Eric Pickles: Totnes is just the start: the Tories' doors are wide open

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The Independent Online

A quiet revolution has been taking place in how the Conservatives select their parliamentary candidates. While others are stuck in the world of the party machine, we wanted to involve the community in our selections, going beyond the safety zone of our own membership.

Even before the disenchantment in public life brought on by MPs' expenses, we recognised that the country was crying out for a new type of politics – one that would be more representative of the diverse and cosmopolitan society we live in.

For some years, local associations have had the option to hold an "open primary" as an alternative to a general meeting of party members. Anyone in the constituency can register to vote in an open primary and, along with party members, are invited to the selection meeting and to vote.

We have had more than 100 such selections. They have been so successful that I suspect they may soon become the norm. Party members like them because they get an opportunity to see rival candidates' campaigning skills. The public seem supportive because they have an opportunity to influence the final choice, particularly in a Conservative-held seat. As an anonymous contributor to Radio 4's Today programme put it during a report on the Totnes postal primary: "That seat is likely to be represented by a Conservative, so while I might not vote Tory at the election at least I get a say on who will represent me in Westminster."

When we first started, party members were worried that other political parties would organise to twist the selection and support a weak candidate. However, that's difficult to do, and, with the experience of so many open primaries, I can say it does not happen. Provided local associations are diligent and put up a shortlist of strong candidates, there is little risk.

In the early summer, David Cameron reopened our parliamentary list to encourage people to apply who were inclined towards the party but had stayed outside the political world. We expected a few hundred applications but got more than 4,000, the clearest indication that we are seen as the party to change a worn-out system.

The next logical step in the selection revolution is to move the open primary beyond registration to a postal ballot. Tomorrow, the result of Britain's first postal primary will be known. Every voter in Totnes will get a chance to choose the Conservative candidate for the next general election. Predictably, an adjoining Liberal Democrat MP, protective of the old system that keeps power in the hands of the chosen few, urged people to mess up the selection; hardly positive politics from a once-progressive party.

Totnes is the forerunner of a new politics that rejects negative campaigning and sees openness as a way to restore confidence in public life. The expense of running a postal primary prevents it being made widely available this side of the election, but if electronic voting could be made secure, this might remove the cost barrier. Web use would need to expand in order to prevent the creation of a newly disenfranchised group of voters, but I am optimistic about the possibilities.

Our open primaries have put power back in the hands of local communities. Along with transparency, they offer a break from the past of top-down central control. They also offer a glimpse of what a government led by David Cameron would be like – one confident that, if you give people more power, they will make the right choice for themselves and their neighbour.

Eric Pickles MP is chairman of the Conservative Party