Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Case for Open Primaries

Six years ago I was involved in the selection of Tracey Crouch as candidate for Chatham & Aylesford. We were one of the first constituencies to use an Open Primary, where residents are invited to the final meeting, to hear and question the applicants, and to cast their votes alongside those of party members. 
I was attending that meeting as an activist, not an employee. And like many activists at that time I was suspicious, a knee-jerk reaction against those who have never paid a penny nor delivered a leaflet having an equal say in who should be the Conservative candidate.

Unlike many, however, I kept my doubts to myself. My opposition was tempered with a realisation that even in 2007 (when party membership was stronger than it is now) the people around me (despite being friends and colleagues of many years standing) were far from representative of the average Conservative voter, and even less representative of the average constituent.  Unfortunately, lack of enthusiasm from the wider membership coupled with a shortage of funds to promote the Open Primary, resulted in a small lineage ad on page 64 of the local newspaper.  As a result, only two people attended who were not already members. The poor response empowered those who were opposed to the idea, "all that effort and just two people came."  The "effort" was expenditure of £23.50 on a well-hidden advert, and the fact that both of those who came subsequently joined the Party and became active members, has been airbrushed from collective memories.
So here we are in 2013, and many Associations are selecting candidates, including Tonbridge & Malling. It is no secret that political membership is in decline. Apart from a few constituencies in London, the average age of activists is older than ever before. The scale of the problem hit me hard last week whilst I was data-mining to see if we could launch a "commuters group".  I started by extracting from Merlin all members, donors and activists - and I had a list of nearly 2,000 names.  I then excluded those aged 65 and over and the list reduced to 120 names. The brutal realisation of this cannot be ignored; 94% of our members and activists are retired. And I suspect no other Association in the Home Counties would produce wildly different results.
As Lord Ashcroft wrote following our last defeat; we must wake up and smell the coffee.
Can any organisation whose membership is 94% retired, almost exclusively white and predominantly male, really understand the hopes and aspirations of an increasingly young, multi-cultural and socially liberal society?  When the successful candidate is chosen, and the TV cameras pan across the clapping audience, do you really think the image we will send to the electorate will be, "look - we really are just like you?"  
But my support for Open Primaries is not wholly altruistic. Time and again I have blogged about my ambition for the Party to reach out beyond its ever-narrowing base and find a way to include the 29,000 Conservatives who live in this constituency, of which only 2% are members.

What better way is there to send a message that we are serious about listening to their views and including them in the political process than to invite them to help us select the next Conservative candidate?  And once they have responded and participated in that process, and felt wanted and respected, how much easier will it be for them to make that further step by joining the Party or responding to our request for help?  Surely, if you have been involved with the selection of the candidate, you feel a sense of ownership and responsibility. 
There are concerns - the 'what ifs'.
"What if they turn up and select the wrong candidate?" Well, the shortlisting and interviewing will still be done by members - so the candidates who are presented to the Open Primary will have been selected by the members. 
"What if the opposition send people along who hijack the meeting and vote for the weakest candidate?"  As above, the paid-up membership will be responsible for the shortlist; provided they only put through outstanding candidates, we cannot go wrong. 
"What's the point of being a member if we cannot choose our candidate?"  Well, you are choosing your candidate. The candidate will be one of the three or four you put forward. Even if it was a members' only meeting, there is still a strong chance that the candidate you wanted would not be selected.
"Is the situation so bad that it really warrants such a fundamental change?"   If we always do what we always did, we will always get what we always got.  And the truth is, despite leaders from the left, right and centre - we have not won an election for 22 years. If someone was 17 in 1992 they would now be 40 and would not have voted for a majority Conservative government.  We must find a way to reach out beyond our base.

Thank goodness the Conservative Party has stopped allowing itself to be defined by who we are against ,and have started being judged on what we believe in. For someone like me, from a single parent family, brought up on a sink estate in Merseyside, who was not born into the Conservative Party but choose it because I believed it offered the best opportunity to fulfil my hopes, it is a joy to read that we are attracting more young and first time voters than ever before.  The greatest service our older members can now perform is to nurture that support by sending the following message; "we trust you, we value your judgement and welcome your views. This is your Party, too."

Obviously any selection process is for the members to decide, and as a servant of the Association I will respect the decision they reach. Whatever the outcome, we are in for exciting times and it is a great privilege to have a ringside seat.

For further reading I strongly recommend an article by Gavin Barwell MP published on Conservative Home this morning HERE 


  1. I agree with a lot of this but I still have doubts. A true open primary would be of all electors, with the problems and advantages that may bring.

    But if we're talking about a primary for pre-selected candidates, there's also an argument members short-listing candidates doesn't make for the best chance of candidates going to the open primary who are most in tune with the wider electorate. Members are few, voters are many (though not enough).

    I'd also argue - though wouldn't expect a comment on this - that the three short-listed candidates for the Kent PCC election for us weren't the best three (though I did vote in the short-listing stage for two of the three, including the eventual winner)

  2. As a signed up member, as well as being retired the idea of open primaries is a fabulous one which should be promoted for all its worth. It really distinguishes us from labour with its Union block votes.