Many have argued the virtues of using an open primaries and open caucuses to select new Conservative candidates. The decision was made, correctly in my view, to use an open caucus to select the next Conservative candidate for the Clacton by-election. The Rochester & Strood Association has opted for a postal primary: though undoubtedly driven by the best of intentions, I believe that this decision was not a wise one.
There has been long-standing criticism of traditional closed-shop Conservative selection meetings. Going down the open caucus route in the case of Clacton certainly sent out a positive signal to the electorate. One would hope it made a contribution in combating cynicism.
But there appears to have been some confusion relating to the selection debate in question. Many use the general label of open primary, instead of open caucus and postal primary. Using the open primary label interchangeably to refer to postal primaries and open caucuses is inaccurate, and promotes confusion about two very different selection methods. One method, in my view, offers many benefits and can be seen as a step forward in terms of enlivening our democracy; the other is a backward step which, if it were to gather support, would result in a diminished candidate selection process.
The former is the open caucus (often referred to as an open primary), where anyone on the electoral roll can come along and vote. However, they need to stay in the room for two to three hours before they vote, in order that the shortlisted candidates (three or four selected by the Conservative Executive) can make their presentations and then be grilled by the audience that is a composite of members and non-members.
There have been a large number of Conservative open caucuses to select new parliamentary candidates since the last general election that have selected candidates in this way.
The other selection method is the postal ballot (often referred to as the open primary), to date, they have only been used on two occasions. However, with Rochester & Strood now opting for one, the number is now three. Every individual in the constituency on the electoral roll is sent a postal ballot and brief leaflets about each candidate. The vast majority of those who end up voting do so without ever seeing the candidates in the flesh or gaining any real sense of what they are about.
There has been much discussion about postal primaries recently, including on this website, with Mark Wallace writing two pieces which argue the benefits of postal primaries over other forms of primary; Women 2 Win have also done what they can to push for more postal primaries in the hope that it will result in more women being selected.
However, despite there being a commitment in the coalition agreement to fund 200 postal primaries ahead of the 2015 general election, there have been none since the Totnes postal primary before the last election. As a believer in the open caucus (often referred to as an open primary), I am glad about this and believe that to embrace the postal primary would be a backward step.
When one judges a selection process one should do so from the perspective of what is best for local democracy, transparency and winning public trust, and selecting the best candidate irrespective of gender, ethnicity etc. Though it is not a point to be sniffed at that on average postal primaries cost in the region of £40,000, this is not my principal reason for objecting.
It disappoints me that Women 2 Win and Baroness Jenkin’s support for postal primaries seems to be driven almost entirely by their desire to see more women selected. Ideally, when assessing a particular selection method, one would be primarily concerned with which method is the fairest, the most democratic and most likely to select the best Conservative candidates who have the greatest electoral appeal, irrespective of the gender of the candidate selected.
My reason for objecting to postal primaries is that I do not believe that a selection process can be seen as thorough, intensive and robust when 95 per cent of those voting in the final crucial round of the primary have to make a decision based only on a brief two-page leaflet on each candidate. In place of listening for 40 minutes to each candidate, as is the case with traditional Conservative selections and Open Caucus meetings, you have a brief glossy leaflet with a few cheesy photos and generic statements.
Postal primaries do not offer 40 minutes with each candidate, a chance to ask them any question you want, to see them in the flesh, to get a sense of how they interact and respond to tricky questions on their feet, or how they connect with an audience. Instead, you get a two-page leaflet. How can you get any sense of what drives candidates, whether they can take people with them and whether they are the real deal when all you have is a brief leaflet in place of a lively interactive public meeting?
Undoubtedly with a postal primary many more people will take part; however, the basis on which each voter decides is dramatically diminished. The voters’ ability to make an informed decision is significantly impaired.
A move to embrace postal primaries would represent a move towards identity politics playing a far greater role within our candidate selection procedures. Instead of your view of a candidate being formed by their convictions, views and ability to communicate and connect, it will primarily be driven by their identity (how old, what gender, what they look like). At a time when the public are crying out for more interesting and engaging candidates, postal primaries may well end of achieving the opposite end.
Selecting a parliamentary candidate is an extremely important activity. Allowing as great a variety of people as possible to assess not just the ability and convictions of candidates but also their character is of critical importance. Aristotle once paid reference to the importance of the public meeting providing the opportunity for people to assess the character of those who put themselves forward for public office, postal primaries would end the likelihood of those who vote at the final round of a selection process attending a public meeting. It therefore limits the scope for those who vote to assess the character of candidates.