Page last updated at 15:48 GMT, Tuesday, 4 August 2009 16:48 UK

GP wins Tory 'open primary' race

Dr Wollaston: 'Maybe people think we need a range of people with real life experience'

A GP has been named as the Tories' next parliamentary candidate for Totnes in Devon after thousands voted in an "open primary" selection process.

Dr Sarah Wollaston will represent the party at the next general election, as current MP Anthony Steen steps down.

The party sent all 69,000 Totnes voters a postal ballot, rather than limiting it to the 700 local party members.

Tory chairman Eric Pickles said the 16,497 votes cast, a turnout of 24.6%, "exceeded my wildest expectations".

Dr Wollaston, who admits she has little political experience, got 7,914 votes, local council leader Sara Randall-Johnson got 5,495 and Torbay mayor Nick Bye got 3,088.

'Ordinary person'

The contest allowed everyone in the constituency, regardless of party affiliation, to take part in the selection process.

Dr Wollaston told the BBC she was delighted and "very surprised" at the outcome and she would be playing to her strengths in the election campaign, focusing on community hospitals, local healthcare and solutions for alcohol-related crime and violence.

I think it's a hugely important breakthrough and I think this trend will follow - quite where it will lead I'm not sure
Frank Field
Labour MP

She said the process had been "a great way forward": "I have no political background or experience and I hope in other constituencies people who, like me, have very ordinary jobs will come forward and see if they can be a candidate."

The Tories have held "open primary" contests before in which non-members have been invited to take part in public meetings.

But this time the party sent out ballot papers and a freepost envelope to all registered voters.

'Nail in coffin'

Conservative frontbencher William Hague said he hoped there would be more all-postal ballots, and other "open primaries" would continue to be used as a method of selecting Tory candidates.

But he said as the all-postal ballot had cost £38,000 it was "difficult to do that in every constituency but we certainly hope to do it more in the future as we evaluate the success of this one".

He told the BBC he was pleased with the "terrific numbers" that had got involved and it gave people "ownership" of the process.

"It is a way of opening up politics in a world where people want to be able to influence the decisions made on their behalf," he said.

"And where of course after recent scandals, politics and politicians can be depicted as remote and have been depicted as out of touch figures."

The idea got some backing from the Labour MP Frank Field, who told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "I think it's a hugely important breakthrough and I think this trend will follow - quite where it will lead I'm not sure.

"There are clearly problems and a big debate, but we have to face the fact that political parties are dying in this country."

'Nail in coffin'

But John Strafford, who chairs the Campaign for Conservative Democracy group, said it was another "nail in the coffin for party membership and party democracy" and was "more interference from Conservative central office".

"It's a gimmick, frankly, because at a cost of £40,000 I can't even think of half a dozen constituencies in the country that could possibly afford that kind of money," he told the BBC.

Retiring MP Anthony Steen stepped down from the seat after details of his expenses claims were published in the Daily Telegraph.

The paper reported he had claimed £87,000 over four years for his country home, including paying a forestry expert to inspect his trees.

Later he was reprimanded by party leader David Cameron over an interview with the BBC in which he said people were jealous of his "very very large house".

Mr Steen apologised, saying he had been "deeply upset" at the time of the interview and had overreacted in the "heat of the moment".

Mr Steen has been an MP in south Devon since 1983, first for South Hams and then for Totnes when the seat was created in 1997.

At the 2005 general election he won with majority of 1,947 over the Liberal Democrat candidate.

The Lib Dems have already chosen their candidate for the constituency, Julian Brazil, while Carole Whitty will fight the seat for Labour.

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