Former UK cabinet secretary calls for more open primaries

By on 04/03/2015 | Updated on 25/09/2020

Former UK cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell has called for more members of parliament to be installed through primary elections to improve diversity in the British government.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Global Government Forum, O’Donnell, who retired from 32 years in the UK civil service in December 2011, said that increasing the number of MPs selected through open primaries would help to attract a broader range of people into politics.

Open primary elections enable whole constituencies to publicly vote for their MPs, rather than party members choosing a candidate behind closed doors. They also mean that anyone can put themselves forward to run, including people without any party affiliation or a background in politics.

“If you have open primaries,” O’Donnell said, “you’ll start to attract people who’ve got more experience of the world, not just being in politics all their lives.”

Currently, he said, “there are unfortunately too many people in politics, who just don’t get it; who just don’t understand what life on benefits would be like.”

Recalling his time as press secretary to former British prime minister John Major from 1990-1994, O’Donnell said that Major’s efforts to improve public services were often met with opposition from ministers who would ask: “Why should we bother about that? Our people don’t use them.”

He also called on the public accounts committee (PAC), a cross-party group of MPs which scrutinises the government’s expenditure, to hold ministers and officials to account “ex ante rather than ex post”.

He added: “The PAC has basically got itself into the blame game. I’d like them to be asking questions about costings, timelines and likely success when there’s a proposal for a new project – so looking at things before they start and then as they are going on, as opposed to spending their time saying: ‘My goodness, this milk is spilt and that’s terrible!’.”

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

One Comment

  1. Pauline says:

    So the man who sits in the legislature and presumably has not been elected by anyone thinks that the House of Commons should use more open primaries to help attract a broader range of people to politics…right oh.

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