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Michael Brown: Open primaries have revolutionary power

Cameron has stolen a march on his political rivals by extending the democratic process

Totnes Tories made history last week when, under heavy pressure from the party leadership, they submitted the final short-list of three for their parliamentary candidate to a ballot in which every elector could vote.

This open primary, which resulted in the selection of a local GP, Sarah Wollaston, has proved a political and democratic success on every level. The Tories have turned the potential disaster of the expenses kerfuffle surrounding the present MP, Anthony Steen, into a triumph. It is ironic that where Totnes was a byword in Westminster for the worst excesses of the expenses scandal, this constituency will now be hailed as the place where the green shoots of public trust in the political process were first germinated.

No one can deny the legitimacy of Dr Wollaston's candidacy following a remarkably high postal ballot turn-out of 16,000 votes – representing 25 per cent of the local electorate. Defending Mr Steen's majority of 1,947 over the Lib Dems will be child's play next May.

But what may have started as a local experiment, based on political expediency, looks like infecting the political process and could yet be the most revolutionary by-product, in extending voter participation in candidate selection in all political parties, to emerge from the debilitating events in Westminster.

David Miliband is now calling for open primaries for Labour candidates, with a list of registered party voters – akin to the system in use in many election primaries in the US. (The Tory experiment in Totnes was actually far more daring – allowing for the participation of any voter regardless of party affiliation.) But Mr Miliband has correctly identified the fundamental problem that "the traditional mainstream structures of political parties are dying and our biggest concern is the gap between our membership and our potential voter base".

Cost, of course, remains a block on just how far the Totnes model will be extended. The national Tory party stumped up £38,000 for the postage and other expenses incurred, so it is unlikely that they will be able to afford this expenditure in the dozen or so other safe seats where the present MP is standing down. But as the debate continues to rage about the state funding of political parties maybe, rather than blanket subsidies for political activities, there is a case instead for state provision of postal ballot costs and postage costs to candidates who wish to send a leaflet to every elector (similar to the freepost at a general election).

On the other hand there is concern that such direct democracy will undermine what remains of those "mainstream structures" of political parties. Why would anyone want to get involved in a party at grassroots constituency level if their most prized privilege – to have a hand in choosing the parliamentary candidate – is removed?

This was the criticism levelled at Mr Miliband's suggestion by Neal Lawson, chairman of the left-wing campaign group Compass, who said that it would sound the "death knell" of the Labour party. But since, hitherto, the opportunity to select a candidate in a safe seat, for an incumbent party, may only occur once every 20 years (Totnes last selected Mr Steen in 1983) there must be many party activists who never get the chance anyway to participate in such an exercise.

But there is an even bigger constraint on true voter choice so long as all political parties retain control over the approved central list of candidates who are ultimately chosen by the bigwigs in control of, and under the direction, of the party leaderships. Totnes Tories were given a relatively small list of applicants, by Central Office, from which they were required to choose the three finalists presented to the wider electorate.

What about a popular local Tory who was prevented from applying for the nomination in the first place because they were considered "unsuitable" by the national headquarters? It could be argued that a party list of approximately 1,000 candidates who are mirror images of the Cameroon Conservatives offers only a limited choice.

In my own case, 33 years ago, I was selected by the local Brigg and Scunthorpe Tories precisely because I was not on the approved list of national Tory candidates (I was vetoed because I refused to support the leadership's prices and incomes policy).

In those days the law did not require, as now, the party leader to certify to the returning officer that the local candidate was approved by the national party. In extremis the national party could dis-affiliate a local association but since I was fighting in a safe Labour seat no one at Central Office could be bothered so my endorsement was rubber-stamped. (They could not have been more anxious to forget all this when I won the constituency in 1979.)

It was this new law that enabled Michael Howard, as Tory party leader, to withdraw his approval from Howard Flight, on the eve of the 2005 general election, to require the Arundel and South Down Tories to de-select Mr Flight as their MP. Mr Flight merely had the temerity to suggest, at a private dinner, that cuts in public expenditure would be necessary in the future if a Tory government had been elected.

So to reassure local party activists that they can initiate the selection process, the case for a "bottom-up" approach needs to accompany any widening of the franchise in candidate selection. There is already resentment on the ConservativeHome website that the party chairman, Eric Pickles, is offering to the newly vacated safe seats only a limited number of Cameroon-approved applicants, thus skewing the final short-list. Local democracy will quickly turn to disillusion if Mr Pickles and Mr Cameron present the same favoured few (already hand-picked to go on the national approved list) in turn, to each local association, until all have been slotted into winnable berths.

So far, however, Mr Cameron has stolen yet another march on his rivals by appearing to extend the democratic process. It will come of age, however, only when local parties choose a short-list of candidates where the eventual winner, in an open primary, ends up as as a member of the parliamentary awkward squad in the manner of a Tony Benn or a Bill Cash.