THE Conservative Party is to be congratulated for successfully holding Britain's first “open primary election” for a parliamentary candidate, in Totnes, Devon. Sarah Wollaston, a doctor, won the contest quite comfortably against two local politicians; all three had been short-listed by the local party. Any alternative to the selection of candidates by a secret or closed caucus should be welcomed and the Totnes initiative also broke new ground by inviting voters of all parties to participate. Some 69'000 ballot papers were distributed and 16'000 were returned -- a “turn-out” of 24 per cent, well above the 15 per cent bench mark that the Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles had set.

All political parties at central and local levels will be examining the results of this experiment carefully. The cost was about 40'000 pounds, a not inconsiderable sum when multiplied across the country. Why was the voting open to non-Conservatives? Did loyal long-serving party members resent this? Was there tactical voting by other parties to select the weakest candidate? Should open primaries be extended to constituencies where there is a sitting MP? Might the procedure result in the selection of, say, fewer women or non-party candidates that the party leaders want?

It is too soon to draw broad conclusions from the Totnes poll. But it is interesting, and may be indicative of a trend, that two experienced local politicians were beaten by a party member of only three years who has been a doctor for twenty years.


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