As Paul noted this morning, the question of how the Conservatives find a candidate both willing and able to mount a serious challenge to Douglas Carswell in Clacton is a vexed one. It’s entirely possible that no-one, be they a celeb, a prominent local figure or a Nigel Farage lookalike, may be able to hold the seat in the face of the “People’s Army”.
But the process for finding and selecting someone ought to be clear: there should be a full, postal open primary to select the Clacton candidate.
Well, of course there would be a certain amount of devilment in doing so. The way in which the man who thought he was UKIP’s candidate, Roger Lord, has been run over by his national party is notable – and his outbursts have certainly lightened the mood (“We’ll tear [Carswell’s] throat out” and “I’ve had a 16-year-old shove a machine gun up my nose in Nicaragua” are two standout quotes). I can’t deny there would be a degree of amusement to be had from the contrast between the “establishment” pursuing direct democracy while UKIP acts like its own caricature of the metropolitan elite LibLabCon.
But that would only be an added bonus.
The real reason is that it would be effective – Clacton evidently likes outspoken, characterful candidates who are their own people, and open primaries have a track record of producing just that. As Douglas himself has often pointed out, where we tried them they selected one-off campaigning MPs like Sarah Wollaston, to great effect at the ballot box.
They also give a new candidate a direct introduction to the electorate, and give voters a real stake in the Conservative campaign. Facing an incumbent MP with a high local (and now national) profile, who has spent a decade doing excellent work on the ground, whoever we put up will need every possible opportunity to catch up in the recognition stakes.
Finally, of course, it would be the right thing to do. Open primaries are an idea whose time has come – with Westminster perceived as distant, unaccountable and uninspiring, we must introduce new ways of getting things done or else continue to see falling turnout and rising support for anti-politics parties like UKIP and the Greens.
Perhaps if proper primaries (and various other reforms like recall) had been adopted over the last four years then Carswell, one of their architects and champions, would not have ended up leaving the Conservative Party. His defection should not be a reason to ignore his ideas – on the contrary, it should be a loud reminder to start listening to them.
A full postal open primary in Clacton would be a belated move in the right direction to heal our democracy, but better late than never. It might not be a big enough boost to hold Clacton, but better some boost than none. Above all, it would be a clear, positive response to Thursday’s bad news – instead of hunkering down and hoping our problems go away, or getting bitter about the loss of one of our own, we must adapt and innovate. That the source of the idea would be Douglas Carswell himself only makes it more appropriate.