I was lucky last Saturday at 10.30 to become a West Country pioneer. For some years the Conservative party has been experimenting with open primaries for the selection of their prospective parliamentary candidates. I’ve acted as ringmaster for a few of these, supplementing questions from the floor with my own: a sub-Dimbleby figure, putting them through their political paces. Whatever the theoretical objections, the idea has in practice worked well — tending to discourage candidates from pandering only to the solid Tory core. But these meetings, typically attended by no more than a few hundred people, could in theory easily be ‘packed’. They still feel a narrow base for so important a selection.
Totnes Tories, now seeking a candidate, have just taken the logic one step further. Encouraged by the party leadership, they agreed to road-test a bold (and expensive) idea. Not only is everybody on the constituency voters’ roll, regardless of their politics, invited to attend the hustings meeting where the finalists speak and answer questions, but every local elector has been sent a postal ballot form and a personal leaflet from each candidate. And the final choice will be determined by those ballots returned. The meeting itself is just a chance for all who wish to hear and cross-question the three finalists: an eve-of-poll hustings. By hugely widening the effective electorate, this system makes the process hard for any candidate’s supporters (or rival political party) to rig or pack.
But does it work in practice? Well, the hustings happened last weekend, and I acted as ringmaster. On Saturday morning at 10.16 I arrived at Totnes from Derby on the Plymouth train, in the nick of time, and was whisked to a cavernous local leisure-centre, and handed the candidates’ CVs and personal statements, plus a big sheaf of pre-submitted handwritten questions from the audience, which I was to invite their authors to direct personally into a roving microphone. Those attending the meeting could, if they wished, cast their completed ballots after it; but these would simply be added to those returned by post.
Would anybody come? I was as anxious about this as the organisers — the Totnes and South Devon Tories: nice, friendly people. It was a sunny Saturday morning on the Devon coast; for those locals intending to vote, attendance was optional. Would many bother? Chairs were laid out for (I reckon) four or five hundred people. This could flop.
It didn’t. Almost all the chairs were filled. There were even people seated in the balcony. My guess is that most were likely Tory voters, or members of the Association — but by no means all. The local press and BBC television were there, and a Japanese film crew too. All this conspired to dispel the usual ambience at Tory-organised events, of a cosy club of co-believers. Nervously clutching my sheaf of questions, candidates’ leaflets and CVs, I made a brief opening statement, reminding the audience that, however we vote at general elections, we all have an interest in every party fielding the best candidate it can find. This argument isn’t hard to get across.
Then, one after the other, in trooped the hopefuls, each for half an hour’s individual grilling. All three lived and worked in Devon: a good start. All (I’d say) were well under 50.
Nick Bye was the youthful mayor of Torbay. Sara Randall Johnson chaired the East Devon District Council — their first ever woman chairman. And Dr Sarah Wollaston, who professed little previous experience of politics, was a local GP. Nick and Sara had spent years in local politics, had worked hard within the Tory party, knew the party ropes, understood campaigning, and were — in the best sense — your traditional sort of would-be candidate. Sarah was not. Her whole career had been in medicine and she claimed no great immersion in the party battle and made no apology for that. All three, however, could claim real-world experience: Bye had spent years involved in local regeneration schemes; and Randall Johnson had been heading the airline Flybe’s public relations.
And here’s something notable: I sensed that the audience were as keen to hear the candidates talk about their work and ideas in the outside world, as about their mastery of party politics. Bye knew a lot about local regeneration; Randall Johnson told me (when I asked) about Flybe’s marketing strategy and use of local airports, and her command was obvious; and Wollerton never had a more attentive audience than when she spoke from a GP’s perspective about the blight of alcoholism.
And we had some fun. Nick Bye’s leaflet had described its author as ‘likeable’, and, when I invited him to offer evidence for this proposition he took the question with good humour. Sarah Wollaston’s microphone was a bit quiet, so I asked her — as they say in the music business — to ‘make lurve to the mike’, which our respectable audience thought a scream. Questions from the floor were a good mix of the wise, the predictable, the pointed and the quirky. Fishing and farming came up, as did grammar schools (a live issue in Devon) and of course the EU — where all three candidates, though declaring themselves Eurosceptical, resisted invitations to promise to get Britain out, and even steered clear of promising a post-Lisbon-ratification referendum, if the Treaty went ahead.
At hustings like these (I find) a question that arouses insistent interest is whether the candidate will support his or her own beliefs and constituency interest, rather than the party line, where those two conflict. The audience will generally wish to hear that the candidate is prepared to defy the party whip, but only in the most serious circumstances. This is the answer Totnes heard from all three on Saturday.
But there were differences. Bye and Randall Johnson gave stirring promises to confront and confound the Lib Dem threat, whereas when I asked Dr Wollaston whether, with her inexperience of party politics, she was up to throwing and taking punches, she replied that, for her, that was not what politics was about and she wouldn’t be indulging in it. This met with a spontaneous round of applause.
You can find out who won, and you can read all about them on www.southdevonconservatives.com. Ballots must be returned by Friday 31 and the result announced the following day. Speaking for myself, I could see any of these three as an MP, though it’s not in the bag: the Tory majority is less than two thousand.
But what really impressed me was something hard to put one’s finger on but palpable: the procedure we were pioneering, by altering the arena in which finalists were being tested, subtly altered the conjectured audience to which they were playing. Unconsciously they were influenced to pitch for the general vote, rather than activists’ approval. This must be a healthy way for a party to choose its MPs. Hats off to Totnes Tories for giving it a try.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 1, 2009