Last week, as the Executive Council met to reduce the long-list to a shortlist of four, one of our councillors commented, "Actually, Andrew, your blog has been much more discreet than I was expecting it to be." At this point, a nervous CCHQ apparatchik replied, "let's see what he posts on Sunday 3 November, when it's all over." I smiled and said nothing, as I knew he was right. So here it is; the Sunday 3 November post which I knew I would write from the day this all started, and which has been fermenting ever since.
Firstly: CCHQ. More sinned against than sinning!
One of the most maddening things about this process is the willingness, almost desire, on the part of many to consider everything and anything that comes from Millbank to be malevolent. This is seen most often in the comment section of Conservative Home, from the self-appointed and self-styled guardians of the Party's soul. So, for the sake of accuracy, I would like to put the record straight:
1. CCHQ did not, nor did they ever try to, "take-over" the process
2. The timetable was written by the Association Chairman before the Association Officers had their first meeting with CCHQ, and was never challenged nor changed.
3. The Sift Committee was appointed/elected by the Association with no outside influence or pressure
4. Every candidate who got through to the second round was agreed by the Sift Committee and won a majority vote of those present.
5. The new voting system used at the interview stage did not reduce choice or favour women. Far from it. Despite the initial suspicions, it worked well and allowed the panel to assess each applicant fairly and across a range of disciplines. The system did not "flatten the field" - in fact, the contrary was the case. The scores from the first to last placed applicant ranged from 280 - 526, giving a much more accurate picture of a candidate's abilities and performance than a simple X on a ballot paper. And assessing each candidate immediately after his or her appearance was fairer too - their replies were fresh and the panel could remember what they said (not always the case under the old system when votes were cast at the end - often following two days of interviews).
Debunking the myths about the Open Primary
6. No, it wasn't forced on us by CCHQ. In fact, when I first mentioned it I think they were surprised to hear that the Association was pushing for one. So, for the record:
(a) The idea to hold an Open Primary came from me. I made the case on this Blog in July. Re-reading the post now, I am pleased to say that even with the benefit of hindsight, I would not have written it differently. http://votingandboating.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-case-for-open-primaries.html
(b) The Management Committee, having heard the case, voted unanimously in favour. This was before our first meeting with CCHQ.
(c) The Executive Council voted by over 90% in favour of an Open Primary. Yes, there were four traditional stalwarts who preferred the old method, but at the end of yesterday's meeting two of them graciously said, "Andrew, you were right - this has been wonderful."
7 After the Executive Council had reached a decision, not a single member of the Association complained, resigned, threatened to resign or expressed any unhappiness about the process.
8. The view, expressed regularly on ConHome, "why be a member of the Conservative Party if you cannot even choose your candidate" is, quite frankly, bunkum. People join the Conservative Party because they believe in Conservative values and are happy to make a financial contribution to help ensure we win elections. I don't know anyone who joins a political party in the hope or expectation that their MP will fall under a bus and they can then select a new one. Due to the length of Sir John Stanley's tenure in Tonbridge and Malling, whole generations of members have joined, left, re-joined, moved away and in many cases died, without once even considering a selection contest. The same arguments can be made over membership of the National Trust, but no-one says "why join the NT when you can visit the gardens and castles by paying a small fee at the door?" People pay the NT because they support it's values, just as people pay money to the Conservative Party.
9. Far from devaluing membership, it has enhanced it. Over 40 people have joined the Association as a consequence of the Open Primary. Not a single one of them said, "I'm not going to join as I can select the next MP in twenty years time without being a member." On the contrary, what each and every one of them said was "I am so impressed at what you are doing, I want to be part of it." We have new volunteers, new Council candidates and new activists - and we welcome each and every one of them. One chap, not previously known to us, was so impressed at what we were trying to achieve he sent an unsolicited and totally unexpected £1,000 donation.
10. And no, the meeting wasn't 'hijacked' by Labour, LibDem or UKIP activists. Despite distributing 40,000 leaflets, just 11 of those who registered to attend were known opposition pledges. In fact, of all the Open Primaries I have been involved with (starting with Chatham & Aylesford in 2007 when Tracey Crouch was selected) there has never been any attempt to hijack the meeting to select "the weakest candidate".
And so let's hear no more reactionary ranting from the 'laptop generals' on ConHome and elsewhere, whose only contribution to the debate about the future is to look to the past at halcyon days that never were. Politics has changed. Society has changed. The terms on which people engage has also changed, probably forever. Life-long party allegiances have gone. My maternal grandparents were a case in point. My grandfather was a dock worker in Liverpool, my grandmother was a cleaner. They brought-up seven children in a small terraced house in Bootle in real and dire poverty, yet they never voted anything other than Conservative. The reason was they were patriots, monarchists and Protestants, and as such there was no other political party they could possibly support. Thank goodness those days are over, but shouting "stop the clock I don't like change" will not bring them back.
Over three decades of working for the Conservative Party I have helped elect thousands of local councillors and dozens of Members of Parliament. Yesterday, however, as I stood at the back of the hall and watched hundreds of normal people, most of whom were not party activists, queue up with their ballot papers, participating in the process and helping select our new candidate, I have never felt prouder to be a Conservative Party Agent.