The success of the open primary held by the Tories in Totnes could mark a turning-point in British politics. A candidate is usually selected by party members, but in Totnes all constituents were allowed to vote and they achieved a remarkable result: a turnout of one in four.
Also remarkable was the candidate they chose: a doctor with little political experience who defeated two candidates, both with a long history of involvement with the Conservative party. Would the doctor, Sarah Wollaston, have been elected under the traditional system? It’s very unlikely. Party members, who make up less than 2 per cent of the population, would have chosen someone who reflected their own view of politics.
Naysayers have long claimed that open primaries won’t work because people are too apathetic to vote and because they’ll be dominated by extremists or antagonists, eager to promote the weakest candidate. But Totnes suggests that these fears are unfounded. If turnout is high enough, the process can’t be distorted and the open primary system will instead ensure that the process isn’t dominated by cliques.
The Tories spent £37,000 on the vote in Totnes — mailing out a ballot paper and the election addresses to everyone in the constituency and paying for the ballot paper’s return by post. But it was worth the cost. Their candidate, Sarah Wollaston, now has a significant head start in a seat with a slim majority: one in four voters has had a hand in her selection.
There are now plans for the Tories to repeat this exercise in other seats where they have yet to select a candidate and we hope that this will provoke a virtuous cycle, Labour and the Liberal Democrats following suit to deny the Tories an advantage. We look forward to the day when a party is bold enough to select its leader through an open primary.