Page last updated at 14:39 GMT, Tuesday, 4 August 2009 15:39 UK

Tories test the mood in Totnes

By James Landale
BBC chief political correspondent

The row over MPs' expenses was a body blow to public confidence in politics.

The damage will probably not be repaired until an election has brought in a new generation of politicians.

Yet in a quiet south Devon town, there has already been a small but potentially quite important side effect that could change British politics.

Anthony Steen
Mr Steen has been an MP in Devon since 1983

The Conservative MP for Totnes, Anthony Steen, is standing down at the next election.

He is doing so after claiming, over four years, £87,000 in publicly funded expenses on his house.

He defended his claims, saying voters were jealous of his property which he compared to Balmoral.

The Tories were embarrassed. So party chiefs in London thought they would try to make an opportunity out of a crisis and change the story.

Astonishing turnout

They decided that Mr Steen's successor would not be chosen - as would normally be the case - by the 700 local party members in Totnes. Instead they would ask all 67,000 registered voters in the constituency.

Two weeks ago the party whittled down the applicants to a shortlist of three and asked voters in a postal ballot to make their choice.

Thus it was that today Dr Sarah Wollaston, a 47-year-old GP and mother of three was elected to be Conservative candidate for Totnes.

Dr Sarah Wollaston
Dr Wollaston said she hoped to campaign on healthcare issues

In all, 16,639 people took part, an astonishing 24.6% of the electorate. On a wet weekend in August, that is a pretty respectable turnout.

The voters rejected the two local politicians, a mayor and a council leader, and chose instead a politically inexperienced doctor campaigning for local community hospitals.

Asked what her qualifications were, Dr Wollaston said: "Real life experience, approachability and enthusiasm". In the post-expenses era, candidates like this appear to be attracting votes.

The Tories reckon they are onto a good thing.

Closed doors

The party has already selected around 100 parliamentary candidates in so-called "open meeting" primaries where non-Tories can vote only if they turn up at the selection meeting.

But this all-voter postal ballot open primary, across a whole constituency, is a first.

The Tories say they now have a candidate who has a modest popular mandate, who has been tested and is stronger as a result.

Dr Wollaston has a higher profile than would have been the case if she had been selected behind closed doors.

Only if costly postal ballots were replaced by cheaper and secure internet voting could this process have a chance of becoming the norm

As a party, the Tories believe they have shown themselves to be democratic and inclusive.

They believe this kind of selection is a good way of reconnecting voters with the political process at a time when it is desperately needed.

It shows, the Tories say, that they trust the people. And up to a point, the Tories are right.

Open primaries - much used in the United States - do force candidates to appeal to the wider electorate and not just party members.

Bland candidates

The process is clearly more democratic than allowing a narrow clique of party activists to rig the selection in a smoke-free room.

As several non-Tory voters told me here, they get the chance to choose which Tory might represent them even if they do not vote for them at the general election.

But, and it is quite a big but, this is an expensive experiment.

It cost about £40,000 in postage and printing. That works out at £2.40 per vote.

As such, no party could possibly afford to select all their parliamentary candidates this way.

Only if costly postal ballots were replaced by cheaper and secure internet voting could this process have a chance of becoming the norm.

Practical issues aside, there are also principled objections.

Some believe that the open primary process favours rich, bland candidates.

Voters, as a result, end up with less choice. Do not forget that the people of Totnes were offered a choice only between three candidates chosen by party officials.

The selection was rushed over two weeks, with voters having little chance to assess the candidates.

And of course, political parties suffer too - what is the point of joining a party if you cannot choose your candidates?

The local Tory chairman, Heather Burwin, told me that many local Conservatives had expressed this fear to her.

And of course the process is open to abuse. Several Liberal Democrats have said they had been organising to back the candidate they believed was the weakest and thus easiest to beat in the general election.

Those objections aside, many people I spoke to here in Devon were intrigued by the open primary.

For all their instinctive scepticism, voters were interested. They were being invited to dance and although they were not necessarily going to say yes, they liked being asked.



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SEE ALSO
GP wins Tory 'open primary' race
04 Aug 09 |  UK Politics
Tories select Totnes candidates
15 Jul 09 |  Devon
Cameron warns 'jealousy' MP Steen
22 May 09 |  UK Politics
MP apologises for expenses rant
21 May 09 |  Devon
Expenses row MP is standing down
20 May 09 |  Devon

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