Thursday, 6 August 2009

Totnes vs. local activists.

The Conservatives’ ‘open primary’ experiment in Totnes, Devon, has been widely applauded. Enthusiasm for the new method of candidate selection is not, however, universal. ‘Letters from a Tory’ has compiled a list of objections, some of which are practical and reasonable. Others bear the thumbprint of the political activist jealously guarding his privileges.

Candidate selection is, of course, a thorny issue for grass roots party members. Choosing a suitable nominee to fight an election is traditionally the prerogative of local constituency organisations. Attempts to impose preferred candidates by central structures are frequently resented and it would not be especially surprising if opening the process up to non-party members is also met with resistance by local activists.

Three Thousand Versts has hosted debates around this area before. Suggestions that Conservatives and Unionists in Northern Ireland need to take affirmative action and look at list systems in order to widen and deepen the range of candidates fielded at the Westminster election appal some bloggers and commenters (hello Ignited ;-)). These apprehensions are easy to understand.

Members who have patiently and conscientiously attended meetings and involved themselves in party work feel understandable anger if someone, new to grass roots politics, is fast-tracked to candidature ahead of a diligent and long standing activist or representative. However, those who involve themselves in local branches must endeavour to understand that the clubbable nature of party politics itself contributes directly to voter disenchantment. In order to encourage wider engagement with political processes, some sacrifices can justifiably be sought from party members.

‘A Tory’ is concerned that the Totnes primary might have selected a candidate who ‘does not reflect local parties or local politics’. It is a fair observation, but it rather encapsulates the point of the exercise. Naturally it is important that any aspiring Conservative representative should subscribe to the ethos and policies of the party. By compiling a list from which the public can choose, the party architecture still has a vital role to play. But voters clearly feel that the worlds of ‘local parties’ and ‘local politics’ are neither accessible to them nor are they relevant to their lives.

It is commonly believed that Britain’s ‘political class’ is drawn from too narrow and insular a pool. Making years of professional, or semi professional, political involvement a prerequisite for candidature is hardly a means to address that deficiency. Serving one’s time might signify commendable party loyalty, but it does not necessarily indicate ability and, as a basis for selection, it does not produce a broad and balanced range of candidates.

Certainly Totnes has not delivered, in one fell swoop, an infallible method by which to select parliamentary candidates. It is, however, animated by David Cameron’s desire to bring power closer to the people and it is perfectly in tune with public sensibility in the wake of the expenses scandals. It is unlikely that an open postal vote will become the default mechanism of selection for Conservative Westminster hopefuls, but some degree of wider input is certainly practical and it will blow fresh air through a stagnant system.

Locally, producing a set of representative candidates offers more specific challenges, but there is no reason why Conservatives and Unionists cannot experiment with open meetings to select from shortlists which the joint committee might draft.

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