Before the last General Election, the open primary was hailed as one of those defining moments when the Tory Party showed itself to be up-to-date, listening to the people, and cleared of its old, paternalist image. When Sarah Woolaston was chosen to be the candidate for Totnes, it was hailed as a new kind of politics. But there are open primaries, and open primaries.
The problem with the kind of system used in Totnes is cost. Getting voting papers out to everyone on the electoral roll is costly; paying for them to be posted back and then counted yet moreso. So a primary system where voters register and then have to turn up has been devised, but when used recently in Dudley South, the result was a shambolic embarrassment.
While the local press was fed the line that this was a cool Stateside import, with Stourbridge News reporting “Dudley South Tories to hold US-style primary to select next aspiring MP”, and the Express and Star telling “The Conservatives chose to hold a US-style 'open primary' to find a candidate for the General Election in May”, the numbers were not so widely trailed.
Why that should be is not hard to see: the electorate in Dudley South is at least 61,000. Even a turnout of just 1% would see around 600 turn up. But when it came to registration, only 80 were interested, and on the night, fewer than half of them bothered to attend and vote. On top of that, there was some creative retelling from one of the four hopeful’s CVs.
While the Express and Star talked of “Greg Smith, the son of a former chief inspector of police and grandson of a sheet metal worker from Netherton, who runs a marketing business”, they managed not to mention that he was the leader of the Tory opposition on a council rather a long way from the Dudley South constituency – in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, in fact.
What was Greg Smith doing trying to make his way to Parliament via a constituency in the West Midlands? Did he try to get the nod to fight Andy Slaughter next year in Hammersmith and fail? All that local Tories there are telling is that Charlie Dewhirst has secured that role, which, given his stance on one key local issue, will be meat and drink to his Labour opponent.
Dewhirst, according to Harry Phibbs (Phibbs by name, and all that), “has worked on plans to replace the Hammersmith Flyover with a tunnel”. Yeah, right: as Zelo Street has already noted, that project is another slice of Tory pie in the sky. If Smith was even less well clued up, no wonder he hasn’t got a seat to fight next year.
And no wonder the Tories aren’t shouting too loudly about the success of open primaries this time round, with a less than 0.1% voter turnout.