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The Use of Primaries in the UK Conservative and Labour Parties: Formal Rules and Ideological Changes

Democratisation
Political Leadership
Political Parties
Campaign
Candidate
Emmanuelle Avril
Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris
Agnès Alexandre-Collier
Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté
Emmanuelle Avril
Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris

Abstract

In recent years both the Conservative and Labour parties have experimented with primaries (open, closed or partial) for the selection of their candidates (parliamentary candidates and/or party leaders). At one level this reveals a mimetic effect between different levels of primary use within parties. At another level this highlights the mimetism between parties in the context of a global “democratic push”. The adoption of primaries has indeed been justified on grounds of democratisation, opening up processes which had henceforth been the preserve of party members, party activist - or even parliamentarians - to a larger constituency including the wider public, in a bid to make parties more responsive to voters’ expectations and more representative of the diversity of British society. The new mechanisms have had some unexpected effects, often resulting in the selection of candidates according to criteria which do not seem to match those classically outlined by Stark, i.e. party cohesion, electability and competence. This reflects the tension between contradictory motivations of party reforms and shows that internal decision-making processes cannot be seen in isolation from the wider context, since analysis of the specific uses of primaries indicates that the same mechanism may produce widely different effects depending on the environment in which it takes place. Specifically, we propose to investigate the impact of selection rules changes on the ideological profile of successful candidates. An intriguing effect of the experimental selection methods, designed to reinforce party cohesion by attempting to establish a more direct link between party leaderships and the wider electorate and thus to bypass the activist stratum, has been to paradoxically favour the emergence of more candidates whose ideological positioning marks a departure from that of the mainstream of the parliamentary party.