On Sunday we called for the Conservatives to seize the initiative in Clacton and hold a full, postal open primary. It’s a good selection process, and would have been a swift, stark, positive way to recover from the shock of Douglas Carswell’s defection.
A couple of days ago The Spectator reported that there was indeed a plan to hold an “open primary” to select the candidate. Good news, but there’s been confusion since about quite what was being planned – was this a true open primary as we had called for, involving a full postal vote of the constituency as happened in Totnes, or was this a caucus-style event, effectively a large, open town hall meeting?
No-one could answer, until Simon Martin-Redman, the Clacton Association Chairman tweeted at me this morning to say “no. It will be a proper open primary !”.
Let’s leave aside the slightly worrying misapprehension that a public meeting rather than a postal ballot is a “proper” open primary.
The first thing to note is that even a caucus meeting is a more open, democratic process than the traditional internal selection. It’s positive that some kind of primary is going to happen.
However, this is one cheer at best, not three. The point of holding a full postal primary was to seize the initiative and involve the whole electorate – a town hall meeting will reach a few hundred people at best. Better than nothing, but well short of the best possible scenario.
Second, hopefully one positive thing to come from Carswell’s defection will be a wider movement in our party about internal democracy and selections. Happily, most responsible people have refused to pursue an unpleasant mud-slinging campaign against the former Conservative – a positive response to his departure would be to take on more of his ideas and demonstrate that he is wrong about whether our party believes in direct democracy.
There is one caveat. While greater direct democracy and more open selection processes are good for the Conservative Party, such a revolution will only be meaningful and lasting if it comes from the grassroots up. The decision about holding caucuses or primaries must be in the hands of local associations – there must be no top-down enforcement of the system. There would be little point believing in direct democracy as a tool to empower the grassroots, and then forcing it on people from above.