Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Can the excitement of the US election be reproduced in Britain?

"Can we change the metropolitan borough of Wirral? Yes, we can!"

Jonathan Freedland imagines transplanting the American model of party primaries - 'currently catalysing such drama Stateside' - to Britain, with selection processes for local parliamentary candidates thrown wide open:

I can see the appeal of the primary idea. Indeed, I would be delighted to see it extended to the job that matters most: party leader. Imagine how much more solid a mandate Gordon Brown would rest on now if he had had to win the votes of declared Labour voters in successive contests, first in wintry, rural Lincolnshire, then in tiny Rutland before a Super Thursday of contests in sunny Cornwall, delegate-rich London and pivotal Yorkshire.

But Freedland is wary of British politicians 'cherry-picking' the attractive bits of the American system without broader reform:

In the US case, if primaries work, they work not in isolation but because they are embedded in a radically different approach to political parties, and even to democracy and sovereignty. We can't scrape off the tasty icing of primaries unless we're prepared to import the entire democratic cake.

This would include a clear separation of powers, which Freedland believes would 'entail a political earthquake':

Either we would have a directly elected PM, admitting the presidential nature of our current system and letting the Commons act as a check on Downing Street. Or we could fully elect the second chamber, at a time other than the general election, and ensure it acts like a separate legislature, holding the executive to account.

Freedland's argument - with which I find myself in broad agreement - echoes what he wrote last year about government plans for a 'national day' to celebrate 'Britishness'. He suggested then that, in countries such as France and the US, festivities of this kind tend to commemorate political upheavals that have created a sense of shared national identity. As he put it:

We can't just skip that awkward bit and jump straight to the barbecue and bunting. No, first we have to have a political change of our own. That doesn't mean bringing out the guillotine. It could be the bloodless drafting, at long last, of our own written constitution. If such a document established a British republic, so much the better.

For an example of the potential of the US primary elections - and an electrifying candidate - to galvanise popular feeling, take a look at this video. According to The Field:

Texas Republicans have worked overtime to make it harder for key Democratic voting groups to vote and be represented fairly. The redistricting games they’ve played are infamous. And for the Prairie View A&M University precincts, they put the early-polling place more than seven miles from the school.

So what did the students in this video do? They shut down the highway as they marched seven miles to cast their votes on the first day of early voting.

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