Tories consider US-style primaries

All voters could be given the chance to choose Tory parliamentary candidates in American-style primaries under an overhaul of the party's selection procedures announced yesterday by its chairman, Theresa May.

The innovation is designed to break the hold of small groups of activists over the choice of candidates. The Conservatives have been criticised for fielding too many middle-class white men, and Mrs May has offered a series of options to local parties to ensure "more representative candidates" come forward.

The suggested primaries, at which three people on a shortlist drawn up by the constituency party would make their case for becoming the candidate, could be opened to Tory voters or to all local residents. Supporters say the idea would help produce candidates with stronger local links. They insist the shortlist would protect against hostile non-Tories packing the meetings to back weak candidates.

Other ideas floated by Mrs May include opening selection committees to prominent non-party members such as chairmen of residents' associations. She also suggested allowing people to vote for candidates by post, rather than in person at selection meetings, and subjecting candidates to "competency-based exercises" to assess their talents better.

In a letter to constituencies, Mrs May said: "Hopefully, some or all of these innovations will help us to match candidates with an appropriate constituency as well as encouraging more local people to take an interest in the politics of their area."

The moves coincide with a fresh effort by the party to reach beyond its traditional heartlands. During a visit yesterday to Brixton, in south London, Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "We cannot be seen merely as the party of the leafy suburbs and the rural shires."

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