A way out of this ridiculous system for picking a mayor

WHEN IT was announced that the would-be nemesis of "Shagger" Norris, Mrs Diana Collins of Epping, had decamped and gone to stay with a Miss Wendy Spittle in Cornwall, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. No Dickens novel could conceivably have provided such a wealth of tragi-comic characters as has the London mayoral election. Till last week it had everything but sex; then Mrs Collins put that right.

Hers - though not hers alone - was the letter to the Conservative Mayoral Selection Executive (pay attention, there will be a test at the end of this) describing Norris as a bad lot, and not the sort of person one would want mayoring around the capital. "To this day," the letter read, "his personal life is still in disarray: he announced to the media several weeks ago that he intended to marry the mother of his new baby. However he is not yet divorced and we believe has not taken any [such] steps in recent months, although he has been separated well over five years."

Mrs Collins, it has been suggested, may have been motivated by a desire to revenge herself upon her dead, divorced husband, whose philandering was lovingly described yesterday by that chronicle of broken lives, Adultery News (aka the Daily Mail). Mr Collins died (pinch yourself) when he jumped into a garden pond to save a pet labrador, and was electrocuted. The pond pump had been incorrectly wired. No one was ever arrested.

But that's just background. More important, Mrs Collins's antipathy towards the sexually mobile Norris is said to be shared by her excitable son, Tim, currently in charge of the "war room" at Central Office. And he is a man of influence. Together, mere et fils, they smile out of the pages of The Daily Telegraph, two people in search of one chin.

It would be too easy for a liberal like me to argue that Shagger's marital status is none of the Collinses' business. But is it not truer to say that - historically - who the Tories choose as their own candidates for MP, mayor or dog-catcher, and how they choose them, is none of my business? Or yours? I am not a Conservative, I am not obliged to vote Conservative if I do not want to, so what has it got to do with me? Or you? Whereas Mrs Collins has spent half a lifetime working for the party, has availed herself of an opportunity to express an opinion, and has had her views - initially at least - acted upon.

Then the party's electoral college (yet another body) asked the Mayoral Selection Executive (remember them?) to reconsider. They in turn called in the Board of the Conservative Party (a third lot). Their decision to reinstate Norris means that he will join the others at a membership hustings (the fourth bunch), which will select two to go forward to a ballot of the whole party. So, whatever the Tory protestations, that means there is only the fabled OMOV for the final two.

So what? That's their problem (or it was). Only nine years ago a hundred or so Tory MPs deposed a sitting prime minister. There was no ballot of Tory members; there was no ballot of the electorate. One day she was there, and the next John Major was in Number Ten, and that was it.

But that does not seem to be enough for us these days. Party democracy is not perceived any longer as a purely internal matter, to be left to the funny committees, the nobs and the activists. We are not content merely to be the end consumers of the process; private affairs have become public. Yet we have no agreed way of allowing parties to choose candidates for public office. Even the sainted Liberal Democrats have an approved list for parliamentary candidates, drawn up by party officials who are themselves appointed by other party officials.

Mind you, there are some places we do not want to go. I had explained to me yesterday the Liberal Democrats' selection process for the nomination of interim peers. It involves 2,000 or so delegates to party conference, a ballot paper of almost 200, the single transferable vote (yes, you really could express a preference between your 148th and your 149th choice), a shortlist of 50 from which the leader must draw his nominated peers, save for the one wildcard nomination that he himself is allowed. Me, I would rather attend a convention of engine re-tuners.

Nevertheless we want Blair not to intervene against Livingstone; we think Hague should have intervened to get Archer off the list - taking notice of the Crick letter; we attack Hague for not having intervened to keep Norris on the list - ignoring the Collins letter. We demand (me included) that Livingstone be permitted to stand in Labour's primaries, though we know that - had this been a by-election - he would never have got past the scrutiny committee.

Meanwhile, just to emphasise the imperfections of the current system, Mr Blair is obliged to look outside the Commons for some of his most talented ministers (like Gus Macdonald and Charlie Falconer), because they would never have become MPs. In the regions - the parties know - the problem with delegation is the same as the problem with activists. By their nature they are not representative; their G-spots are usually located in completely different organs than those of the electorate or - worse - of the leadership. They elect Archers and dump Norrises; they love Kens and fail to adore Franks.

It's a hell of a mess. A good mess, because what went before was the G&M and the T&G divvying up Scottish Labour seats between them, or men in suits going into a power huddle and a Tory PM crawling out. But I can only really think of one way through the new difficulties. Any vetting system is open to the accusation that it represents a political fix, any simple ballot of members only too easily produces candidates that the voters might not take to.

In a culture that does not support independent candidates, the answer must be primary elections, starting - at the very least - for Scottish, Welsh and London leaders. Any putative candidate for those posts for the great parties should be permitted - providing they have sufficient support - whatever their "tabloid form" or suitability, to put themselves before a ballot of registered supporters.

So, a pretty substantial number of ordinary electors would decide in one go what, at present, it takes three committees, two boards, a hustings and party vote to sort out. This should take leaderships entirely out of the devolved process, to the relief of Mr Hague, if not necessarily that of Mr Blair. It would be up to the wider electorate to make what they will of Livingstone's policies, Archer's fibs or Shagger's, er, shagging.

As ever the Yanks have got there before us, and given us several pointers as to what not to do. There would, for instance, have to be strict limits on campaign expenditure. And there are risks. The racist David Duke hijacked the Republican nomination for a senior post in Louisiana, and the bonkers Lyndon LaRouche gets on Democrat ballot papers at every opportunity.

But if we the people are genuinely saying to parties that their choices are no longer theirs to make alone, if we want to substitute our judgements for those of the Dickensian Collinses, then these are prices we must expect to pay.