern political parties are already pretty behoven to big money and third party interests – thanks to the vested interests built into our system of government. Lobbyists and captains of industry have access that normal people could only dream about.

      The Tories are already experimenting with this. The Nationals in Australia held a primary style election. The Conservatives in the UK also used primaries in the lead up to the UK election. Labor is the party that is lagging – Kilsyth notwithstanding.

    2. @chrisabruns Avatar

      Josh – I think the problem of cashed up candidates exists already. Candidates who win preselections often bring something to the table whether it is access to money, support of a union etc. They question becomes whether you formalise this trend or seek to push back on it.

      Still undecided though

      1. Alexander White Avatar

        Hi Chris – you make a good point that we already have many of the problems of primaries without the benefits.

        I think my overall point is that Labor should pursue primaries and take the time to try to solve the deficiencies of the system because the benefits are large enough to warrant that.

        For the record, I think some kind of mix, as exists now, of voting pools to determine candidates is the best model. So, having 1/3 local vote, 1/3 central vote and 1/3 primary/constituency vote would be a good starting point for the discussion about primaries.

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