Adopting the American primary

There are lots of distinctions between your Presidential system and our Parliamentary one. The way laws are made is probably the most important, but in an election year it's personalities that come to the fore. Running against an incumbent President isn't easy but compared to being the British Leader of the Opposition, it's a lot more fun.


OK, so during the primaries your guys have lumps taken out of them by their rivals, but once all that's out of the way it's a relatively short sprint to election day. The nominee spends most of it making speeches to adoring crowds, seeing his or her name on bumper stickers, posters and TV ads and hearing himself or herself referred to as the next President of the United States.

Over here, being Leader of the Opposition is rightly described as the toughest job in politics. You've usually been chosen when your party is at a low ebb, often after an election defeat. Nobody is cheering and even worse, for up to five years most people aren't interested in anything you've got to say. To the extent that the public take notice of you at all, they look at how you dress, what your voice sounds like, whether they like your hair or your smile or your spouse.

The leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband, has been getting all that kind of criticism and more. To be fair, he's also had policy and political problems that have left him struggling to connect with the public. The biggest is what he'd do about our deficit. Economic arguments are never simple but the harder Mr Miliband tries to explain his position on austerity cuts the more people become confused.

One way of making this job a bit easier, or perhaps of ensuring that the right person gets it in the first place, might be to have our own version of your primaries. The advantage is that you road test your candidates and see how they perform not just against each other, but with the media and also with public opinion. There's no doubt you get a better idea of what kind of leader a person would make than with the British system which leaves the choice down to party members in contests that attract relatively little public interest. They also toughen up candidates for the battles ahead. If Ed Miliband had been through a primary process he'd be a stronger and probably more effective leader. And his party would know he had some measure of popular support.

So, perhaps it's time for us to take a leaf out of your book -- the introduction of primaries might give a British Leader of the Opposition a bit more space to do what he or she is supposed to do - getting on with the job of holding the Prime Minister to account.

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