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Smallridge Sam

Sam Smallridge has just finished a Masters in Politics at Lancaster University and hoping to study for a PhD exploring candidate selection next year.

Since her election to parliament, Sarah Wollaston has stood out. She has received cross-party plaudits for her critiques of government, independence and dedication to her constituents. As a result, many people have been keen to praise the all-postal open primary which Wollaston won in 2009. The primary which gave every member of the Totnes constituency a postal vote, saw Wollaston selected on an impressive 24 per cent turnout (16,297). One of her opponents, Nick Bye, described her victory as “a popular raspberry against yah-boo politics” as Wollaston, then a GP, won against two candidates with far more political experience then herself, which seemed to endear her to the Totnes public.

While the all-postal primary has been widely praised for opening up the selection process, the more frequent open caucus meetings have not received the same plaudits since their inception in 2003. The meetings which invite anyone in the constituency to come along to a hall and watch the candidates debate then vote are typically more low cost and low key, with an attendance of 150-300 people. Francis Maude, when party chairman, hoped open caucus meetings would help Conservative Associations “look beyond their own kind” in regards to the type of candidates they select. However, looking at the candidates selected some changes to the process could be considered to help select more diverse Conservative MPs.

  • Introduce community members into the selection process

When sifting through the candidates many Conservative Associations have used ‘in-tray’ exercises, which assess how well a candidate campaigns on the doorstep. However the Associations in Wealden and Mid-Worcestershire decided to invite ordinary members of the public into their primary process. This has meant that those invited, such as police officers, doctors and charity workers, can contribute to the interview and subsequent assessment which puts candidates through to the final round of voting. This innovation has opened up the often closeted long- and short-listing process prior to the final selection and can be seen to give voters a more diverse range of candidates to choose from at the final meeting. Both Wealden and Mid-Worcestershire Conservatives selected Nigel Huddleston and Nusrat Ghani, who have been highly praised. Peter Oborne wrote that Huddleston is “about as far removed from the public school caricature of Cameron Conservativism as one can get”, while Ghani has “the potential to be amazing”.

  • Place a limit on campaigning

In 2009, Robert McIlveen carried out research which showed that caucus meetings have disproportionately elected white, male councillors, and recent meetings have seen candidates who aren’t from the local area selected.  Both sets of candidates have factors in their favour as they have bases of support and/or experience to build on from previous elections, a local presence (in the case of councillors) and maybe even useful contacts. Last year the Tonbridge and Malling Association told candidates that they wanted little campaigning prior to their final selection. Subsequently the primary meeting was won by Tom Tugendhat, a former army officer in his first selection, against more politically experienced candidates. While associations do have a rule against ‘vote stacking’, it is difficult to enforce which means that it may be necessary to undertake some regulation to prevent any politically inexperienced candidates being disadvantaged at an open caucus.

  • Make the candidates list non-compulsory

The Conservatives have perhaps the most centralised method of selecting candidates of all main parties. Associations can only consider candidates that have previously been interviewed by CCHQ and are on the approved candidates list. A Tory Reform Group pamphlet once alleged that all it took to get on the list was a “tap on the shoulder or a congenial conversation”. This may not be relevant now but the importance of connections and political experience should not be underestimated when becoming a candidate. While this is probably the most difficult of the changes to achieve it is extremely important. Centralisation of selection is something which has aggravated members of different parties – with reports of frustrated associations a recurring theme in the Cameron era, it may be worth considering to ease any headaches the Prime Minister may have with the grassroots in the party.

  •  Scrap the ratification process

Perhaps the most controversial rule in the open primary meetings is the ratification process. On many occasions associations have held a meeting, after the public have voted, to accept or reject the decision of the primary voters. The majority of these have proceeded seamlessly, however two associations were the subject of controversy over the incident. In 2006, Plymouth Sutton Conservatives failed to ratify a candidate because of his ‘feisty style’. This led to a frustrated local news article which simply said “Plymouth residents are outraged after being invited to select a Tory candidate for the next General Election – and then ignored”. If associations want their caucus to be taken seriously then it may be worth considering ending this process altogether. If selection rules are broken then the candidate can be deselected. However, meeting after the primary winner has been announced may suggest a damaging distrust of ordinary members of the public.

The primary process used by the Conservative party has been the most interesting innovation in candidate selection in recent memory. Given that for many members a selection is one of their only chances to influence the party, it is commendable that associations allow the public to take part. Daniel Hannan claims that they produce candidates that are “more independent, more diverse, more representative and more accountable” – this could be true but is not always the case.

Making these changes could enhance the experience for both associations and voters, and maybe also diversify the type of representative the Conservatives send to parliament.

13 comments for: Sam Smallridge: Four ways to improve open primaries

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