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The Adam Smith Institute Blog

From Britain, a thumbs up on US open primaries

If Britain adopted American-style open primaries, candidates would more closely reflect their constituents' views.

By Matthew TriggsGuest blogger / September 19, 2010

Republican candidate for the US Senate Dr. Rand Paul announces at a news conference Sept. 15 in Bowling Green, Ky., that the nation’s biggest business group, the US Chamber of Commerce, has endorsed him. In Britain, party bosses can stamp out such candidates if they think they're too extreme.

Hunter Wilson/Daily News/AP

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I sit watching the American primary season unfold with more than a hint of envy.

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Whilst our general elections merely have us choose between the various parties’ pre-selected candidates (often parachuted into seats by party HQ or drawn from the ranks of somewhat enigmatic local party structures), American electors choose who contests the election under each party’s banner.

To see why this fuels my good-natured envy, one need only consider how surprisingly radical (in the best of ways) the implications of adopting open primaries on this side of the Atlantic would be.

First, it would do away with the notion of a safe seat altogether. No longer could the 70% of MPs sitting in safe seats even risk remaining unresponsive to their constituents’ wishes.

John McCain’s reluctant shuffle to the right when facing an ultra-conservative challenger in the Arizona contest nicely demonstrates a primary’s ability to realign the views of representatives in safe seats with those of their constituents. Furthermore, open primaries stop Party HQ and the Whips from handing out safe seats like sweeties, as rewards for keeping in line and on message. Any reform encouraging MPs to place their constituents’ interests before the party interest is itself to be encouraged.

Second, it would broaden the ideological range of candidates elected to Parliament.

Currently, British party bosses can stamp out the selection prospects of Rand Paul-esque candidates, despite their popularity within a constituency, perhaps because their views are too extreme or detract from the national message. Open primaries remove this possibility, allowing localities to choose who represents them, whatever the country thinks a large.

Is it just me, or do open primaries sound like a better way of reinvigorating British democracy than the alternative vote?

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