Primary Colour

The UK Conservatives appear to have run a successful primary election. From the Times:

Yesterday, the closed door of modern politics was forced ajar in Totnes. The new Conservative candidate for the seat soon to be vacated by Sir Anthony Steen, MP, was chosen not, in the usual fashion, by the local party, but by an open primary of any voter who wished to take part. The fact that more than 16,000 people in Totnes posted a vote to select a local GP, Sarah Wollaston, as the next Tory candidate is the best political news for months.

The minor revolution in South Devon gives the lie to the notion that the public are not interested in politics. It is hard to see how anyone could know, given that the proposition had never been tested. Instead, the power of selection has been closely guarded by local party activists. Indeed, the votaries of the local constituency association in Totnes were heard to grumble that a decision that was rightfully theirs had been hijacked after some bad publicity.

But party members — who now number less than 2 per cent of the nation — need to be mindful that their task is to select both a local representative and a putative servant of the executive. Where the party machine has the whip hand, too few independent-minded candidates are selected. If selection becomes, as in all parties it has, a conspiracy for the benefit of the mediocre party hack at the behest of a tiny band of activists, then the wider public interest is being neglected.

The standard critique of one party running an open primary is that it will be sabotaged by the other side, who will band together to vote for the least electable candidate. But with party membership so low, the chance of this seems pretty remote. Last time I looked at it, I couldn’t find an Australian preselection with a turnout over 1000. If you assume that only a small share of these people would engage in a sabotage exercise against the opposition, the effect on primaries in a 90,000-voter electorate is likely to be pretty trivial.