Wednesday, January 02, 2008


How Useful are US Primaries?

Very often we are told by admirers of the US political system that we old fashioned Brits should brush up on our democracy and adopt primaries as our means of selecting candidates. Well, many, if not most parliamentary candidates these days are selected by party gatherings which vote having heard presentations by all the hopefuls. As for the top job, we all know it's the party leader- also a humble MP- who occupies this role in our parliamentary set-up. US primaries do provide a means of winnowing out the weaker candidates early on through their presentation-often door to door- to the voters in each state. But this difference doesn't stop primaries being advocated for the UK.

Iowa uses a caucus system entailing detailed discussions between activists as to the merits of each candidate; New Hampshire is a bigger state but no less heavily canvassed by those pitching to lead the western world. So, the argument runs, these early tests subject presidential hopefuls to the discriminating judgement of voters following intensive inspection. America's laisser-faire democracy, it is said, moreover, encourages healthy representation from all shades of opinion.

It's a seductive argument but in favour of our system we can point to:

1. The relative absence of money from our elections [mark, I said 'relative' as party funding is of course a major issue right now]. In the US candidates require huge sums; we read today that both Clinton and Obama have raised $100 million each even before the Iowa caucuses.

2. There may be plenty of early runners in this democratic race but it's money which inflicts the most destructive winnowing. Third party candidates are often mega rich, like Ross Perot and the eventual result-I realise this year it could just be different- always seems to produce a rich middle class white male of moderate views from one of the big parties.

3. The US system is so drawn out; it begins almost as soon as the last election has finished and gets properly under way some two years before the date of the poll. I couldn't see the short attention span of British voters surviving such a test.

4. The British system may be less democratic but selection of our leader is initially delegated to party members in our legislature, and then passed down to us, the voters. Maybe this delegation is wise; MPs will know the strengths and weaknesses of their colleagues much better than the average voter and our system is unlikely to throw up a retired actor or the mere much less competent son of a former leader.

We do need more democracy in our system, but perhaps ultimately, the US political system is best left to US voters.

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