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Wednesday 15 July 2009

Which Primary Colour?

If there has been one good thing to come out of Expensegate, it is the realisation – and by all the major political parties – that there is a need to enthuse the electorate and give them some belief in the democratic process. This particular penny has dropped with some effect on the Tories, who have decided to have open primaries, and not only selection meetings attended by the few.

As ConservativeHome has noted, the party in the Devon constituency of Totnes are going to ballot the whole constituency – that’s an electorate of 69,000 – on their preference for Tory parliamentary candidate. So why go to all that trouble? Well, for around 70% of seats – which are classified as “safe” – an MP is selected and maintained in office, effectively, by whoever turns up at the selection meeting. At a time when trust in politicians and Parliament is not at its highest, that isn’t a good sales pitch.

The BBC duly reported the story, but most newspapers seem to have missed it, which is strange, given that the idea is also gaining attention from Labour: Foreign Secretary David Miliband is said to like the concept. It’s not difficult to see why: candidates selected in this way will already be known and tested come the General Election. Their popularity will have been established, not merely by the activists who turn up at selection meetings, but by a wide cross section of voters.

However, I would advise a degree of caution: giving Labour and Lib Dem supporters a say in selecting a Tory candidate brings with it opportunity for a degree of mischief making. Given the strong possibility of a low overall turnout, the organised intervention in support of a candidate thought to be more beatable could work in favour not of those subjecting themselves to the primary poll, but their opponents. For anyone believing this couldn’t happen, I offer a cautionary tale from Merseyside.

At the beginning of 1994, Liverpool manager Graeme Souness was at the nadir of his popularity. His departure seemed imminent – the only debate was over whether he would jump, or be pushed. A local radio station had a poll on whether he should go, and at first the response chimed with press and fans: it was universally hostile. But, as the day wore on, there came a groundswell of support for Souness: more and more callers urged him to stay. On the basis of this admittedly limited and unscientific “primary”, the manager might have been persuaded to stand his ground. But how had the turnround happened? Was there an underlying sympathy for Souness among the fan base? Did diehard Reds want to give him another chance?

Alas, no. It was a wind-up from Everton fans.

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