Going public on leadership

Republican presidential candidates arrive on stage for the Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. From left are:  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie;  Florida Sen. Marco Rubio;  retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; real estate magnate Donald Trump; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.  AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

There came a moment in the Labour Party leadership campaign where some of the candidates proposed opening the voting to the public. Most people scoffed at the idea, but perhaps it was not so farfetched.

The United States of America is gearing up for election season. Here in Salisbury, we have the mayoral elections (Jake Day running unopposed); there are city council elections for the five districts; and this year, despite there being no open primaries, there are primary elections being held in the various counties around Wicomico.

Now, to tie these two events together, I shall add a third: the SU Voting Forum. It was an event at Salisbury for students to learn how to register to vote, and how to fill out their voter registration form. What I was amazed to discover was that, to vote in the primaries, voters need only say “I am a Democrat”, or “I am a Green…Republican” – whatever.

This idea of simply saying you feel you are of a particular ideology is almost novelty to those of us from the United Kingdom. Despite only 1% of the UK population being a member of a political party, the moneys raised from those memberships is quite impressive.

In 2014, Labour received £5.97m in membership fees, the highest of any party; the LibDems received £0.7m; Conservatives £0.76m; UKIP £0.95m; the SNP £1.3m; the Greens £0.43m; and Plaid Cymru £0.14m.

The amounts are not enormous, but enough to see a political campaign gain significant traction – although, nothing compared with the USA’s election campaigns. It is worth remembering, however, that these figures make up no more than 23% of the above listed parties’ income. The Conservative’s membership amounts to only 2% of its income; the rest coming from independent donations.

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Yet, it is not simply the funding which is important to analyse. Instead, what does it mean for political campaigning?

The Labour leadership race was always reported in terms of “days left of campaigning”. Who are they campaigning to? Their own party. The public cannot vote, so the only reason to campaign to the public is to get a foot in the door of the next election for those areas.

Is it not, then, more reasonable, more democratic, to open candidate selection processes to the general public, as is done in America, where by ticking “Republican” on your voter registration you can vote in the party’s primary or caucus.

Of course, the nature of candidate selection is different in every state in the USA. Some have caucuses, some have open primaries, others closed. Some even have hybrids! However, closed or open, caucus or primary, candidates are forced to appeal to the public, and not just their parties.

Some states even change their minds on which form of primary to take, and so a candidate who was seeking out Democrat votes in a closed primary state is then forced to appeal to every voter, as now anyone could decide to vote in the Democrat primary.

Yet, is it all good? In the UK, who is best placed to decide which direction the Labour Party should take? Labour members, or the public?

Therefore, is there a middle ground that can be taken? Perhaps there are grounds for giving the public a greater say in party leadership, as opposed to forcing people to pay a membership fee every year to be involved in the party?

In the end, our systems are different. Most UK parties, particularly smaller ones like the Greens (23% of whom’s income in 2014 was from membership fees), need such money, due to their inability to attract large donors which the Conservatives can rely on.

In the USA, PACs and Super PACs deliver millions to candidate campaigns, on top of private donors and member donations. And so, despite its greater inclusion of the public, the American system is seeped in money, which UK parties simply cannot rely upon.

The development of our democratic systems is intriguing to watch, and to achieve the highest point of democracy we must continue to work together to evolve. But perhaps we will not all scoff in our tea the next time a candidate proposes opening leadership votes up to the public.

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