Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Totnes Matters

The "Open Primary" result at Totnes, which saw local GP Dr Sarah Wollaston selected as Conservative candidate, could yet be the most significant political event of the year. Have I gone mad - a rural seat in Devon, setting the pace for the country? Well, yes ...

This was all part of Cameron's localism agenda, about enpowering people and getting more citizens involved in the democractic process. Post-expensesgate a chance to really engage with voters. Finally, all those people who live in safe seats but who aren't in a political party (and that's the overwhelming majority) will get a say on who is their local MP, or at least the candidate. For what its worth, I think this helps sew up Totnes - a marginal seat with a strong LibDem challenge - for the Conservatives.

The nay-sayers are in full flow, however, but I say this. Forget the turnout arguement; 25% of the constituency is far more people engaged that the few hundred local members under the old system. Forget the cost arguement; democracy can be expensive and we have to live with that. Forget the opposition parties trying to rig it; they can't do it.

So how will this change politics?

Firsty imagine if just one party did this nationwide next time, including making sitting MPs open to challenge. Then think about the kind of candidate who will be selected. I think it will inherently favour local candidates - party members are usually selecting the person they want to be the next Foreign Secretary, voters may want somebody who really knows about the area. I think it could benefit non-politicians and also people in non-traditional jobs. Lawyers and management consultants will find it harder to be selected than GPs, teachers and radio presenters. Why, because in these jobs you have a profile in a community already. A teacher, say, in a large comprehensive will be known by thousands of families locally who have been through the system. Ditto a GP in a tight-knit community. All goof stuff you might say.

Now for the bit the whips won't like. In the USA, the Primary system ensures that candidates owe their political survial more to local people and less to the party machine. Primaries in Britain I think will lead to more mavericks or independent - minded MPs being selected. In a tight vote, will that MP in a safe seat think about pleasing their whip or pleasing the voters who are due to vote in their primary next month?

One more thought; if they want to keep up as a radical democractic party I cannot see the LibDems being able to not follow suit soon - every day they delay and every Tory contest that is decided this way makes Clegg look more and more establishment and Cameron more and more grassroots orientated. But for Labour; can they follow suit without upsetting the Unions (their paymasters)? An interesting thought.

Absolute full marks to Pickles and Cameron for this one. It needs really serious thinking about and could radically change the landscape of politics.

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