Michael Brown: Vote for Michael Brown (or whoever)

There is a very real prospect of opening up the selection of party standard-bearers
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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago, on a visit to Washington DC, I was confronted with "Vote for Michael Brown" posters festooned across lamp posts and road junctions. They compete with others in seeking the votes of locally registered Democrats for the primaries on 12 September ahead of the forthcoming November mayoral elections in the US capital.

Washington votes solidly Democrat, but the main interest is in the selection of Mr Brown or his rival nominees to be the party's standard bearer. David Cameron's modernisation of the Conservative Party goes one step better than the US model with his dramatic announcement that all Londoners, not just party members or Tory voters, will have the opportunity of a final say in the selection of the party's candidate for the mayoral elections in 2008. This may prove to be the most exciting extension of participatory democracy in British politics for more than a century, and should be welcomed, not just by the Tories, but by every elector, regardless of party allegiance.

This revolutionary concept means there is a real prospect of opening up the selection of party standard-bearers for parliamentary elections to voters beyond Tory Party members. And if the Tories make the running, Labour will be forced to follow. London is an excellent place to introduce such an experiment. By its very nature, the post of London mayor is focused as much on the character of the individual as on his or her party ticket. Ken Livingstone, in his controversial first election in 2000 - without a party label - established the ground rules that are bound to lead to a loosening of ties between candidates and their parties in all future elections. Whatever else he has done, good or bad, Mr Livingstone has set a precedent that Londoners will continue to cherish: the right to bypass cosy internal party stitch-ups in the selection of mayoral candidates in the future.

To be fair, in the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Tories have allowed every party member to choose between their respective applicants for the post at a series of party hustings, followed by a postal ballot of paid-up subscribers. Steve Norris ended up as the candidate on both occasions - but not before the members had voted for Jeffrey Archer, who had to be hastily deselected before he was convicted and jailed. Mr Cameron might simply have extended the process to include anybody who claims to vote Tory, but he has gone much further by allowing every voter, whatever their preferred party allegiance, to be given an opportunity to participate.

The first stage of the process is also a break with the past, and advertisements are due to appear shortly inviting applicants to put their names forward. Headhunters are also likely to be engaged in the process. This is designed to attract to public service those in the Alan Sugar/Richard Branson category of people with business and corporate experience who may not have previously involved themselves in the minutiae of the party machinery. The downside is that machine politicians who have spent a lifetime involved in party manoeuvres may feel cheated if they are denied their nomination thanks to the votes of Labour and Lib Dem supporters. And some party members may be angry that they will not have the exclusive right to choose the candidate. But the paucity of candidates with entrepreneurial experience inside the ranks of the Tory party means that Mr Cameron is right to headhunt from the widest field.

Of course, there is bound to be a gentle steer from the centre to ensure that obvious eccentrics are weeded out before they get anywhere near party members or voters. All applicants must first commit themselves to the party, and will be interviewed by party bigwigs. About six will then be submitted to a series of public hustings, and they will also be put before the party conference in Bournemouth this autumn for general inspection.

In November, it is anticipated that any Londoner will be able, for a small charge that will go to the party, to vote by phone or text in a ballot organised by Electoral Reform Services. The risk is that malevolent forces inside either the Labour or Lib Dem parties might try to manipulate the voting process against the strongest candidate: it is a risk worth taking. The evidence is that most normal voters, regardless of party allegiance, want every party to field the best candidates.

After the stunning successes for the Tories in the recent London borough elections, winning the mayoralty in 2008 would be a huge consolidation for the party's continuing recovery. I'll be voting for whoever pledges air conditioning on the Tube. If they don't, I'll be tempted to reuse those posters currently on display in Washington DC.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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