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Open Primaries Can Fix Our Broken Politics

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It was once rumoured that, while on the campaign trail in his Hartlepool constituency, Peter Mandelson mistook mushy peas in a fish and chip shop for guacamole. It sounded just too good to be true, and, of course, it was; it turned out to be an urban myth reportedly spread by a mischievous Neil Kinnock .

Mandelson made no such mistake, but the actualities of the story are in some ways irrelevant. Like the recent Plebgate saga, what made it so captivating was the grain of truth at its heart - true or not, it highlighted better than any actual incident the massive disconnect between Mandelson and the area he claimed to represent. The contrast between Mandelson and the town he stood for could hardly have been greater; what could a London-based, Oxbridge-educated chattering class incarnate be expected to understand about the experiences of daily life in one of the north's most deprived towns?

Mandelson provides a neat example of the just how wide the gulf can be between politician and public - and this disconnect has increasingly become normalized. Professional politicians and parachute candidates of a similar ilk have now become the mainstay of British politics. Just as parliament is unrepresentative of society, so, by and large, are its MPs of their local area. There are Mandelsons everywhere; and this is not a party specific problem.

There are few better recent examples than Louise Mensch, who, after waltzing straight off Cameron's A-List into the parliamentary seat of Corby, quickly decided that politics wasn't for her, stood down and moved to New York less than half way through her term. This trend looks set to continue at the 2015 election. In an almost laughable act of nepotism, it has been speculated that Euan Blair is to stand for a Labour safe seat in Coventry; the fact that he lives in a million pound Marylebone property is merely an inconvenient afterthought. In the cases of both Mensch and Blair Jr., local opposition from their own parties has been significant. Yet, like an embarrassing uncle at a fancy wedding, these protests have been heard, and politely ignored.

When local parties are unhappy with the imposed selection of candidates, it can be little surprise that the general public are too. Today's voters are often characterised as apathetic, unconcerned with politics - but this simply isn't true. When asked what single word best described their feeling towards politics and politicians in a recent poll, voters' most common response by far was anger.

People want politicians who know - and live in - the local area, who understand their concerns, and most importantly, will act on them. One of the problems with the modern breed of professional politicians is that, more than ever, their primary allegiance is to the party rather than their constituency. It is the party that secures their nomination, and so it is the party, rather than the constituency, to whom their first loyalty lies.

We need open primaries. We should be wary of tarnishing all MPs with the same brush; there are still plenty of local champions in parliament. But this isn't something that can be left to chance. If parties actively engaged the electorate in their candidate selection process, we would end up with representatives more in tune with issues on the doorstep. As importantly, the public would be able to channel their interest in politics into something other than anger.

The benefits are obvious: why aren't open primaries - a prevalent feature of American politics - more common at home? In part, they have been a victim of their own success. The Conservative party experimented with the idea, resulting in the election of one of their most independent-minded MPs, Sarah Wollaston. Noted for voting "with her conscience rather than her party" - now seen as remarkable for a politician - the Conservatives seem to have no desire to create more MPs who refuse to treat memos from the whip's office as sacred tablets.

They really have no excuse; Cameron has repeatedly championed the cause of localism. But if our future depends on "putting more political responsibility in the hands of local people", why has Cameron ostracised Wollaston, and the coalition backtracked on plans to roll out open primaries across the country? Likewise, open primaries might make it harder for Labour to gift safe seats to the current batch of 'Red Princes' (sons of prominent Labour figures); but if they are a party that truly believes in putting people first, engaging in local issues, and standing up against oppression, surely this is a good thing?

We are witnessing the worst kind of short-termism from our national parties. By leapfrogging over local people they reduce the likelihood of any intra-party awkwardness over issues, admittedly making it easier to put out a united front, with MPs shamelessly toeing the line. But this does a disservice to the issues themselves, quashing meaningful debate and alienating millions in the process. Weber, arguably the most influential theorist of modern politics, called for politicians who passionately held the ethics of conviction and responsibility in equal measure. In a famous passage, he sums up this attitude: 'Here I stand, I can do no other'. Perhaps a more apt phrase for the majority of today's politicians, however, would be 'Here the party stands, I can do no other'.

It is little wonder that people are angry. Barring a major shakeup of the way things are done, matters will only get worse. Lucy Powell - drafted into a Manchester safe seat by virtue of being Ed Miliband's personal friend - will probably not hold the shameful record of lowest post-war turnout (18%) for long. Surely we can do better than this. All parties have a responsibility to reengage with the public; what should have been an imperative has been ignored for too long.

Open primaries are the way forward. They might occasionally make life harder for party whips, but this itself is no bad thing - far too much of today's political agenda becomes party political, resulting in point scoring that does an injustice to the issues at stake. Even if we are sympathetic to the concerns of disciplinarian party officials, this seems a small price to pay for a re-invigoration of our national politics. A jolt of energy needs to be administered to our comatose national politics, faltering on life support. Let's demand better involvement and better politicians. It's time to create a better politics.

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