Totnes Conservatives have selected their prospective Parliamentary candidate on a 24.6% turnout – not of Party members, but of all electors in the constituency. At a cost of £38,000 every elector was sent a ballot-paper and invited to vote for which of three Conservative candidates they would like to see selected (to aid the process a reply-paid envelope was included). In total 16,497 people voted and the successful candidate, a local GP named Sarah Wollaston, got 7,914 (it was a first-past-the-post ballot – none of this new-fangled preferential voting for the Conservatives).
There have, of course, been Parliamentary by-elections with turnouts of this size – so there is no question that this is a very respectable rate of participation.
The Conservatives will presumably be well pleased with the result of their decision to hold a primary in this way. Not only have they been seen to communicate with and consult all voters on who should be the next MP (or at least the Conservative candidate), but nearly 8,000 electors will feel that they have a personal stake in turning out and voting in the General Election to vote for the candidate they chose at this stage. The Conservatives also know which of their three possible candidates went down best with the local population. It will also boost the name recognition locally for their nominee and it will make any canvassing conversations that much easier (“Do you remember being asked to help us choose our candidate?”).
It is interesting that the primary electorate chose the least political of the three people on the short-list – rejecting two prominent local government figures, in favour of a doctor. This may say something about the status with which politicians are currently held by the public at large. However, I wonder whether a typical selection process involving just Party members or Party members sitting on the constituency committee would have produced the same result.
I suspect this sort of open process will become increasingly the norm – particularly when political parties are selecting in “safe” seats the person who will effectively become the next MP or where a tight fight is envisaged and they want to put up the candidate with the best chance of success.
However, there are a number of consequences that all of the political parties will have to come to terms with. First, what benefits does membership of a political party bring if you have no more say than any member of the public in who should be the next candidate for Parliament? Second, will the popular beauty parade approach discriminate against those with a solid (but un-flashy) record fo party service? Third, how will the process be funded (£40,000 per constituency soon mounts up)? Fourth, how will the primary campaigns be regulated (should there be expense limits for the candidates, will public advertising be allowed etc)? Fifth, will primaries favour candidates with personal wealth or strong financial backers and, if so how can this be mitigated?
These questions do not mean that the selection in Totnes should be a one-off. On the contrary, I think the idea of primaries like this would be helpful for the democratic process itself. However, we should all start devising the answers to those questions pretty quickly.