Peter Franklin edits ConservativeHome’s Deep End
Thomas Tugendhat is the latest conservative candidate to be selected through an open primary (or, to be more precise, an open selection meeting).
It was a close-run contest that was only decided after three rounds of voting (handled, it must be said, with great efficiency by the organisers). The four candidates had their individual strengths and weaknesses, but were fairly evenly-matched. With no obvious front-runner, the outcome was decided entirely by the impression they made on the day.
So based on what happened in Tonbridge and Malling, what are the does and don’ts of winning an open primary? Here are my top ten:
1. Don’t forget you’re addressing an open primary.
In Tonbridge, a couple of the candidates sometimes gave the impression they were speaking to an closed selection meeting. This jarred somewhat with audience members who weren’t Conservative Party members and perhaps weren’t Conservatives at all. It’s also disrespectful of a local Association that has gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to involve the whole community – and who deserve to see their efforts recognised.
2. Don’t go first
Saturday’s event was superbly moderated by Iain Dale. Without ever pushing himself to the forefront of the proceedings, he ensured that over two hours of Q & A’s zipped through at a lively pace. He was also faultlessly even-handed with the candidates. However, because they appeared sequentially rather than as a panel, the one who went first was at a disadvantage. Obviously, this is not something a candidate can control. But for candidates who do find themselves first up, my advice would be: don’t play it safe, make a splash – or you’ll be forgotten.
3. Don’t draw attention to your tenuous local connections.
The only complaint I’d have about the Tonbridge event is that there was no truly local candidate in the final four. That, however, didn’t stop most of the four from emphasising some gossamer-thin local ties. They needn’t have bothered. Things may be different further away from London, but in Kent the fact that your granny once lived on the other side of the county really isn’t that impressive. One candidate even informed us that his horse was stabled in a neighbouring constituency. Honestly, we don’t care.
4. Do know something about the constituency
You don’t have to be a local to show that you’d be a good MP. Speaking intelligently about local issues should do the job. Of course, a degree of subtlety is required here. Wear your local knowledge lightly, dropping in facts and anecdotes where they genuinely help illustrate your point. For instance, one candidate answered a question on fracking with reference to the only test-well ever drilled in the constituency – which was impressive because at the time, many of the locals didn’t even notice it was there.
5. Don’t bluff your way on local issues
No one expects you to know everything about the constituency. At Saturday’s event one man in the audience asked each candidate to comment on the Tonbridge Cycling Strategy. The sympathies of the rest of audience were with the candidate who replied “I’m delighted there is one” and left it at that.
6. Don’t pander to local stereotypes
Kent has grammar schools and Tonbridge is in Kent. Therefore all the candidates had plenty to say about grammar schools (most of it against party policy). But here’s the thing, most local children go to other kinds of school – and, as Iain Dale reminded the candidates, they had little to say about those. Also, though Kent is the Garden of England, that doesn’t mean we all drive tractors. Before you write your election literature find out where your would-be constituents actually live and don’t overdo the countryside stuff.
7. Don’t say you’ll move to the constituency if selected
OF COURSE YOU’LL MOVE TO THE CONSTITUENCY IF SELECTED!!! This isn’t the 1930s, you know. The days when you could roll up in a big black car every six weeks, judge a novelty hat competition, then go back to your grouse moor are long gone. Saying that you’ll move to the constituency if selected – like it was some special favour – only reminds people you’re not local.
8. Don’t insult the audience
A bit of a basic one, this – but in an open primary it requires special care. For instance, one candidate in Tonbridge slagged off the Lib Dems. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that of course, but in an OPEN primary (the clue’s in the name) Lib Dems maybe present and, if so, will be entitled to vote against you. The fact that the Conservative Party is opening up candidate selection to all-comers is something that demonstrates broadness of mind and generosity of spirit; candidates should conduct themselves accordingly.
9. Don’t be a career politician
This one’s really important in an open primary. Every second you’ve spent working in Westminster is a black mark against your record. In fact if you can give the impression you’ve accidentally wandered in from doing a real job – preferably one in uniform – then so much the better.
10. Don’t be slick, do be thoughtful
In Tonbridge, the winning candidate was not the smoothest. But what he lacked in polish he made up for in sincerity. Crucially, though, it was thoughtful sincerity – rather than the witless anti-politics so fashionable in certain other parties. As such he was able to appeal across the room – both to the core Conservative activists and to the wider community. The only time he resorted to a stock political phrase was at the end of his time on stage, when he spoke about loyalties of an MP being to his country first, his constituency second and his party third. It may be an old line, but it seemed to sum up what he’d already said in his own words.