Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A Truly Open Primary

A few weeks ago I blogged that one of our Local Government Committees had taken a brave and exciting decision to run a truly open primary to select a candidate for a particular ward.  And when I speak of an open primary, I mean just that.

Too often we talk of open primaries when we actually mean an open caucus. A meeting, whether open to party members, party supporters or members of the public, is a caucus, not an open primary. An Open Primary is quite different.

Open primary. "All voters on the electoral register can take part in an open primary and may cast votes in a ballot of any party to select that party's candidate for the forthcoming poll."

At the time I was quite circumspect, as we were still in the planning stage and I am never keen to show our hand too soon. However, now the mailshot is starting to land on doormats, the secret is out and I will write more freely. The ward in question is held by the opposition, but has more than enough Conservative pledges for us to win. It has a younger than average electorate and there are lots of local community groups and associations; exactly the type of voters who are responsive to the socially liberal brand of modern Conservative politics we must adopt to appeal to future generations. Moreover, the type of people who will appreciate the efforts we are making to be inclusive in our approach, and who will probably value the opportunity to participate.

Two potential candidates have already been identified from our 'approved list' - but we are going one stage further. The branch Chairman has just written to every household in the ward seeking potential candidates, asking anyone who is interested to register their interest and attend an open day to find out more.  Along with her letter we have sent a copy of our innovative Candidate Recruitment Leaflet (see left).

Obviously any newly identified applicants will need to join the Conservative Party and go through the usual Local Government Committee interview and vetting procedure, before they can join the approved list and apply for selection.

Our aim is to have at least three, hopefully five applicants to go forward to the open primary.

The next stage will be for each of the applicants to write one A4 page on why they should be selected. I will offer technical help and support with the drafting to ensure no laws are broken or major faux pas committed!  These contributions will then be collated into an A5 booklet (like the one distributed with the MEP ballot papers) and a copy printed for each registered voter in the ward. They will then be packed into envelopes with an explanatory letter, ballot paper and reply envelope. We probably won't have the spare cash to give everyone a freepost reply envelope, but I think asking them to put a stamp on the envelope isn't a lot to ask!

We are also considering an informal get-together, open to all residents, where they can meet and question the applicants over a glass of wine and nibbles before returning their ballot paper. If this also brings a few new people into the party, or identifies new helpers, that would be a bonus.

Our aim in doing this is to open up the process, involve the wider community and to genuinely see how many people will choose to get involved when offered the opportunity to do so. There will be those who say "what if the wrong person is selected", but as I have written before, given all the applicants will be on the Local Government Committee's Approved List, there should not be a problem. We must reach out beyond our base if we are to expand and reflect the wider communities we seek to serve.

How much will it cost ?  We'll be doing all the printing, production and packing in house, and using our delivery network to hand deliver the envelopes. This will reduce costs considerably. I estimate that each 1,000 letters will cost:

Outer envelopes: £20
Pre printed reply envelopes (not freepost): £10
Candidates' information booklets (based on 5 candidates) £25
Ballot papers: £5
Covering letters (mail merged): £15

Total: £75 per 1,000 (or £300 for the whole ward).

Is it worth it ? We'll find out soon!  However, to keep the cost in perspective, before Tunbridge Wells sold their HQ and merged back office facilities with neighbouring Associations, they were spending £1,000 per month on Business Rates alone. Compared with this, spending £300 to involve 4,000 residents in the democratic process should be considered money well spent.

And what about the CCHQ selection rules?  Under those rules a "committee appointed by the Executive" is be empowered to interview and select a candidate, and that is exactly what will happen. All the candidates will have been approved by the LG Committee, and the decision of the voters will be presented to the Local Government Committee and the Executive Council to ratify the selection.

All things considered, this is a brave and radical decision, and the members of the LGC who unanimously backed the plan deserve thanks and recognition for their courage and radicalism! 


  1. Andrew - you and the Association deserve congratulations for actually trying something that runs the risk of showing that the Party really is 'open for business' and that Council candidates don't have to belong to some strange sect or to have been involved with the Party for two-hundred years before they can be considered.

    I hope this initiative is a great success and would urge you to stage the informal get-together - it will encourage some people to take part if they have a chance to 'know' the folk they are voting for.

  2. Fantastic - what a good idea. Will be interesting to see how well it goes.

  3. Thank you both for your kind words of encouragement. I am determined to show that participatory politics isn't dead, and that we just have to find the correct way of involving people.

  4. Will you be filling your Parliamentary vacancy with an open primary?